A Recipe for Growth
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
If you're interested in participating in an international service project but are unsure of what to expect, listen up!
I'm Katie, a #FreshPT, who 1 year prior to sitting for the National Physical Therapy Exam, joined Move Together Inc on an international service trip to Guatemala and Honduras.
When I signed up for this trip I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I knew that it was an opportunity to combine my passion for physical therapy and service, and I couldn't pass it up.
Although international service was a novel idea for me, community service is something that was ingrained in my life at an early age. I have been consistently involved in my community at the local level and helped form an interdisciplinary service club with a classmate during my time at MGH Institute. I was motivated to help our fellow health care graduate students connect to local projects and, hopefully, cultivate a passion for service along the way.
As we immersed ourselves in this new endeavor, we were also nearing the portion of our program that required us to develop a health promotions project. These projects are student led with guidance of a mentor, and focus on identifying communities, assessing health care needs, and creating programs or interventions to assist a community in meeting their needs. This is when the idea of an international project in the city of Esquipulas, Guatemala, was first suggested, and my heart was set on making it a reality.
Over the next 4 months we researched Guatemala's history and culture, current health care infrastructure, and common health conditions. Since we were unable to meet with community representatives, we spent time brainstorming potential needs and possible solutions. Additionally, with the help of a group member who speaks fluent Spanish, we created translated worksheets with pictures of common exercises and how to perform them. Other preparations included visits to a travel medicine clinic for immunization boosters and talking to students who had participated in past service trips with Move Together. We also contacted local physical therapy clinics to donate basic supplies, like massage creams, TheraBand products, off-the-shelf braces, and used assistive devices.
Fast-forward to departure day. Scrubs, sneakers, lots of bug spray, and a book titled Spanish for the Physical Therapist were packed in my suitcase. When we first landed in Guatemala, it was a bit of culture shock. I stared out the window of our van, eyes wide with curiosity, trying to soak in all of the sights and sounds and smells of this new place. The people of Guatemala were so gracious and welcoming! They surrounded my group with love and made us feel as though we were part of their family.
Our first full day in Guatemala was a day of cultural immersion. We spent our morning touring a coffee farm, learning about the laborious process of growing coffee and the art of tasting it. Coffee is one of Guatemala's largest industries and many of the people we met on this trip make a living growing coffee beans. After seeing the process, I now have a much greater appreciation for my morning cup of joe.
After the coffee farm, we visited a local park to plant a tree. The tree was a representation of the growth of new friendships and connections we would form that week. We then went to downtown Esquipulas to tour a famous basilica and shop at the local street market. We shared most of our meals with our host family, stayed at a local orphanage, visited many local business and community centers, and even took salsa dancing lessons at a local studio. Throughout this entire experience I was able to fully indulge in the beauty and soul of the people of Esquipulas.
We began our week of treating a wide variety of conditions in different community centers. Each day we stuck to a tight schedule, most days starting at 6:00 am for breakfast at our host clinic, and ending well after sunset. Two days were spent treating patients in the very same dining room where we ate breakfast, as we transformed the space into a treatment area. On the other days, we loaded up the van and travelled an average of 2 hours to towns where we treated patients at a local school or community center.
As we pulled up to each new location, there was a line of people patiently waiting to be seen for therapy. At first, this really struck a chord with me and doubts started flooding in. I'm in a foreign country where I don't know the language, still learning how to be a PT, and the people in line are trusting me to help them. Luckily, as soon as this feeling of panic set in, it was eased away by the morning pep talk from the Move Together founders.
After a group cheer and high-fives all around, we set up our makeshift physical therapy offices of 2 folding chairs and a folding treatment table. We worked in teams made up of 2 students, a physical therapist, and a few translators. We also collaborated with our host clinic's local speech therapist and local physical therapist, as well as a few PT students from a local Guatemalan university. There was no set treatment schedule; we spent as much time as needed with each person until everyone was seen. We collected a brief history, assessed the pain, and provided hands-on treatment as well as education and exercise prescription.
I realized quickly that education was going to play a major role in this experience. Knowing that I would not see anyone for a follow-up visit, it was essential to provide them with the tools to take control of their own impairments and show them other strategies for preventing future injuries. I still remember the “physical therapy basics” that the translators taught me on that trip, which has proven helpful in my current acute care position at a local hospital.
It was really amazing how patient everyone in line was; some of them waited hours to spend time with us and were nothing but appreciative when it was finally their turn. I couldn't help but compare this to our own culture and how impatient we can sometimes be.
This entire experience really put things into perspective that many Americans, myself included, often take for granted of how fortunate we are to have access to health care when we need it, without walking miles to a clinic and waiting hours without a promise of being seen that day.
Despite the long and busy days of treating clients, there was always energy left over for another cultural activity. We visited the Mayan ruins in Honduras and a local school, where we delivered donated school supplies. We had an awesome piñata-smashing dance party with the children at the school as well. Each evening we'd sit down as a group to reflect on the day and share stories of the connections we made, while enjoying a delicious Guatemalan meal.
When I think back on this trip, it still seems hard to completely put the experience into words.
I left for Guatemala naively thinking that I was going there to help people. While I'd like to think that our service project had a positive impact on the Guatemalan community, I now realize that the experience had more of an impact on me than I could have anticipated. I remember being overwhelmed with emotions as the experience came to an end, and I often think of our last night in Guatemala as though it were yesterday.
I can still feel the warmth of the sun and the soreness in my cheeks from smiling as our entire team sat in a field of sunflowers watching the sunset over the mountains, reflecting on the incredible week we had shared. I was forever changed. I had all of these new friendships, new perspectives about the world around me, and new ideas as to how I could continue to live a life of service.
I could go on and on, but I think the only way to truly understand how meaningful an international service trip can be is to experience it for yourself.
If you've ever considered international service, or even if this is your first time hearing about it, I highly encourage you to seek out opportunities. As cliché as it sounds, stepping outside of your comfort zone is a recipe for growth. An international service trip, wherever it takes you, will allow you to grow as a person, as a future physical therapist, and it will fulfill you in a way that is impossible to describe.
Katie Burnett, PT, DPT, is a recent graduate of MGH Institute. You can connect with Katie on Twitter at: @kaitlynburnett_.