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Occupational therapy students explore health and healthcare delivery in Ecuador

Katie Strawbridge and an occupational therapist in Ecuador help a boy to communicate with a head-stick and letters on a board.
Katie Strawbridge and an occupational therapist in Ecuador help a boy to communicate with a head-stick and letters on a board.

Katie Strawbridge ’10 has been drawn to Latin America since her early years in college. She studied in Chile and Nicaragua, and then traveled to Belize and Guatemala. Thanks to the growing array of study-abroad programs at St. Catherine University, Strawbridge had the opportunity last spring to combine her love of the region with her professional pursuits.

For three weeks, she joined 13 other students in St. Kate’s nationally ranked Master of Arts in Occupational Therapy (MAOT) program in a trip to Ecuador. This was the program’s inaugural offering to that country. It also has an annual fieldtrip to Peru. St. Kate’s MAOT program is the highest ranked occupational therapy program in Minnesota, Iowa or North and South Dakota. U.S. News and World Report ranks it among the top 21 in the country.

“I went to Ecuador for the chance to be a part of the culture,” Strawbridge says. “I’m really interested in travel, and I’ve always been interested in helping people in developing countries.”

The students were divided into five different teams in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Each team was supervised by an occupational therapist from the United States — including St. Kate’s assistant professors Kate Barrett and Paula Rabaey. The students spent the first half of each day in a nonprofit rehab clinic paired with a local occupational therapist (OT) or physical therapist (PT). In the afternoons, they had Spanish lessons and a class on indigenous health practices.

During the first week students shadowed their OT or PT mentors and learned more about the clients they see, explains Barrett, who developed the trip. The second week was devoted to a project at their clinical sites. And the final week was spent outside the city, working in an orphanage and visiting different rural communities.

Strawbridge and another student were assigned to a clinic for children with cerebral palsy that was also an elementary school. They worked with the children on functional activities such as playing, dressing and eating. They made custom splints for wrists and hands, and they helped those in wheelchairs find better seating positions. In some cases, Strawbridge says, it was as simple as putting a cushion in their wheelchairs.

“The really difficult part was learning to work with the resources that were available,” she adds. “There just aren’t the same resources in Ecuador as we have here [in the United States]. We had to do a lot of makeshift-type problem solving. For example, to make a splint here, we would use material that’s specifically designed for that purpose. In Ecuador, we were using PVC pipes — heating them up and then remolding them.”

All the students kept journals. They were given seven questions prior to the trip and were required to write in their journals at least seven times over the three weeks. Questions included: “What am I learning about myself?” “What am I learning about my own culture?” and “What will this mean for me when I go home?”

Currently, two master’s-thesis students in St. Kate’s occupational therapy program are reviewing the journals to discover what the students took in. First-year MAOT students are able to take the field trip for credit as a special topics course, while second-year students, like Strawbridge, typically make the trip part of their master’s project.

“I hope that the students learned how culture, in its broadest definition, influences how people define health and how they practice health,” Barrett says. “And I hope they learned more about their own culture, values and beliefs, and to think about how they want to practice OT in communities with people with divergent values, beliefs and practices.”

Meanwhile, Fundación Hermano Miguel, the center that coordinates the student worksites in Ecuador, has invited Barrett to return and provide continuing education for the local therapists. Barrett will lead a group of professional occupational therapists from the United States and some St. Kate’s students there in August 2010 — in addition to the fieldtrip that spring.


Oct. 19, 2009 by Pauline Oo

See also: , Healthcare, Social Justice, Students