Physical Therapy Students Reach Out to Help Migrant Workers
Georgia State University physical therapy students set up tents and treatment tables each evening on the edge of the fields, eager to help the migrant farm workers who spend their days bending, lifting and carrying heavy loads of produce.
And the men came by the dozens, seeking treatment for the sore backs, aching knees and strained shoulders that often come from long days of work on South Georgia farms.
Graduate student David Shields was among those who signed on for the recent trip to Moultrie, Ga., to get practical experience working with an under-served population.
“So many people are in need of health services, education, and above all else, someone to just listen to their concerns and provide a helping hand,” Shields said. “Fortunately, physical therapy provides an opportunity to quite literally lend a helping hand.”
Shields and 10 other second-year physical therapy clinical doctorate students spent a week conducting screenings with the children of immigrant workers during the daytime and treating the men when they left the fields in the evening. The students massaged and stretched the men, offered health tips and taught them basic exercises to help them heal and prevent re-injury.
For the past 14 summers, graduate students from the Department of Physical Therapy have made the trek as part of the Farmworker Family Health Program, a cooperative program with Emory University, the University of Georgia and other colleges. Students and faculty from the other schools specialize in psychology, nursing, public health, pharmacy and dental hygiene.
Some of the Georgia State students and faculty were invited this year to tour the farm workers’ quarters, and found the men slept on thin mattresses or cots, and without pillows, poor conditions for preventing or recovering from injuries. So the Georgia State contingent donated the pillows they had brought along for treatment sessions.
Jodan Garcia, clinical assistant professor of physical therapy, said it was a good lesson for his students. Try to find out as much as you can about the conditions that could be affecting your patient, and be creative about looking for ways to help even when your time with them is limited.
At one farm, migrant workers spend their days picking buckets of cucumbers and lifting the 15-20 pound loads, over and over, into a waiting truck. They get paid by the truckload, so they work as quickly as they can, and often don’t think about getting hurt. Still, Garcia guided his students on how to coach the workers to avoid injuries that could permanently sideline them.
Garcia said the summer experience works beautifully with the physical therapy curriculum.
“The program serves as a bridge between the coursework of the first two years and the clinical work of the third,” Garcia said. “It feels good to teach them a lot in the classroom and [then say] ‘Show me what you’ve got’ in the outside world.”
Assistant Clinical Professor Kimberly Morelli said the experience clearly made an impact on the graduate students.
“Their confidence just completely soared,” she said. “They really gained a lot of confidence in their own skills and abilities.”
Shields said he gained valuable experience in how to collaborate with healthcare providers from other specialties to design a plan of care for each patient.
And he took away a larger lesson about his chosen profession.
“The lesson I take away from this is a lesson I keep learning over and over again,” Shields said. “Physical therapy is a profession of the human condition. That means you treat the person as a whole: Their physical, cognitive, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual health and well-being. “