UNM pt


Division of Physical Therapy
UNM Health Sciences Center
MSC 09-5230
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001
Phone: 505-272-5479
Fax: 505-272-8079

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International Service Learning Trips to Guatemala

2018 Guatemala Reflection

PT Students on service learning study abroad trip to Guatemala

At the end of the summer, I had the privilege of traveling to Antigua, Guatemala with eight of my classmates to volunteer for two weeks. This would be my first time traveling outside the United States. I was excited to go and serve a population in need, but I was equally as nervous about being in a different country and not being able to speak their language. Little did I know that this experience would change my life in the ways I had never expected.

Learning to assemble wheelchairs

Each morning we were split between building and fitting wheelchairs for children in a local orphanage, and treating patients in a local hospital. We built the wheelchairs from the ground up in the factory and then delivered them to the orphanage where we fit them to each child. The fitting process was hard (and frustrating at times), but seeing the child sitting in their new, fully customized wheelchair was priceless. The orphanage housed about 60 children, all of whom have moderate to severe mental and physical disabilities. It was an honor to be able to serve with the local physical therapists and other staff who take such great care of the children.

city street

The hospital was more like what we would call a “nursing home” here in the United States. It housed 278 residents ranging from young children to the elderly with mental and physical disabilities ranging in severity. Over the two weeks we treated patients of all ages. Prior to going to Guatemala, we learned a lot about the various diagnoses we would see there, but nothing compares to the hands-on learning experience we got to have with actual patients. I left Guatemala feeling equipped to be a better clinician. I felt confident in my ability to feel the differences between low muscle tone and high muscle tone and ideas of how to treat them; to distinguish between fixed and flexible physical deformities and how to manage them; and to fit and fix a wheelchair to an individual’s needs.


Aside from our work on the orphanage and hospital, we had many other awesome experiences in Guatemala. We were housed with host families who gave us a sense of authentic life in Antigua. We attended one-on-one Spanish classes every afternoon. We even hiked an active volcano where we roasted marshmallows (or “angelitos”) on a hot lava rock and explored caves in the middle of the rainforest. These were all once-in-a-lifetime memories that I will remember forever. We may have gone to Guatemala to fulfill a need in their community, but I came away feeling like each patient and experience taught me more than I could have ever given.

SPT Deidra Jay

Hiking the volcano


Guatemala trip

The opportunity to travel to Guatemala was, without a doubt, a once in a lifetime experience. The trip provides full immersion in both the culture and language. Plus as a SPT, the ability to practice skills and acquire new knowledge made the trip jam packed with constant challenges and learning.

Working on wheelchairs      View of the city

Working in the hospital and wheelchair factory provided diverse opportunities for growth, especially because everything is happening in a different language.

landscape      roasting

I know that I was outside my comfort zone consistently, however, I wouldn't have it any other way. My overall confidence as a SPT and person increased and if given the chance again, I would return in a heart beat.

Clark Smith, SPT, Class of 2018


We arrived in Antigua, Guatemala in the dark. Silently we sat jostling from the cobblestone streets and looking out the shuttle windows. It was Friday night of a festival weekend and Parque Central was filled with people and music. Motorcycles buzzed around us following some bizarre form of traffic rules. For me it felt exciting but altogether foreign and overwhelming. In a surreal fog the driver drove us to our respective host families. I was the last to get dropped off. As the driver retrieved my luggage, I looked around. This was a very dark street. An austere wooden door and shadowy boarded windows confronted me. “What have I gotten myself into?” I thought as I knocked on the front door. Standing there outside feeling like I had entered another world I wished for a moment I was back in my comfortable home in my normal life.

In reality I had been looking forward to this trip since before I started graduate school. I am one of ten Doctor of Physical Therapy students from the University of New Mexico who had the fortune of being selected for the the annual service-learning trip to Guatemala. This opportunity was one of the reasons I chose to come to UNM in the first place. The program is a two-week adventure where we stay with host families, attend morning Spanish class and work in a local hospital and wheelchair factory in the afternoon. My passion for travel motivated me to put my name in the pool of perspective participants and I felt like I had won the lottery when my name was chosen. However, no amount of planning or anticipation can change that initial feeling of being alone and different when stepping into a new culture. I knocked one more time and finally I heard someone fumble with the front door. Light spilled into the street and a warm face greeted me. “ Welcome Catherine, we have been waiting for you!” It was my host mother Blanca. She gave me a heartfelt hug and over her shoulder I could see her 2-year-old son, Santiago, laughing and blowing bubbles in the kitchen. I breathed a sigh of relief; I was going to be ok.

