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Serving in Jamaica

DPT faculty, alumni and students run intensive stroke clinic
Story Photo

In the foreground, DPT students Anjali Malviya and Hayley Siegenthaler work with their client. In the background, Michael Saunders and Rachel Levy work with another.

The young Jamaican woman had suffered a stroke just days after giving birth to her baby.

When she arrived at the physical therapy clinic to participate in a "stroke camp" staffed by Emory DPT faculty, alumni and students, she walked unsteadily and had a very weak right arm, making it difficult to hold and carry her baby. After just one week of intensive therapy, the new mother walked more naturally and, most importantly, could hold and carry her baby for short distances.

This was the third year members of the Emory DPT program traveled to the rural mountainous region of St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, to participate in the week-long camp at the clinic run by an American PT, Brooke Riley. Riley collaborates with Tami Phillips, DPT, MBA, NCS, on offering the trip as a service component of an Advanced Neurorehabilitation elective. Each March, Phillips and three other therapists – faculty or alumni – accompany 14 DPT students to provide stroke survivors with five full days of intensive PT services, including therapeutic exercise, gait and balance training and interventions for the upper extremities.

The trip is an impactful experience for students and therapists alike. Students get to experience health care in a setting outside the U.S. and get a chance to do more hands-on care. "The most time you'd ever spend with an outpatient in the U.S. is an hour a day," says Ryan Boudreaux, who went on the trip shortly before he earned his DPT degree in May. "But in Jamaica we were with the same person from 8:00 to 4:30, and we were really working with them the whole time. You have to think on your feet to make sure they get the most out of this week as possible."

The students also get a chance to see their instructors in a new light. "They usually just see us in the classroom, but in Jamaica they get to see us really collaborating," says Phillips. "We just work together to create interventions using very little physical equipment. I think seeing that level of collaboration will help them create that type of culture wherever they end up working."

Seasoned therapists get as much out of the experience as the students. Brian Maloney, 11DPT and Sarah Caston, 11DPT, NCS, have gone on the trip all three years. Caston loves treating patients who might not have access to care otherwise. She also enjoys being creative in the absence of the resources she typically relies on in her practice. "We have to fabricate a lot of our equipment," says Caston. "We made our version of a Dynasplint using gloves, rubber bands and safety pins. They've created a type of bodyweight-supported gait system using an old treadmill with some pulleys and clamps and crutches tied to the sides."

Despite the dearth of resources, the patients make remarkable progress in one week. Each patient is evaluated using evidence-based measures at the start of the week and again at the end. "It was shocking to see how much the average patient improved," says Boudreaux. "Some patients doubled their previous score."

As satisfying as it was to witness patients' improvement, the students and therapists were touched in another, equally powerful way. "One of the quite unexpected things about going there is it ends up to be a kind of spiritual experience," says faculty member Laura Zajac-Cox, DPT, NCS. "Each day starts with a devotional. The patients, therapists and students sing together, and at the end of the day we do a sharing circle. More than one student said it has been one of the most moving experiences of their lives."

Phillips plans to keep leading the trip annually. "Over the years we've been doing this, we've developed a nice relationship with the folks in the community, and we try to give back to them," she says. "But we definitely get much more than we give."

Related Resources

Service Learning in the Division of Physical Therapy

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