The service trip, made annually by the physical therapy and occupational therapy departments, provides students an opportunity to gain new clinical perspectives and experience global conditions by providing evaluations under the supervision of professional physical therapists (PTs) and occupational therapists (OTs).

The 2023 trip involved four PT students, 12 OT students and three faculty members, as well as students from USD’s speech language pathology and audiology programs, traveling to the most populous country in Central America.

OT and PT students in Guatamala posing for a photo in front of a sign."This immersion allows students to experience OT in a different context,” said Whitney Lucas Molitor, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy. “The focus of the preparation for the course is cultural humility. Through learning about differences and similarities cross-culturally, students gain a broader world view.”

Each day, students were asked to write reflections that tied into the trip’s learning objectives, including articulating how service learning contributes to growth, reflecting on the benefits of cultural immersion in health care professions, and understanding the role effective communication can play in therapy.

“From the trip, I learned the major disparities in health care in developing countries,” shared Abby Myers, a student physical therapist in the Class of 2024. “Though they have more obstacles to work around, the health care workers truly give their all every day to help their patients and make the community a more inclusive environment.”

“It’s good to see our embedded students witness the impact that Guatemalan PTs, OTs, SLPs, physicians, dentists and public health agents are having in their communities,” said Patti Berg-Poppe, Ph.D., trip leader and chair of the Department of Physical Therapy. “It helps them realize there are so many needs in this area of the world. They grow to understand that compassion, a commitment to improve access to care, and the influence of acceptance can have a big impact, even in under-resourced areas of the world.”

Physical therapy department chair Patti Berg-Poppe shares some daily reflections of their trip.

March 13

A safe arrival on Saturday, a Saturday night social and some time in Antigua on Sunday before leaving for Santiago Atitlan. We are traveling with OT and SLP/audiology (and a dental hygiene student). OT remains in Antigua for the week while our disciplines head into the mountain regions

We traveled from Santiago Atitlan (our home base for the week) to Cerro de Oro with two Adisa (the group’s consulting agency) PTs and a translator today. With Adisa PTs, we worked with children and their mothers in clinic in the morning and walked through Cerro de Oro for home visits in the afternoon.

March 14

Today we left early to travel to Santa Lucia Utitlan (elevation 2,500 meters). Clinics today were organized by the Centro Mayan Organization. The Santa Lucia community is strongly supportive of services for children with special needs and their families, but the remoteness of the mountain village means there are still many resource needs. The municipality funded a clinic structure for therapy and psychological/mental health service s, and the mayor stopped by to express gratitude for our visit. We have been treated with such generosity, kindness, collegiality and companionship by Adisa and its partners!

OT and PT students in Guatamala standing in front of a church.We followed clinics with time at the beach and in beautiful San Juan La Laguna, including time learning more about Xocolatl (cacao).

March 15

We spent our morning providing aquatic therapy at La Posada’s pool in Santiago Atitlan.

In the afternoon, USDPT students pulled together an impromptu movement session for mothers of children served by Adisa. There was so much laughter and enjoyment from this session! We finished our day with drinks and guacamole from Bambu, just down the road from our resort, and, by the end of the night our resort host family’s grandson/son had drawn our breakfast menu to share  we will find out in the morning if we are really having hamburgers, fries, ice cream, fish and eggs!

March 16

We began our day with a tour of Hospilito Atitlan. The original hospital was destroyed in a mudslide, and the new structure has been growing in both size and programming for the past 10 years. This health facility is working toward starting its own nurse education program. This morning our Adisa partners hosted a Ponseti casting workshop and shared information about the important Ponseti club foot correct ion outreach they are doing in their region.To serve children and their families more comprehensively, Adisa’s efforts are directed toward advocacy, inclusiveness and strengthening family situations so that the family unit is thriving.

OT and PT students in Guatamala attending a class while kneeling.To these ends, Adisa works with these families on economic stability and empowerment through entrepreneurship. Today, several women working with Adisa provided us with cultural activities to teach us about their occupation al talents and heritage. We were provided with a fabric template of an Ixkot to stitch. The Ixkot is a Mayan glyph of a two-headed bird (one facing the past and another the future) which will provide luck with travel. We tried our hand at beading, as well, and we were treated to and shown how to prepare patin, which is a tomato and beef preparation wrapped in leaves and typically eaten when Guatemalans are traveling.

It’s been a great day for hands-on learning about a new culture!

March 17

Today we packed to make our way from Santiago Atitlan to Antigua. Along the way, we stopped in Tecpan, where we saw the Mayan ruins of Iximche. This site remains a special, spiritual place for many Guatemalans.

We are headed to the airport at 3 a.m. and will be preparing ourselves for five-degree temps again!

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