Physical therapy students, professor serve Honduran community

WCU physical therapy students (from left) Kaitlin Sloop and Sherrie Floy demonstrate balance demonstrate balance and stability exercises to an individual with chronic weakness following stroke. Behind them, student Caitlin Laemmle assists an elderly patient with gait training.

WCU physical therapy students (from left) Kaitlin Sloop and Sherrie Floy demonstrate balance and stability exercises to an individual with chronic weakness following stroke. Behind them, student Caitlin Laemmle assists an elderly patient with gait training.

Sixty people in a rural mountain community in Honduras who have little or no access to health care sought help at a free, three-day clinic hosted by five Western Carolina University Doctor of Physical Therapy Program students and a professor.

“Most of the patients were able to leave feeling better than when they arrived at the clinic, and all were appreciative of the services provided,” said Caitlin Laemmle, one of the third-year doctoral students who took part.

Todd Watson, professor of physical therapy, coordinated the two-week winter service trip in partnership with Hendersonville-based Honduras Fountain of Life, which supports the Taulabe community, and students centered their required health promotion project on the experience.

They spent time learning about the culture and the community to gain an understanding, sensitivity and respect for the beliefs and people they met and served. Then, from the makeshift clinic on the front porch of a mission house in Taulabe, the WCU team worked in groups under Watson’s supervision.

Overcoming the language barrier was challenging, said student April Tatum. With the assistance of local bilingual translators, Spanish-English dictionaries, Spanish medical books, Spanish-English telephone apps and memories of high school Spanish classes, they tried to learn as much about their patients’ pain, health history and injuries as possible.

They conducted musculoskeletal screenings, and together with other students discussed each patient’s needs before bouncing their ideas for care off of Watson. The students then prescribed exercises and conducted manual therapy for muscle or joint problems, stretching, and gait and stair training, said Laemmle. Also, the students assisted with massaging muscles or dry needling, a technique similar to acupuncture, for pain relief and improved movement, in addition to discussing exercise, ergonomics and safety with patients.

“I saw the students maturing before my eyes with their clinical decision making,” said Watson. “It was an accelerated learning process and experience for them.” Meanwhile, Lindsay Pate, one of the WCU students, said their patients “were more thankful than words can describe.”

The majority could be treated for neck and back pain related to working stooped over in fields or to strenuous manual labor. Some needed more help than physical therapy could provide. They ranged from a patient who had been in a motorcycle accident and appeared to have a lower leg fracture as well as an open wound to a person who had a flu-like illness and needed medication.

“When we told them that we would be unable to help them and they needed additional services, the answer was always the same,” said Pate. “With a shrug of their shoulders and shake of their head they said, ‘We can’t.’ None of them could afford the other resources; that’s if they were even available.”

Still, what moved the WCU students was the spirit of gratitude among the people they met, including an older woman with a dislocated hip who said she could not afford and was too old for surgery.

“We got some muscle rub and ice packs, and started applying it to her hip, and she started saying ‘mejor, mejor,’ which means ‘better,’” said Laemmle. “Though we could not do much for her, she was so appreciative for the little we could do.”

That also was the WCU team’s experience as it participated in other assistance projects in the community, such as painting a church, collecting donated items for distribution in multiple church communities and spending time with the girls in an orphanage. Community members brought them coffee, fruit, sugar cane and other items.

Watson first became acquainted with the Taulabe community two years before through Honduras Fountain of Life. He had sought out an international experience for his teenage daughters, and he and his family ultimately traveled to Honduras for a week. Inspired to find a way to share his skills and expertise as a physical therapist with the people he had met there, his family returned the following year for three weeks during which he conducted a needs assessment. He discovered the village’s nearest hospital, which was about an hour away, had a need for physical therapy services.

“When I got there, I found out they don’t have a single physical therapist – just a room they would like to dedicate for physical therapy should they ever recruit a physical therapist,” said Watson.

While there, he also hosted a clinic with help from a Spanish-English translation app on his phone.

Hearing about his experience led WCU students to ask to join him in a way that would fulfill their health promotion and wellness project.

“I loved the idea of a free medical clinic in addition to a normal mission trip-type experience, where I could test my skills, broaden my cultural awareness, and just help people that don’t have the means to other healthcare options,” said Pate.

Watson said students already have approached him about taking part next year, and he is involved in an ongoing effort with others including Dr. Mathew Mahar of Wellspring Family Practice in Sylva to construct a small medical clinic that would facilitate physical therapy onsite, in addition to having space for primary care medicine and dental services.

Adam Chacon, vice president of Honduras Fountain of Life, said the clinics such as the one WCU hosted matter a great deal to the people in Honduras, many of whom have no option except to live in pain.

“They cannot go to the doctor, a physical therapist, dentist or get any other medical help like we can,” said Chacon. “Many times people die from simple problems because they cannot afford medical help. I know these clinics will help the people of Honduras find pain relief, rehabilitate them and, for some, help them return to work, which will help them provide for their families. I am hopeful that a full-time medical clinic will open soon in Honduras so more people can get the help they need.”

For more information, contact Watson at 828-227-2126 or twatson@wcu.edu.

WCU physical therapy student Lindsey Pate peforms soft tissue manipulation to help a patient with low back pain.

WCU physical therapy student Lindsey Pate peforms soft tissue manipulation to help a patient with low back pain.