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Five Years After Graduating, Lucia Rodriguez Still a Staple on Emory Service Learning Trips

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Lucia Rodriguez 13DPT provides care to a young patient during a recent service learning trip to the Dominican Republic with Emory physical therapy students and practitioners.

Lucia Rodriguez could have gone anywhere for physical therapy school. But when she learned that Emory’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program offered students the opportunity to do international service learning projects, her choice was easy.

“For me, being Venezuelan and bilingual and knowing the severe access-to-care problems that people in these developing countries have, it was so important to me to be part of something like that,” Rodriguez says.

Although she graduated from the Emory DPT program in 2013, Rodriguez still joins Emory’s team of students and practitioners each March as a clinician for a week-long trip to the Dominican Republic to provide physical therapy in communities where the care doesn’t exist. She hasn’t missed a trip in seven years.

“I plan to go every year as long as they’ll let me,” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “The people there are always so thankful, and they hug and kiss you and just want to be with you. It’s one of the main reasons why I keep going.”

On a typical day on the trip, students will spend the morning providing services to patients in a local clinic. In the afternoon, the group divides and conducts home visits for people who don’t have the transportation and means to visit a clinic.

“Because we’ve gone so often, we sometimes see repeat patients, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, look how I’m walking!’ or ‘I need more therapy, so I can keep doing my exercises,’” Rodriguez says.

According to Rodriguez, it’s not uncommon to see young people who are wheelchair bound after suffering simple injuries that in America would be fixed quickly in a hospital emergency room.

“In the Dominican Republic, a lot of times needed surgeries are postponed because patients have to be able to purchase their own plates and screws before they can have surgery,” she said.

Now having made the transition from student to mentor, Rodriguez challenges the students when treating patients to avoid PT “tunnel vision” and look deeper than just their rehabilitation needs.

“I’m challenging them to look at the whole patient,” she says. “What are their needs outside of physical therapy? What kind of support system do they have?”

Here at home, Rodriguez, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, serves as a traveling physical therapist, taking 13-week assignments in areas closer to home like Georgia and Florida and in other times zones like Texas and California. Shortly after graduating from Emory, she served seven months in Alaska, calling the experience “incredible.”

“It has really provided a good experience for me as a clinician because in these jobs I’ve worked in all kinds of settings,” she explains. “It has given me a well-rounded perspective of everything physical therapy can be, from an outpatient clinic to an acute hospital to a skilled nursing facility.”

While Rodriguez admits that all of the miles on the road and obtaining physical therapy licenses in each state can be a grind, she loves the fact that she can see the United States while doing what she loves: caring for people.

“I’ve had a chance to visit places that I might not have ever seen otherwise,” she says. “The U.S. is such a beautiful country with so much to see and offer. It’s been super fun.”

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