Nearly a month ago, I was one of 14 student physical therapists from Texas Woman’s University (Houston campus) blessed with the opportunity to travel to Guatemala with the organization Hearts in Motion to offer pro-bono physical therapy services to locals. This trip was a year in the making. Through our nonprofit organization, Physical Therapy Global Access Project, we had fundraised nearly enough to cover the cost of the trip for all students and organized a shoe drive successful enough to fill multiple suitcases to the brim. I knew the trip would be an amazing experience, but I could not fathom the extent of the transformation that occurred, both in the lives of the patients we touched but also in our own.
To say Guatemala is a beautiful country would be an understatement. No matter where we went, all I had to do was look out the window and I could see the towering volcanoes surrounding the area. Every morning as we sat on the bus to our pop-up clinic destination, my breath was taken away by the stunning landscape. To add to the beauty of nature was the beauty of the Guatemalan people’s hearts. Never before have I met so many hardworking people who expect so little in return for their abundance of kindness. Every time we treated a patient, their heart overflowed with gratitude even when I was left wishing we could do more for them.
For 7 days we traveled to different locations in Guatemala, often an outdoor basketball court or school yard, to set up a pop-up clinic. Through word of mouth, locals learned of our arrival and came to get help with their pain and dysfunctions. We saw patients with everything from knee pain to developmental delay to stroke. Students were grouped with licensed PTs who mentored them through evaluating and treating patients. Because we would only see each patient once, treatment was quite different than what we have learned in school. Most important was educating them on how they can make themselves better and giving them a strong home exercise program. It was less about what I could get them to do and more about what they could get themselves to do.
One of the many patients I have not been able to stop thinking about since leaving was a young mother struggling with post-polio sequelae. She had minimal function of her legs but was still cooking, cleaning, caring for her two young children, and walking miles every day to and from the store and her children’s daycare. She had traveled four hours by bus in order to make it to the clinic. We evaluated her, educated her on her diagnosis, and gave her a great whole-body home exercise program that could last her an extended time. The most transformative aspect of her treatment, however, was not the exercise. For the first time in her life, she heard that her diagnosis does not define her, that she is not lesser because of her disability, and that her quality of life can get better. Seeing her understand that was a life-changing moment for me as well. It is also something that I will forever take with me to every patient interaction I have in the U.S. All patients, all people really, need a champion sometimes to remind them that they are worthy, valuable, and capable of amazing things. As a PT, that is something I will do.