Irma Henry, director of physical therapy at Haiti Adventist Hospital (HAH), looked at the technicians seated around her, and then through a mobile device at the students looking back at her from another country. Her virtual audience included physical therapy students and faculty of AdventHealth University (AHU) who transitioned their mission and training trip to an online format as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every year, the Department of Physical Therapy at AHU organizes an overseas mission trip to incorporate an international service-learning component into the curriculum. Students and faculty previously traveled to Haiti Adventist Hospital, but when the pandemic hit last year, faculty decided that a virtual mission and training trip would be a great way to strengthen the relationship between the two institutions. AdventHealth Global Missions served as the connector between AHU and HAH for the opportunity in December 2020.
“The first day was reserved for introductions,” Henry said, “and we had some of the local physical therapists and physical therapy students in Haiti share their experience.”
Henry reviewed with the students the current ratio of physical therapists compared with the population in Haiti, demonstrating the great need for the profession. Many locals don’t realize they can see a physical therapist for certain injuries and conditions. While some doctors in Haiti will refer patients to a physical therapist, locals most often seek healers who use spiritual means and home remedies. Yarah Lugo Caballero, a third-year physical therapy student at AHU, learned that only about 30 PT professionals provide care for a population of 10 million people. Even with these staggering numbers, the hospital continues to educate the community and – through the virtual mission trip – AHU students that there is hope for the field.
During the training which took place on Zoom, students were split into four groups and assigned to a hospital patient and specific topic or condition. The team at HAH used a communication cart donated by AdventHealth Global Missions with a mobile device attachment to allow the virtual audience to see the patients and inner workings of the hospital.
“It was interesting to see the different techniques used at the hospital in Haiti,” Lugo Caballero said. “I loved how interactive they were with us. That was inspiring. We learned as much from them as we were able to share.”
Day two was presentation day. In addition to hearing a limb lengthening specialist share his expertise, students virtually toured the facility’s orthopedic clinic. Local parents often line the walls of the clinic with their children and babies seeking care for conditions like clubfoot, a common birth defect in Haiti in which the foot is slightly curved inward.
“I feel like this virtual experience renewed my fervor for physical therapy,” Henry said. “I was excited to meet with like-minded individuals who may develop a passion for the mission field even if they remain in the U.S. after [they finish school]. But no matter where they go in the world, I think it’s exciting they carry the same passion for PT.”
The final day of the mission trip, students interacted with patients through Henry’s translation, and concluded with the patient assessments from earlier in the week. The students and technicians at the hospital reviewed the patient assessments and helped identify possible treatment options.
AHU students learned in this final session that the HAH team sometimes has to find creative ways to care for their patients due to limited supplies, or because they may utilize equipment from other areas such as the operating room. They also learned the role physical therapy plays in restoring economic independence for Haiti’s injured street vendors who rely on their work to support their families. The students discussed ways that AHU could offer additional support from hundreds of miles away.
“I think that we are most profoundly impacted by the change that the patients see in themselves,” Henry said. “Many of the street vendors who come to see us believe they will never walk again even though it’s important that they do so for their job and their family. After physical therapy, however, they have an independence that they could only have imagined. These transformations are so powerful!”