Skip to main content




Feb. 08, 2013
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

SRU PT volunteers visit St. Lucia; Find trip eye-opening, rewarding

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - For Barbara Billek-Sawhney, an associate professor of physical therapy in Slippery Rock University's School of Physical Therapy, and three of her doctor of physical therapy students, a 13-day winter-break trip to the Caribbean island of St. Lucia was both "eye-opening to the way people live and very educational."

The SRU contingent visited the island in early-January with multiple objectives, including volunteering as physical therapists, teaching the island's limited physiotherapists the latest procedures and protocols, and soaking up the island culture.

"We accomplished all three," Billek-Sawhney said, "but at times, it was trying. On one homecare visit, with Steve Joseph from the Council for Disability, we traveled by car and discovered, unlike in the U.S., the roadways have no names and the houses have no numbers. Along the route, Mr. Joseph simply yelled the patient's name out the window asking if anyone knew where she lived. We eventually found her. In another case we found a patient whose outdoor bathroom facilities were in a common area for the entire neighborhood with the shower a corrugated stall with a hose."

Frances Shaffer from Hookstown, Stephanie Nyce from Coopersburg and Rebecca Mason from Nottingham, all third-year SRU doctor of physical therapy students, joined the volunteer expedition. The four worked at St. Jude Hospital in Vieux Fort, St. Lucia.

"It truly was a chance for our students to gain hands-on knowledge, teach some of their skills to others, gain invaluable insight into physical therapy and help people on the island who would benefit from physical therapy," Billek-Sawhney said.

"Many St. Lucians go for months without seeing a physical therapist," she said. "We were able to visit with some patients and give them instructions that could help them improve their condition. One patient with paralysis on the left side of his body, touched my heart; he blessed me, and said he 'now had something to work on for the coming months.'"


Stephanie Nyce, a Slippery Rock University doctor of physical therapy student, treats 7-year-old Kemri during her volunteer work in St. Lucia.

"Our students had the chance to see diseases and conditions they had never seen before and would seldom see in training. Our students were awesome; they did a great job," she said. "They were permitted to do everything, and they were there as a resource to the staff and the patients. The physiotherapists at the hospital and I provided the necessary supervision."

"As part of their work, we provided several educational talks to both the students and the patients," she said. "One of the sessions dealt with kinesiotaping, like the brightly colored tape you often now see on athletes," Billek-Sawhney said. Kinesiotaping can be used to alleviate pain, help with muscle facilitation, swelling or improving posture.

The benefit of the trip to the SRU students, Billek-Sawhney said, "was their exposure to so many patients in such a short time. They got to see some cases that they may never, or may seldom, see if they go into practice here in the U.S. The trip was beneficial to both the students and the patients."

Nyce, who points out the St. Lucia visit was her first international trip, said, "It was amazing. It was a great experience, and it opened my eyes. I want to do it again after graduation."

"I got to assist the physical therapists with evaluation and treatment sessions for patients. I like working in pediatrics, and it was great to see a young person come in. I got to work with the kids. It was a great experience to see how the children live in a different culture. I got to see that they don't have a school system like in the U.S. and many make use of the out-patient medical clinic," she said.

"It was an opportunity to see children and be able to help the family with patient information," Nyce said. "One young patient came in to the clinic and left with a new orthotic for his foot. We worked the normal day, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the clinic everyday. We got to see patients who had had surgery and help them get out of bed, check their lungs and that kind of thing," she said."

"In our free time our group tried to experience the culture as much as we could. We would ask patients where to eat - we wanted to try the local food. Creole food was delicious. I liked lentils, chicken and plantains. The potatoes were different than those at home. We also went to the big market in the capital - the third best market in the world. It was really neat," she said.

Shaffer said she found the most interesting part of the trip "the way St. Lucians were able to adapt even through they had so little, they were able to make it work for them. They used their resources well. We should try some of their ideas in the U.S."

"I would go back. Absolutely - as a tourist or as a volunteer," she said.

Her next step, she said, will be "completing her internship, then studying for the physical education board exams, then getting a job in Pennsylvania."

For Mason, the most important part of the volunteer work was the "experience of the international setting and seeing the caliber of physical therapy work being delivered. I realized how many different settings there are and how many different areas can be treated by one physical therapist. It was interesting to see how it is done, and to see a physical therapist wearing so many different hats. It was truly eye-opening."

Following graduation she said she was seriously considering further international work. "My heart is set in Africa. I was previously in Namibia and I fell in love with the culture and the people, so I may go there, but I don't know for sure."

For her, the best part of the St. Lucia trip's cultural side was climbing Gros Piton, a very steep, 2619-foot mountain. "It was a physical challenge, that as an amputee, I was able to overcome," she said.

"We were surprised to see the degree of poverty on this tourist island. We were amazed at the level of appreciation people showed for even the slightest bit of help we were able to provide. One woman, who had MS could not afford her medicine, but she brought us a gift of thanks before we left," Billek-Sawhney said.

"The students had the chance to show off their ingenuity," she said. "One day the students went with a physical therapist to the only school for children with disabilities on the entire island. There, Stephanie saw a little boy with paralysis of the left side of his body, but no diagnosis. A few days later his mother brought him in to the clinic and Stephanie hunted through a box of donated braces. She found something like she was looking for and used a heat lamp to remold and modify it to fit her - and his - needs, and in the end he walked significantly better."

In addition to work at the hospital, the SRU volunteers also visited and taught the nurses, akin to a nursing aide, at the only government-owned nursing home on the island.

"We worked with the staff and physiotherapists on the island to show them the latest techniques. We provided talks on the effects of immobility, neuroplasticity and skill-acquisition. There were also updates on multiple-sclerosis and Parkinson's disease, stretching and strengthening techniques," she said. "Because they are very isolated where they practice, they had very little knowledge of the topics we covered. They said they found the information very helpful."

"There is no physiotherapy school on St. Lucia and not even one occupational therapist on the entire island of 176,000 people. There are only two physiotherapists covering the southern half of the island," Billek-Sawhney said. "By comparison, think of Slippery Rock, we have three separate physical therapy practices in this town."

St. Jude Hospital, the regional hospital, which had previously burned down, is now housed in a sports stadium, she said.

The area in which the SRU group stayed is best known for its spectacular wind surfing and draws visitors, especially Europeans, from around the world. The contingent managed a weekend of touring and daily saw the local custom of buying still-warm bread from an open car that drives through their neighborhood apartment area, Billek-Sawhney said.

The participating students are now completing their final 15-week internship at facilities in Beaver, eastern Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

The students inspired the overall project after learning of Billek-Sawhney's similar volunteer trips to Peru and Ethiopia. "They asked if we could do a similar trip, and we put together a plan," Billek-Sawhney said.

The trip was funded by SRU's Office of International Services, the President's Commission on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity, and SRU's Grants for Student Research, Scholarly, Creative, Entrepreneurial Civic Projects and the SRU President' International Development Grant program.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.