Physical Therapy students bring rehab care to Guatemala during service-learning trip

Physical Therapy students bring rehab care to Guatemala during service-learning trip


During Marymount University’s Spring Break, 20 Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students and eight faculty members traveled to Guatemala for a two-week service-learning and community engagement opportunity, allowing participants to give back to others while expanding their global perspective.

Located in Panajachel at Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala, the Marymount team volunteered at hospitals, pharmacies, clinics and with area programs to teach physical therapy practices to community partners and a local university. This is the trip’s 14th year, with previous DPT groups visiting underserved communities in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Dr. Cindy Spooner at Hospital Solola
Dr. Cindy Spooner at Hospital Solola

“Service learning shifts the focus of academic knowledge to how we can benefit others with that knowledge,” said Dr. Cindy Spooner, who served as an instructor and lead physical therapist at Hospital Solola during the trip. “By having experiences helping others during their educational journey, students serve and assist others as they gain academic knowledge, leading to a well rounded, competent and empathetic practitioner upon graduation.” 

Student participants experienced this growth and development in different ways as they worked with various organizations in Guatemala. For instance, with the guidance of Dr. Lisa DePasquale while volunteering with the Mis Años Dorados organization, DPT student Robin Zhao visited older community members in their homes to assess their fall risk. Working on a one-on-one basis gave her a new appreciation for how important interpersonal skills are within physical therapy practice.

“One small interaction can go such a long way,” Zhao observed. “Since we only got to work with each of our patients one time, we had to learn how to leave them with something valuable in a single interaction. For some, it was an exercise program or education of lifestyle modifications. But for others, it was simply being present and validating their concerns.”

DPT student Robin Zhao volunteering with the Mis Años Dorados organization
DPT student Robin Zhao volunteering with the Mis Años Dorados organization

DPT student Emmanuel Jackson, who volunteered at the Farmacia and cared for residents of all ages, spoke about how rewarding it was to see patients improve and respond to their care.

“My favorite part of the trip was dancing with patients who had told me they were too scared to move due to their pain.”

Positive changes in patients’ overall well-being left lasting impacts on other student volunteers, including Sabrina Bishop. After working with the ASOPADIS organization, which ministers to disabled individuals around San Lucas, she has a renewed confidence and passion for physical therapy.

“This trip has increased both my clinical reasoning and confidence as a clinician. I have further developed my skills and ability to instruct others,” Bishop said. “But most importantly, this experience further fostered a desire to help others and care for my future patients.”

Another important aspect of the service-learning experience was how to teach and administer care in underserved communities that have differing standards of available health care.

Physical Therapy students bring rehabilitation care to Guatemala during service-learning trip

“Guatemala’s citizens are underserved in rehabilitation,” said Dr. Megan Moran, who worked with Fundabiem and educated patients and their families about the importance of physical therapy. “Our students applied their knowledge to care for those who lack access to rehabilitation services, and shared evidence-based, contemporary practice with physical therapists and other providers in Guatemala. They left the trip with improved problem-solving skills, better self-efficacy and progress in intercultural development.”

Sydney Schultz, a DPT student who volunteered at the local hospital, said she left with a new mission make physical therapy more accessible to all. 

“Everyone deserves a chance to recover from an injury, illness or disease,” Schultz said. “I want to give power back to patients during their recovery.”

Student participants will discuss their trip experiences in depth at a talkback session on April 15 from 11:30 am to 1 pm in the second floor conference room of the Ballston Center. They welcome all members of the Marymount community to attend and enjoy free food following the event.

The patient care provided on these DPT trips are funded in part through community participation in the Marymount 5K, an annual event in Arlington. This year’s race is scheduled for April 20.