A few of our wonderful clients at Refugio de Esperanza

Working on a wheelchair at Refugio de Esperanza

The next two weeks passed in a whirlwind of work, Spanish classes and fun. The first week I went to the hospital in the afternoons. Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro is multi-service facility that includes an orphanage for children as well as adults. I worked alongside Guatemalan physical therapy students and PTs. Many of the children could not speak, hear or see. Because therapy involved touch and movement rather than language it was the only time that I felt my poor Spanish was not interfering with my ability to provide care for my patients.

The Hospital Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro          

Collaborating at the wheelchair factory

The second week my classmates and I would take a 40-minute shuttle ride to Refugio de Esperanza (Hope Haven). This nonprofit facility assembles and manufactures wheelchairs that they send to other parts of the world. They also provide refurbished chairs to people locally free of charge. Many of the employees have disabilities themselves. Thus, this facility is also providing valuable opportunities for job skill acquisition in a country with limited work prospects. We assisted with fitting custom wheelchair seating systems for disabled children. Working in groups with some of the factory employees trying to evaluate and assemble chairs to accommodate the complicated needs of our patients was challenging. It was an exercise in humility to collaborate and communicate in Spanish. Thankfully, we had the expertise of our instructor Rose Vallejo PT, ATP who has extensive knowledge about wheelchair seating through her career start at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center and creating the Lovelace Wheelchair Seating Clinic in Albuquerque. She is also fluent in Spanish, which was a tremendous help when trying to discuss ideas with the Guatemalan Physical Therapists.

Fuego erupting in the distance

Trying an exhilarating new form of transportation

After our two weeks of volunteering we still had one week left before fall classes started. Many of us took advantage and traveled more. Some students traveled north to take the sunrise tour of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Beginning the hike before dawn means experiencing the captivating sounds of the rainforest waking up. Walking along the trail in the dark, insects, birds and monkeys create the rhythmic reverberations of life. This culminates with viewing the sunrise from the highest Temple in the park. A few classmates and I decided instead to make our way south to the El Salvadorian coast to relax and learn to surf. With nothing more to do than walk along the beach, swim in the surprisingly warm water of the Pacific Ocean and practice Spanish with the friendly locals, I experienced a peace of mind long forgotten since the stress of Physical Therapy school took hold.

It all ended too soon as good trips often do. Shuttling back into Antigua from El Salvador I was struck with how much I had changed in three weeks. I had gone from feeling genuinely foreign and slightly terrified in this city to now feeling completely comfortable and sad to be leaving. I was going back to my normal life. I was going to a place where my customs and my norms were similar to others; I could deftly navigate the linguistic intricacies of my native tongue, and I could understand the traffic laws.

The surf from our hotel patio in El Salvador 

Walking to the store in El Salvador

With less than a year until graduation I wonder how this trip might affect my clinical practice. As a Physical Therapist I am required to demonstrate cultural competence. My goal is to respond effectively to the cultural needs of my client in order to provide the best care for them. To me, this means the meeting of two worlds: My world and my client’s. My client could be entirely unfamiliar the culture of physical therapy entrenched in western medicine. Also, unlike me going to Guatemala, they might not be all that excited to be entering this exotic place. It can be daunting to begin communicating and collaborating to reach a place of mutual understanding and respect. I do not have all of the answers but one thing I now understand is what it is like to feel foreign. I know how it feels to be at a strange door in a strange land in the dark without a clue what to expect on the other side. Becoming a culturally competent healthcare provider is an ongoing process but I believe it starts with being that friendly person who opens the door for my patient and says, “Welcome! I have been waiting for you”, helping them feel like they have the strength to navigate this strange new world of physical therapy to recovery.

Catherine Burke, SPT, Class of 2016