SRU Physical therapy students to help Peruvians in need


physical therapy students

Professor Mary Ann Holbein-Jenny and four students in the Slippery Rock physical therapy program, who will be traveling to Peru to provide care for the underserved, inspect donated medical equipment that they will take to Peru.

August 3, 2015

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - While many of their classmates will be looking for ways to enjoy their last few days of summer prior to heading back to Slippery Rock University, six members of SRU's doctor of physical therapy program along with Professor Mary Ann Holbein-Jenny will be spending their final 18 days of summer providing physical therapy to the underserved population of Peru.

Holbein-Jenny and graduate students Kristin Eberhart, from Archbald; Ben Lowry, from New Castle; Laurie Martin, from Brownstown; Erin Miller, from Elizabethtown; Connor Sheriff, from Boiling Springs, and Nick Wilhelm, from Schuylkill Haven will make the 3,672 mile journey and work with Medical Ministry International-Canada in Lima, Peru. Their Aug. 7-25, 2015 trip marks the seventh consecutive year that SRU has sent physical therapy students to Peru where they get a rare chance to work in a foreign environment. The trip is just one of the growing list of experiences that embody SRU's commitment to global education and preparing students to work in a global environment.

"A big part of the trip is working with a diverse population," Lowry said. "We are all from Pennsylvania and we really don't have that diverse of a population in western Pennsylvania. Being able to treat people that have a completely different culture and a way of viewing things is an invaluable opportunity."

The group will split its time staying in two different locations in Lima and commute daily to rural areas around the city. At least that's the current itinerary; Holbein-Jenny was quick to point out that things can change.

"This is the first time that we will be going to Lima," Holbein-Jenny said. "During our seven years of going to Peru we've always gone to different cities. As I understand it, we'll be staying in Lima on one side of the city for the first week, but traveling out into rural areas. We're not quite sure because you really never know what you're going to run into until you get there."

Once in Peru, Holbein-Jenny estimated that the students would provide free physical therapy to around 100 patients with injuries ranging from sprained ankles to brain trauma. One key difference between what they will be doing in Peru compared to normal physical therapy practices is the amount of time, or lack thereof, that patients will be seen. In the U.S., it's common to work with patients for up to 12 weeks as opposed to the limited time they will have to work in Peru.

mary holbein-jenny


"It's mainly about just treating them as well as we can and giving them a well-rounded education about doing stuff on their own," said Sheriff. "It's not just thinking how we can get them to the next session, it's how can we set them up for the next year or their whole recovery."

With the majority of the patients that Slippery Rock's students will work with being children, there will also be a heavy emphasis on educating adult caregivers.

"With pediatrics, they're probably not the ones who will be taking care of themselves so we have to make sure the family understands what the problem actually is so they can help facilitate their recovery," Lowry said.

According to a 2014 study by the Peruvian National Institute of Statistics and Information (INEI), Peru has a population of over 30 million residents, but 25.8 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Of those living in poverty 1.8 million are living in extreme poverty. Adding to the country's trouble is a health care system that is drastically out of date, making trips like this a near necessity.

"The health care system in general in Peru is about 40 years behind," said Eberhart. "There's not much in the way of physical therapy at all. The health care mostly deals with the medical treatment so there's not a lot of rehab."

"The system is skewed in regards to who can actually get health care. The richest of the population can afford it or can travel to another country where it's better. Some of the middle class can get adequate health care, but they pay for it all out of pocket. The lower class just isn't getting any health care because there's no opportunity."

According to the INEI, 37.4 percent of Peruvians do not have health insurance, but 52.2 percent have to receive some form of medical treatment. In comparison, only 11.9 percent of U.S. residents do not own health insurance.

"If you have surgery in the United States and have health insurance most of the cost gets covered," said Wilhelm. In Peru only 50 or 60 percent of the surgeries might get covered by insurance."

Among the challenges that the students will encounter will be language barriers, lack of modern equipment and the fact that only one of the six have previously worked at a medical clinic internationally.

Language problems will be taken care of by translators and thanks to generous donations from physical therapy clinics, doctor's offices throughout Pennsylvania, former students and churches, the SRU contingent are taking a large shipment of supplies that will somewhat alleviate the equipment burden for a short time.

"We'll have to be creative and use what we have to work with," said Lowry. "For example, we are used to using dumbbells, but in Peru we may have to use a bottle full of water. It's all going to come back to us helping to educate the people the best we can. You can only do so much in a day or a couple hours."

Despite the long list of obstacles the six students are dedicated to the journey as evidenced by each willingly paying $3,000 to make the trip.

"It's something we all volunteered for," Wilhelm said. "It's the humanitarian part of being a professional. We can use our skills on people who really need it and it gives us a chance to grow as physical therapists. I'm excited for this opportunity. It's a new challenge."

"It's definitely a privilege," said Eberhart. "People put themselves in the position to have this opportunity, but not everyone takes advantage of it."

Making the trip all the more worth it are stories that Holbein-Jenny tells her students about past successes in Peru.

"There was one little girl who may have been four-years old and couldn't walk," Holbein-Jenny said. "Her father carried her everywhere, but we had a special posterior pediatric walker donated to us and they were able to fit her and teach her how to use it. She took steps and was able to walk in the clinic."

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