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A Friendly Oasis

A Friendly Oasis

In the spring of 1993, a young Navajo woman was rushed to the hospital with mysterious pulmonary symptoms. Otherwise fit and healthy, she was gasping for breath and literally drowning in her own fluids. When others fell ill — all young, healthy people dying of acute respiratory failure — the CDC was called to the Four Corners region formed by Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. When the esteemed scientists arrived, the Navajo’s medicine man asked to confer with them. It had been an unusually wet spring in the Four Corners and the medicine man was sure the resultant explosion in the mouse population was unhealthy. Although the CDC refused to see him, in time they found the culprit he wanted to warn them about — deer mice carrying a hantavirus.

For John Sanko, Ed.D, PT, associate professor and chair of the Physical Therapy Department, this story sums up just about everything he wants his PT and OT students to learn when they take part in his annual service trip. “We’ve been taking students on cultural immersion trips for 10 years now,” he said. “It helps them with their cultural competence. Scranton is so homogenous, it’s important for students to learn that their own culture is not superior, it’s just different.”

DPT alumna Dianna Holdren ’11, who participated in the 2013 trip, agrees. “I still think of this trip and the experiences from it often. My eyes were opened to a very different way of life. I had to keep reminding myself that I was still in the U.S.,” she said.

Dr. Sanko has taken students to El Salvador and Mexico, but finds the experience with the Navajo people just as rich in cultural differences and educational rewards, without the need for a passport. On the trip, students observed at St. Michael’s School for Special Education in Window Rock, Ariz., where several Scranton alumni have volunteered. PT alum Kate Fawls DPT ’12 has acted as a consultant since her days there as a Mercy Corps volunteer. OT alum Bridget Marrine ’10, G’11 also spent a year there with Mercy Corps.

Holdren has warm memories of the school and the chance to use her skills. “The diagnoses of the children ranged from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome to Tourette syndrome,” she said. “We danced and exercised with the children. Since the school doesn’t have the funds for a staff physical therapist, as students of physical therapy, we were able to offer treatment ideas to a very eager staff. They seemed to appreciate us sharing our knowledge as much as we appreciated them welcoming us into their school.”

The students also observed at the U.S. Fort Defiance Indian Hospital. Dr. Sanko is proud that last year was a first for Scranton – a PT student got an internship at Fort Defiance. Perhaps the most important cultural learning, however, takes place on home health visits. For Navajo, home is typically either a trailer or a hogan (a traditional Navajo structure). These visits are usually the first time students are exposed to people living without electricity or heat. Moreover, the climate surprises students expecting blistering Arizona heat. Dr. Sanko said, “This is the high desert, and it gets cold!” 

Dr. Sanko said that every year the trip fills to capacity, with between 10 to 13 students. “We get more than we give,” he said, explaining the students’ excitement. “The Navajo are usually shy, but they remember and welcome us,” Holdren concurs. “This was an excellent trip that offered us a way to give back. I hope that we impacted life in the Navajo nation just a fraction as much as they impacted ours,” she said.

DPT Student Dianna Holdren works with a student at St. Michael's School for Special Education in St. Michael's, Ariz.

Dianna Holdren's story, in her own words:

The trip Scranton DPT students took to the Navajo nation in 2013 truly impacted my life.



What I remember about the reservation was the level of poverty. As we drove from the airport to the retreat house, a journey of about 90 minutes, it felt like we were driving through a Western movie set. The mountains and desert were amazing, with miles of railroad tracks and a very few trailers dotting the landscape. As we drove closer to where we were staying, we passed hogans (traditional eight-sided Navajo homes), as well as small communities of trailers and one-floor modular homes. The hogans lack electricity and plumbing, requiring an outhouse. They are heated by a stove in the center. This was definitely not what we were used to! As we unpacked and settled in, the outside temperature dropped dramatically. Being -20 degrees outside (colder than in Alaska on the same day), I could not image how the Navajo were surviving in their hogans. We had to keep the water running just to prevent the pipes from freezing! I felt that I was transported to another country. I had to continue to remind myself that I was still in the United States.



During our trip, we volunteered to paint a retreat house for the church in which we were staying and exercised with local children at an after-school program. We also were invited to meet with a physical therapist from the Indian Health Service at the hospital. The hospital was an all-in-one stop for the Navajo and offered them medical supplies and equipment. A few of us also had the opportunity to attend a home visit with a physical therapist, allowing us an inside look into the lives of the Navajo people.



The main focus of our trip, however, was working with the students and staff of St. Michael's School for Children with Special Needs in Window Rock, Ariz. Children had the opportunity to dorm at the school or were bused in every day. The diagnoses of the children ranged from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome to Tourette Syndrome. We danced and exercised with the children, which was such a great way to connect with them. The school does not have the funds for a staff physical therapist. The staff does their best with offering therapies for the children, but they are not skilled in the profession. We were able to work with the children, as students of physical therapy, in a way they could not. We offered treatment ideas and the reasoning behind treatments to a very eager staff. They seemed to appreciate us sharing our knowledge as much as we appreciated them welcoming us into their school and community.

I still think of this trip often. My eyes were opened to a very different way of life. As I've said, I had to keep reminding myself that I was in my own country. This was an excellent trip that offered us a way to give back to our neighbors. I hope that we impacted someone's life in the Navajo nation just a fraction as much as they impacted ours.

Dianna Holdren, DPT 3

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