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Traveling with a Purpose

Spring 2012

Students and faculty gather together while in Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation, in December 2010.

True understanding comes from experience and discovery

Whether they are called physiotherapists, ergothérapetes, terapia físicas or terapia ocupacionals, physical therapists (PTs) and occupational therapists (OTs) around the world share many things in common and speak the same language when it comes to caring for others. Their universal goal is to help restore function and improve the quality of life for individuals who have sustained an injury, are coping with a chronic illness, or were born with a congenital condition. OT and PT students at The University of Scranton have participated in numerous service activities on campus, in the local community, and in the world at large since the inception of these programs and as long as there have been OT and PT students present on our campus. Since the inception of the OT/PT service and immersion trips, eight faculty members have given their time, spent their own funds to participate in these experiences, and have accompanied 117 students.

In 2001, Carol Reinson, Ph.D., and I participated in the “Bridges to El Salvador” program. The initial concept of a specialized international service and immersion trip for OT and PT students was cast during nightly reflections at the International Guest House in San Salvador. For the next two years, attempts to organize an OT/PT trip to El Salvador faced several challenges that prevented our Salvadorian healthcare-focused trip from coming to fruition, but where one door closes another often opens. In January 2004, three OT and PT faculty traveled across Mexico for more than two weeks with a group of University faculty through the generosity of an Edward R. Leahy, Jr. Endowment Faculty Research Grant. Guadalajara, Mexico, stood out as a reasonable option for an initial international OT/PT-focused experience.

The University already had several partnerships with Univeradad del Valle de Atemajac (UNIVA), a Catholic University in Guadalajara. In January 2005, six students accompanied by faculty departed for Guadalajara. Our hosts at UNIVA scheduled medical Spanish classes for our students and several days at Centro Integral de Rehabilitación Infantal A.C. (CIRIAC), a cerebral palsy center that was founded 20-plus years ago by three families of children with cerebral palsy. CIRIAC serves as a model of ingenuity, innovation and creative thinking where all available space is utilized for the benefit of the 90 children and adults they serve daily. On subsequent trips a sign hung over the door with the inscription “Bienvendos Universdad del Scranton” and our students were assimilated with the CIRIAC staff and gaining “real world, hands-on” experience.

Throughout the six years that OT and PT students and faculty traveled to Guadalajara, we were treated to performances by the Jalisco Philharmonic Orchestra and GRUPO Follelórico, UNIVA’s Mexican folk dance team. However, the most “eye-opening” cultural experiences were tours of Lomas de la Primavera, Santa Maria and San Paulo. These are marginalized communities of tens of thousands of people near Guadalajara. Running water, sewers, sanitation and electricity do not exist in these communities. Entire families live in a space most of us would consider no more than a large room. In spite of the abject poverty, the resilient spirit among the residents was an inspiration to us all. One of our students commented on how she was embarrassed to think about the insignificant things she complains about and that she had to come to a place like this to realize this is reality and that it doesn’t only exist on TV. Our OT and PT students held fundraisers in Scranton so we could purchase pencils, tablets, coloring books, crayons, basketballs and soccer balls for the schools. Although our gifts were received graciously, we were told our presence was the most important thing we brought to these communities because it indicated to the children that they were not forgotten and there are people in the world who care about them. It made us think how much our society values material goods and how much they value relationships.

Unfortunately, due to the increased violence in Mexico, a decision was made to temporarily suspend “Project Guadalajara.” OT and PT students wishing to travel were offered two new options. The first option occurred in December 2010 when 10 OT and PT students and two faculty members spent a week at St. Michaels Association for Special Education School in the Navajo Nation near Window Rock, Ariz. We left for Arizona from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton airport at 6 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2010, and soon found ourselves grounded for 36 hours by a snowstorm in Chicago. However, what could have been a disaster turned into a great experience due to the patience and adaptability of the students. One of our students remembered that a University of Scranton graduate was a volunteer at the Mercy Home in inner city Chicago. After a couple of phone calls, we were on the “L” on our way to the Mercy Home. We were able to observe some really dedicated people in action working with “at-risk, inner-city kids.”

