Over the past six years, students and faculty in Bellarmine University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program have evaluated and treated hundreds of patients in Belize during a 10-day elective course for third-year students.

But what’s more important is they have done this by partnering with organizations in Belize, teaching rehab aides, volunteers and patients themselves how to continue the efforts on their own.

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“The focus is on the education and the projects, promoting activities that Belizeans can run, so that we are not a necessary part of the care equation,” said Dr. Carrie Hawkins, assistant professor of physical therapy and director of clinical education in Bellarmine’s DPT program. “My hope is that one day our services are not needed in Belize.”

Dr. Hawkins made the initial foray to Belize in 2015 and began taking students the following year. Ordinarily, eight to 12 students accompany two faculty members each year. January 2020 was a bit of an anomaly, with just three students and Dr. Hawkins making the trip, but Bellarmine partnered with Alvernia University in Reading, Penn., and Misericordia University in Dallas, Penn., so that physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy could be represented as the students visited five clinical partners.

Students from Bellarmine University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program have been traveling annually to Belize since 2016.

At the Mercy Clinic, which provides primary care for adults 60 years and older, students were greeted with the question, “Is Carrie here?”

“We thought, ‘Who’s Carrie?’” Bellarmine third-year student Jessica Francis said during a presentation about this year’s trip. Carrie, of course, is Dr. Hawkins, who has seen the Mercy Clinic space grow from what was essentially a dirty, cluttered closet in 2016 to a full PT clinic with treatment tables and equipment purchased in consultation with Bellarmine faculty and students.

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During that first year, Dr. Hawkins said, “We removed clutter, inventoried items that we thought could be used, set up the PT clinic, and started recruiting patients from the waiting room. We saw about 35 patients that year. The following years were similar, seeing 45 to 75 patients and providing in-services on stroke care, transfer training, and in-home care.”

Last year, the Mercy Clinic was able to hire a full-time, on-site physical therapist.

Bellarmine students enjoy a visit to ancient Mayan ruins in Belize.

The students also spent time doing evaluations at The Inspiration Center, a pediatric outpatient clinic that Bellarmine has worked with since 2016. Student Daniel Ryan noted that most patients travel great distances to have one evaluation per year. “One patient’s mother got on a bus for three hours to the center to have an hour treatment and then rode three hours home,” he said. The students also helped to create a sensory path on a wheelchair ramp.

Bellarmine added three new partners this year:

  • At the YWCA, students led older adults in Tai Chi, helped teach a caregiver training course for 14 high-school-age women, and trained daycare workers and preschool teachers how to make sure 3- and 4-year-old children are meeting developmental milestones.
  • At HelpAge Belize, students assisted with evaluation and treatment of about 90 people, some from the community and some from nursing homes. They also trained caregivers on how to safely transfer patients in and out of wheelchairs.
  • With LIFE Belize, a group of volunteers who work with homebound seniors 65 years old and up, the students completed 10 home visits over two days, offering suggestions on how to make them as independent as possible. This was “the most eye-opening experience I had,” Jessica said. They showed a man who had a spinal cord injury from being shot how to do a simple stand-pivot maneuver so that he could take his first shower in a year, Jessica said. “He was so happy he was tearing up,” she said.\

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In just these five sites, the students were able to treat a wide variety of diagnoses, said Bellarmine third-year Joey Davis. And the training and mentoring they did “are great things to put on a résumé,” Hawkins said.

For Jessica, the experience was very humbling. “They knew we were students, but they really trusted that whatever we were doing was going to help them in the future, and they just wanted that help,” she said.

“You try to either make a difference or not be a nuisance,” Joey said. “You are not native to that land, so whatever you do has to be bettering or educating someone there who can continue with what you are starting.”

And that’s happening, Hawkins said. Every year she makes the trip, “I see something better. There’s another organization helping. There’s another organization that has expanded what they are able to do. That’s how we choose our clinical partners—they are working hard to do things. They just need a little more assistance, a little bit more education. And if we do that, they are going to take that and run with it and have a huge impact. It is really paying off.”

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