Marymount Physical Therapy Students Make a Difference in Costa Rica

Marymount University graduate student Samantha Kaufman said a recent service trip to Costa Rica – which included work in Manos Abiertos, a home for handicapped children and adults – changed her life.

“It was very eye-opening and moving,” said the native of Germantown, Maryland. “We experienced a roller coaster of emotions. As a whole it was just so rewarding. Everybody had at least once experience that left them in tears.”

Kaufman’s came while working with a 5-year-old boy who couldn’t hold his head up.

“He made improvements while we were there,” she said. “The hard part was knowing how much better he would be if he could have the physical therapy he needs and deserves every day.”

Kaufman and 32 other third-year graduate students in Marymount’s department of physical therapy served a total of 557 patients during two weeks of a clinical practicum. In addition to working in Manos, students spent time in other clinics and went door-to-door looking for people with musculoskeletal complaints, who were then invited to a church for a screening the following day. They even took a group to a water park at the foot of a volcano to swim in hot springs.

One barrier students faced was language. Only a few were fluent in Spanish, though all had taken at least a basic course. Translators were told to do as little as possible, thereby encouraging students to use the language.

“They rose to the occasion,” said Dr. Jason Craig, one of five Marymount faculty members on the trip. “They were butchering the language here and there, but the locals were more receptive to us trying to speak the language and do it badly than to always speak through a third party.”

Craig, whose Spanish has improved after five Costa Rican trips, still relies on body language.

“If they smile, I smile,” he said. “I was surprised to hear that people thought I was fluent in the language, just really quiet.”

Many patients were unable to speak any language.

“But when they smile and their eyes light up when they recognize you, it’s apparent that you’ve gotten through to them,” Craig said. “Often when we’re leaving, the patients are in tears because they don’t want to see us go.”

Another challenge included improvising with whatever material was on hand to fit patients in their wheelchairs.

“In the states, if you need something, you can just click online and you order a new part,” Craig said. “There, if a patient needs better seating, you find what you can and make it fit. Our students proved that they could be very creative and adaptable.”

This was the first trip abroad for many students.

“We put them in a city where they see some of the worst things out there,” Craig said. “You see the transformation from them being frightened and scared into being thankful for what they have and the idea that giving back is one of the greatest things they can do.”

The therapists were so popular that the act of walking from the front gate to the inside of a nursing facility for the elderly took longer each day because so many residents wanted to talk with them.

The students also had their share of fun, which included a salsa dancing lesson, a day at the beach and zip-lining in the jungle. They even got to see their hometown team, D.C. United, play a professional soccer match in San Jose.

Craig said a return trip for alumni with at least a year’s professional experience is being discussed.

“The Sisters of Manos are a true inspiration,” Kaufman said. “They are the epitome of how everyone should live their life: selfless, passionate, loving and strong. It was a blessing to be placed at this facility and meet these inspiring individuals. We are forever grateful for the opportunity we were given to be a part of each of their lives.”

You can read Kaufman’s blog about her experience at

Photo Captions:

Photo 1
Samantha Kaufman lets a child listen to her heart during a recent trip to Costa Rica. Kaufman was one of 33 third-year graduate students and five faculty members from the department of physical therapy who went on a two-week clinical practicum to the Central American country.

Photo 2
Will Davis, who is working toward his doctorate in physical therapy at Marymount University, is shown with a young Costa Rican boy during a recent service trip.
Photo 3
Darrell Dila, a third-year graduate student in Marymount University’s department of physical therapy, sits in a wheelchair and talks with an elderly Costa Rican woman.