Thursday, August 11, 2016

SLU PT Students Gain Global Health Experience in Belize

SLU PT Students Gain Global Health Experience in Belize
By: Emma Bowen and Annie Fordonski (SLU DPT Class of 2017) 

1. Why did you choose your site?

We both chose this site because it was an opportunity to practice physical therapy in a setting with limited resources and we wanted a global health experience focused community based rehabilitation. We were really excited about the combination of our passions for service and rehabilitation that a rotation at Hillside offered. Hillside has a fantastic reputation and we heard nothing but great things from students and faculty, like Dr. Carol Beckel, who had been previously. We were also really excited about the opportunity to work closely with students of other health professions, including pharmacy, public health, and medical.
(The front of the Hillside Clinic)
2. What did you anticipate? Were you nervous? Excited?

We were both nervous and excited before beginning our rotation at Hillside but since Hillside has such a strong program for students we felt very well prepared. We anticipated extreme heat and humidity and several mosquito bites, both of which were delivered to us. As for the clinical part of the rotation, we knew it would be different but we really weren’t sure what to expect. We both tried to keep our minds as open as possible to avoid going down with too many expectations or assumptions.
(The physical therapy area at Hillside)
3. What surprised you the most about your experience? What about the other culture surprised or shocked you?

We anticipated that there would be a language barrier that would require us to be creative with our patient education and clinical practice but we were both a little shocked by the lack of understanding about the profession of physical therapy as a whole. Since physical therapy is not yet a government recognized health profession in Belize, we were frequently refered to as “the people who will give you exercises and make your pain go away.” Additionally, we had been told numerous times before leaving about the friendliness of the Belizean culture but it was not until we arrived that we realized the depth of their kindness. The residents of  the Toledo District are incredibly grateful for the sustainable care that Hillside provides and this is especially evident in the ways they interact with Hillside students, even outside of clinic operations.
(The Hillside van at the mobile clinic at San Vicente)
4. What did you see (monuments, historical sites, palaces, etc.) that impressed you the most?

One of our favortie weekend trips was to Tikal, Guatemala where we got to see and climb  Mayan ruins. It was truly breathtaking to be standing at the foot of structures that were built thousands of years ago and we certainly had some Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness afterwards. The next day, we went to AtunTunichil Muknal Caves and were able to see Mayan artifacts (clay pots and tools) and the only completely intact set of human remains in any of the Mayan caves. We got a few bumps and bruises from swimming and free hand rock climbing in the cave but it was well worth it!

On another trip some of the locals from Punta Gorda took us out snorkeling on the Barrier Reef off the coast of Belize. We did not find Nemo (not for lack of trying) but we did find Dory!
(Mayan Ruins in Tikal, Guatemala)

(Lime Caye, an island on the Barrier Reef)
5. Can you describe some of the food that you loved best? Any food experiences that didn’t go as planned/well? 

It was lobster season in Belize so we got lobster every chance we could and were not disappointed! We also got to try fun exotic foods such as breadfruit, conch, lionfish and we even tried our hand at making homemade mango salsa and making chocolate at a chocolate factory. One of the most common meals in the surrounding villages was “caldo” which is a chicken based soup usually served with homemade corn tortillas. As for food experiences that did not go so well, let’s just say the hot sauce is always 1,000x hotter than it looks (especially if you mistake the hotsauce for ketchup).
(The kitchen stove of a typical Mayan home)
6. Did you make friends with some of the people native to that site? What was that experience like? Did they make you notice things about your own culture that surprised you?

Hillside has a group of full-time Belizean staff members and they were really great to work with, not only because they translated for us and played bumpin’ jams in the vans but because they were really dedicated to making the students feel at home. The laid-back lifestyle of Belizeans made us hyper-aware of how focused we are on time and schedules in the United States. Life in Belize moves at its own pace. We were also very fortunate to form good friendships with the other students at Hillside from the US, Ireland and England.
(A group shot at the steps of a temple in Tikal)
7. How was your clinical experience?

The clinical experience was definitely wonderful and unforgettable but did not come without challenges. Working in a resource limited setting really pushed us to be creative and the cultural differences encouraged us to emphasize patient education and understanding. We were also challeneged in the sense that we needed to think of ways to make our care more sustainable and more suitable to the patients’ lifestyles. We both agree that our clinical experiences were how we really came to understand and immerse ourselves in the Belizean culture. There was a great variety in our clinical exposure because we practiced in 3 different settings we practiced in which included home health visits in Punta Gorda, mobile clinics to surrounding rural villages and outpatient clinic on Hillside’s main campus. Also, being the only providers of physical therapy in the district means we got to see a great variety of conditions!
(Wielding the machete and fashioning the lepob)
8. Would you recommend that other PT students study abroad for clinical experience? Would you recommend your site to them? 

Absolutely! Practicing PT in another country has shaped the way we view our futures in this profession and will have a lasting impact on the ways we practice. We could not more highly recommend Hillside for any student looking to get out of their comfort zone and have a global health experience. We both plan to go back someday, maybe we’ll see you there 
(A view of Punta Gorda)
(Clocktower in the center of Punta Gorda)
Fun Facts

  • There is no Ketchi (the Mayan dialect spoken in many of the surrounding villages) word for “Good Night.”
  • Beans and Rice and Rice and Beans are not the same thing.
  • You can never have too much bug spray on.
  • The bus will NOT be there on time... schedules are more of a suggestion.
  • There will be a thunderstorm every night during the rainy season, you’ll learn to enjoy falling asleep to them and almost miss them when you leave.
  • Chocolate tastes better in Belize.
  • A “fall” is a waterfall and a “drop” is when a patient falls and the word “foot” might mean the whole leg.
Interested in learning more? Read about it here at

Students in the Saint Louis University Program in Physical Therapy have required clinical experience as part of their professional years in the program.  This blog post details two students' reflections on their experience.

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