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Medical Mission to Antigua

Thursday, July 19, 2018  
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Medical Mission to Antigua: An Eye-Opening Experience 

In March, a group of Mercy students and faculty from the School of Health and Natural Sciences traveled to Antigua, an island in the West Indies, as part of their fieldwork/hands-on experience in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and communication disorders.Applying skills and knowledge learned in the classroom to clinical work with patients with severe cognitive and physical disabilities, participants had a life-changing experience, one they will never forget.

Dr. Moreno, Dean of the American University of Antigua, and Cristina Dumitrescu, Assistant Professor and Program Director of Mercy's Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program, coordinated the trip. The group of thirteen students and four faculty from undergraduate and graduate programs for rehabilitation professions, spent a week visiting and providing therapeutic interventions in medical and residential facilities serving children and adults with conditions like cerebral palsy, autism, blindness, seizures and neurological diseases.

The group rotated among three sites in Antigua: the NSA Medical Surgical Rehab Centre, The Care Project, a former orphanage serving people with disabilities ranging in age from infants to adults, and Friends of The Care Project, a nonprofit that provides specialty care for the same population. "These children have never received any type of skilled therapy and they have significant functional delays, having difficulties communicating, walking, or even sitting in a chair to be fed by caregivers," said Dumitrescu.

At the NSA Medical Surgical Rehab Centre, Dr. Patrick Matthew DPT, PhD guided all the interactions in the clinic, scheduled treatment sessions for patients with a variety of diagnoses. Prof. Dumitrescu and one group of students attended the outpatient clinic for four full days where they reviewed medical charts, interviewed patients and provided hands-on treatment.

At The Care Project, Prof. Sedlak, Dr. Ryan, Dr. Brook and their students brought medical and classroom supplies, and sensory toys, and facilitated their use with children in need of rehabilitation. Several students worked on feeding and positioning the children so they could more easily interact with their caregivers.

Peter Yusef will graduate in 2019 with his OTA degree, with plans for a career in a pediatric setting. A few years ago, he spent two weeks in Ghana volunteering with members of his church, and was deeply moved by the experience. When Prof. Dumitrescu announced the Mercy Antigua trip, Yusef jumped at the chance. "One child had severe cerebral palsy, and had been given a wheelchair that didn't fit her body," he said. "We spent two days working on the chair, adapting it to her abilities and needs, using the available materials and resources, which were not much. On our return visit, we saw the child sitting upright in the wheelchair and smiling. It was comfortable, and she was happy."

Several students with limited experience of other cultures were unsettled by the profound lack of available healthcare in other countries. "On that first day I thought, 'What am I supposed to do?' " said Yusef. "But our instructor taught us how to approach each problem, using our knowledge from the classroom to come up with a strategy and try it out. I learned so much."

Carmen Hernandez, another OTA student on the trip, was struck by the high level of cognitive development exhibited by the children. "Even without the proper resources, their compensating strategies were phenomenal," she said. "They use whatever they have. Their determination was so inspiring."

"From the beginning, I knew the trip to Antigua would fit with Mercy's goal to provide transformational learning experiences for students," Dumitrescu said. "Seeing the conditions in those healthcare facilities provided students with a taste of true cultural diversity. They saw first-hand what people face in other countries. Putting in those hours in a real clinic, serving the needs of people who are so grateful for the care, is a great eye-opener. You can't learn that from any book."

Yusef and Hernandez are both eager to return to Antigua if the opportunity ever arises. "It's a beautiful experience," said Hernandez. "It helps you appreciate what you have. And to be working hands-on with kids who really thrived with our attention - that was so rewarding, so exciting. I'm ready."


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