Eventually the snow stopped and we headed to Arizona. St. Michaels serves 49 children who are cognitively impaired and many of whom also have significant physical challenges. During our visit, a Christmas party was held and we performed “The Hokey Pokey Reindeer Dance.” One of our students said it felt good to know that we made these children laugh and brought them a little Christmas joy. It brought all of us a lot of Christmas joy as well.

One of the most fascinating programs we observed was “flying colors.” The children direct a “tracker” to move a paint brush over a canvas and paint for them. The child is the artist in every way; the child selects the canvas, the brushes and the colors. Even non-verbal children have communication devices to direct the “tracker.” One girl had a laser attached to her head and the tracker moved the brush over the canvas with the movement of the laser beam. We were told that in previous years several of these pieces of artwork won awards at the Arizona State Arts Festival.

The second option involved six OT and PT students, accompanied by three faculty members, traveling to Guyana (formerly British Guyana) in January 2011. Guyana itself means “land of many waters” in Amerindian, the language of the indigenous people. Guyana is very diverse with regard to ethnicity and religious beliefs. There is a small population of Amerindians and significant numbers of African, Asian Indian, Portuguese and Chinese who were brought to Guyana by the British to work the sugar cane fields. Today Christians, Hindus and Muslims live and work together in Guyana. Arrangements for the trip were made through Sr. Julie Mathews and her fellow Sisters of Mercy. Soon after our arrival in Georgetown, one of the sisters took us to Mihica, a rickety complex of rundown wooden buildings on stilts that were noticeably isolated from the main community and home to several men and women with Hansen’s disease (leprosy).

Although a cure for leprosy was discovered in the 1970s, these people may not have initially had access and the cure does not reverse the damage and deformity that has already occurred. A stigma is still associated with the disease in many parts of the world, but the people at Mihica were some of the most optimistic and spirited individuals we had ever met. Once again we all were humbled by the experience.

Our visit also included visits to The Palms, a geriatric home run by the Sisters of Mercy, the St. John Bosco Boys Orphanage and the St. Ann’s Girls Orphanage. We also spent an afternoon at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital with June, a physical therapist assistant who was studying to become a physical therapist. We went to the bedside of several patients she felt would be interesting for us to see. This again turned out to be a “hands-on” experience where we were able to work directly with patients. We were also able to spend two mornings at the Ptolemy Reid National Rehabilitation Center and National Prosthetics and Orthotics Shop. The head therapist there was Cuban-born and educated and invited us all to Havana. We all wished we could go with him. Later we were able to participate in an amputee clinic where individuals with amputations and prostatic devices were receiving therapy. Almost everything we observed would be familiar to any OT or PT in the United States, illustrating the point that therapists around the world speak the “universal language of caring.”

Faculty and staff who have participated in OT/PT Service and Cultural Immersion Trips

Lisa Burns, OTR/L, M.A., Project Guadalajara 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009

Carol Coté, OTR/L, Ph.D., Project Guadalajara 2009

Verna Eschenfelder, OTR/L, Ph.D., Project Guyana 2011, 2012

Peter Leininger, PT, Ph.D., Project Guadalajara 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and Project Navajo Nation 2011

Marlene Morgan, OTR/L, Ed.D., Project Guadalajara 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010

Carol Reinson, OTR/L, Ph.D. Project Guadalajara 2008

John Sanko, PT, Ed.D. Project Guadalajara 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, Project Navajo Nation 2010, and Project Guyana 2011

Barbara Wagner, PT, DPT, M.H.A., Project Guadalajara 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and Project Guyana 2011, 2012

Debra Pellegrino, Ed.D., Project Guadalajara 2009


John P. Sanko, Ed.D.
Chair and Associate Professor of Occupational and Physical Therapy