Doctor of Physical Therapy Students Make Program's First Medical Mission Trip

Craig Ruby had been waiting to return to the Yucatan to see his friends and former patients.

Since his last trip in 2019, Ruby came to Seton Hill to start the university's Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, navigated through the COVID crisis and the program's accelerated accreditation process, hired a full complement of faculty, enrolled the program's first class, and will soon be congratulating that inaugural class as the program's first graduates.

He was finally able to return to Mexico, where he has been working with clinics for nearly two decades, and bring along six Seton Hill students, along with another physical therapist and translator in October 2023. Students saw him greeted warmly as he walked through the streets of town.DPT Students with staff of Rehab Center

Third-year student Jenna Sanfilippo had been looking forward to this trip since she first came to Seton Hill.

"Everyone was excited for us to be there and were ready to work and learn," Jenna said. "People who chose this profession are often in it because we enjoy helping others."

While Ruby has seen the clinics gain resources throughout the years, the staff members at the clinics generally have less education and technical knowledge than what physical therapists receive in the United States. When the Seton Hill students arrived, they were greeted with lots of questions and immediately started sharing knowledge and techniques and developing treatment plans for both new and existing patients.

Ian Duckworth, another third-year student, was looking forward to learning more about the area's culture in addition to helping patients and staff.

"It's the best of both worlds," he said. "I was interested to see how other people live and also to see how I could help."

On day one, Jenna, who is focusing on pediatric PT, worked with a group to offer treatment suggestions for children with autism who one clinic had been turning away due to lack of knowledge. Ian and other students learned that one man who had a lower body injury had not tried to walk since the incident and they were able to see him do a few laps around the clinic with their support.

"It's the best of both worlds. I was interested to see how other people live and also to see how I could help."

While some of the clinics they worked in had more of the equipment they were used to in the United States, others required improvisation with the supplies available. When Jenna lacked toys geared towards children for a young patient, she made do with stackable cones and was able to get results that way.

"It's eye opening to come home and have the resources right in front of you to help your patients," Jenna said.

In creating the program, Ruby knew that he wanted service learning, whether it was in the local community or in another country, to serve as an important component of developing both technical and soft skills to help graduates learn professionalism before they leave campus.

"We want our students to embrace being of service. We do this for our mission but also to achieve educational objectives," Ruby said. "When we expose students to these experiential learning opportunities they become stronger in professional behaviors and are better clinicians who are better able to advocate for their patients."

Ruby also created a series of daily reflections and the students gathered together in the mornings before they headed out and when they returned from the day for contemplation on the day's work. In total they spent five days in the clinics and the weekend exploring the area's rich culture.

While it was a long wait to take the program's first trip, DPT faculty and students are looking forward to a more regular incorporation of the service trips with one planned for Jamaica to work with patients and staff at local clinics. Long-term plans include the possibility of collaboration across health disciplines at Seton Hill, working with Spanish language students to serve as translators and exploring other liberal arts opportunities for students to explore the area's culture.


Photo, top: Students Jenna Sanfilippo and Alexis Roberts practice their pediatric skills with a patient at the Tuncas Unit of Basic Rehabilitation.

Photo, right: The mayor and the staff of the Unit of Basic Rehabilitation welcome the Seton Hill group to Izamal.

This article originally appeared in the 2023-2024 Fall/Winter edition of Seton Hill's Forward Alumni Magazine.