Clinic and Community: Von Nieda Leads Experiential Learning in Guatemala

By Purnell T. Cropper | January 17, 2012

Dr. Kristin von Nieda, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy, led 15 students and five Physical Therapists to several communities in Guatemala, as a part of two-week experiential learning trip, Oct. 14-23. The trip was coordinated with Hearts in Motion (HIM), a non-profit organization that has provided care and medical treatment to children, families and communities in Guatemala since 1990, and which provides in-country support for Arcadia’s students, faculty and clinicians for each trip. Together, they worked as a traveling therapy clinic in a variety of settings, from rural communities and nutrition clinics to prosthetic groups and rehabilitations centers. The experience provided students with an opportunity to practice their skills with real patients and actively engage in diagnosing and problem-solving.

In the city of Zacapa, students worked with physical therapists to provide services at the Government Hospital; the Kevin O’Halloran Center of Rehabilitation, a community clinic for adults and children with musculoskeletal and neuromuscular diagnoses; and the Range of Motion Project (ROMP), a full-service prosthetic laboratory. Students observed the making and fitting of temporary and permanent prostheses and participated in gait training and education for the clients using prostheses. In addition, the group visited nutrition centers in both Gualan and Teculatan, where they were given the opportunity to work with children who were undernourished and developmentally delayed and facilitated motor milestones with them through play.

Students Resolve Complex Issues in Challenging Clinical Environments

In the rural communities of Guapinol, Los Palemares, Chiquimula, Punta del Llano, and Gualan, students helped to provide a brief screening and evaluation, treatment, education and home exercise routine, all compressed into the span of 20-30 minutes to accommodate the large number of clients.

“Driving out to a different remote village every day, people would be lined up outside the clinics waiting when we got there,” says Laura English ’12D.P.T. “Some of them had walked for two hours for the opportunity to see a doctor. There was a constant stream of people coming through the door and you are just go-go-go the whole day. Afterward, I thought how cool it was that we were able to help so many people just by making the trek out there and making ourselves available to them.”

In addition, students were encouraged to engage in problem-solving with volunteer professionals such as orthopedic surgeons, physician assistants, physical therapists, nurses, orthotists and prosthetists. Together, they resolved complex and varying patient issues in an environment with limited means and resources.


“When I watched those patients walk away I felt such a great sense of accomplishment,” says English. “I learned so much from the clinicians that were with us in such a short period of time, but I also feel like they learned some things from us. I think it would be great to go back [as a physical therapist] and learn some things from current students. Plus, I would just love the opportunity to work with such amazing people again.”

For many students such as English, the experience is an introduction to pro-bono work. However, for Herbert Rodriguez ’12D.P.T., who previously served in the Peace Corps as a rural health educator in Senegal, West Africa, it was an extension of his desire to help provide quality medical care throughout the world. “We saw a range of patients old and young, post operation and chronic conditions at the clinic in Zacapa,” says Rodriguez. “While unable to measure the long term effects, I saw that physical therapy could be used in a one-shot deal in the rural communities. The HIM program is so much bigger and permanent than our [visit]; there is follow-up with the rural communities. This is the most important part in terms of really being a benefit to the Guatemalan people. I was able to see how the HIM program cycles through service learning trips throughout the year with many health care disciplines and how they also work in education and nutrition to help bolster a number of local communities.”