On May 27th, I returned back to Houston after a 10-day Physical Therapy medical mission trip to Guatemala with Hearts in Motion. Even after returning from Guatemala weeks ago, I am still processing and reflecting upon the trip that has changed my life. The 13 classmates and 5 Physical Therapist that joined me shared in an experience that is hard to explain even to our closest friends and family. Although I am a third-year physical therapy student with minimal clinical experience (and even less understanding of Spanish), I went into the trip thinking I would have an impact on the people I encountered, but it turned out quite the opposite. This trip was exactly what I needed, and I didn’t even know it.
After landing in Guatemala City and making the 4 hour trek to Zacapa, where we would be staying and serving for the entirety of our mission, nothing could’ve prepared me for the relationships I would build, sights I would see, and sweet moments that I will never forget in the days that were to follow. It didn’t take me long to latch on to the intense joy, resilience, kindness, and contagious spirit that Guatemalans exude despite the extreme conditions that they lived. With the rapid realization of my own abundance, I was able to deeply care for the individuals that we were serving; it was that perspective shift that I prayed would carry over to my daily routines and interactions. Moreover, with the patients that I would begin treating in my clinical rotations beginning a week after my arrival back to the States.
The mountains in Guatemala were beautiful and vast; I could look at them all day. While they drew my attention time and time again, they both rooted me and made me feel small. I caught myself thinking the familiar, recurring thought, “What difference am I really making here?” I mean, let’s be real- with my limited clinical expertise, little equipment that we would bring to the mobile clinics, and inexperienced hands, it seemed like the work I was doing was minuscule compared to what the Guatemalans gave me in return. Even when I returned back home to my comfortable, city living, I kept thinking back to the impact, if any, that I made in Guatemala. After fighting off this discouragement and reflecting upon my trip, vivid glimpses of tangible joy, grace, and hope that was sprinkled throughout my trip stood out to me. These memories quieted the aforementioned thoughts, and I was able to see the full picture. It was an understanding ear, contagious laughter, a tender touch, and a heart craving to help the individual placed in front of me that I was able to offer. Furthermore, we truly met a dire need, with emphasis on maintaining sustainability, of physical therapy, education, and body awareness that wouldn’t have been met without our presence.
By filling me with the fruits of the Spirit and refreshing my dull spirit, Guatemala taught me that while none of us have the power to change the world single-handedly, we all have the power to make a difference, and the good we do is never lost.
The Starfish Story, by Loren Eisley, is one of my favorites. It’s a good reminder when doubt, fear, and discouragement attempt to steal you away from your life’s work of making a difference:
“Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.
One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.
As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.
He came closer still and called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young man paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean.”
“I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” asked the somewhat startled wise man.
To this, the young man replied, “The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them in, they’ll die.”
Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, “But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!”
At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, “It made a difference for that one.”
Catherine Ragon, SPT is a third-year student in Texas Woman’s University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program set to graduate in May 2020. She is currently the Volunteer Assistant Coach for the University of Houston’s Wheelchair Tennis team and serves as Vice President for the Physical Therapy Global Access Project. Catherine is also a member of the American Physical Therapy Association. Catherine is enjoying discovering the array of settings that her professional career may lead her down upon graduation, from Sports Medicine to Global Health to Inpatient Rehab.