This blog is about one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had – a week-long trip to Guatemala where I was able to use my physical therapy education to serve the people of Central America. The nine day trip was organized by Drexel University and run through an organization called Hearts In Motion (HIM) and it was absolutely amazing.
However, before I get to the specifics of the trip I need to rewind ten years to the beginning of high school… it’ll all make sense in just a little bit.
When I was a freshman in high school I started a club called Life’s Not Fair (LNF). The wording was vague, awkward and somewhat off-putting. While the mission statement (the why) in my heart was strong and clear, I couldn’t articulate my feelings and that was frustrating. Those feelings have been bottled up for my entire life and have come out in spurts through my social media, blog and personal interactions.
The goal of LNF was to raise money for local families in need. In total, we raised just over $10,000 for three different families who had experienced loss and financial hardship. The club was by all means a success because it helped people who needed it and it helped me grow. However, the club never gained traction and subsequently ended when I graduated high school.
The reason I felt it was pertinent to talk about LNF is because this service trip brought to life that same spark that I tried to ignite ten years ago with a high school club. Reflecting on the nine days that I spent in Guatemala has helped me organize my thoughts and articulate my feelings. So naturally I decided to write a blog about it. I hope you enjoy!
How To Navigate This Blog
Each day in Guatemala provided me with one (or more) insights which I believe to be fundamental truths of the human experience. The trip was long and I’ve got a lot to write about, so bear with me as I attempt to keep things concise.
For those of you who want the abbreviated version, the major takeaways from each day will be indented and big bold black letters throughout each section of the blog.
I know that someone out there needs to read this so here it goes.
(travel to Guatemala)
A 2:45am wake up, two flights, a four-hour bus ride through the mountainous roads of Guatemala and sixteen total hours of travel will take it out of you. Needless to say, this travel-packed day was exhausting and relatively uneventful, therefore I’ll keep this one short.
time is relative
This isn’t anything groundbreaking but it’s important because it gives us an insight into perspective. The first day was long and travel-packed but various parts (of same objective duration) felt different based on how I was feeling and what I was expecting. The plane ride to GUATE (3 hours) was longer than the plane ride to ATL (2 hours) but it felt shorter because we were closer to our destination and I was excited.
In other words, my emotions and expectations changed my perspective and as a result, time warped. We’ve all experienced this phenomenon, however, it applies to more than just time.
Perspective is powerful and it can change how we see and experience the world. While it might not be easy and we might not want to hear it, emotions and expectations are within our control. Therefore, we all have the power to alter our realities, however, harnessing that power is hard and requires practice.
(pop up clinic)
The second day began with a 4:00am outdoor workout in the dark which was followed by a 6:00am breakfast. The two-hour bus ride was interrupted by a flat tire, but our group managed to have fun during the down time on the side of the road. When we finally arrived at our location, I was confused… it wasn’t a “clinic,” instead, it was a large concrete gymnasium that was baking in the sweltering Guatemalan heat. We unloaded the bus, set up some plinths and before I had to time take a seat, I had my first patient.
Just like that I had to conjure up all of the Spanish that had ever hit my ears. Dripping sweat and at a frantic pace I saw patients left and right. Each patient was unique and my Spanish came back faster than I thought it could. Despite being dehydrated, soaked in sweat and exhausted, I had an absolute blast treating patients with my classmates.
Throughout the course of the first day, our group treated a total of 39 patients. While it was fun to interact with all of the patients, one stood out to me more than the others. In fact, this one patient had an impact on me that will alter the course of my life – his name is Jose.
choose to live life happy
One of the coolest experiences I had during the entire trip was treating Jose. He is nine years old and was recently diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome; a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system resulting in rapid onset muscle weakness and a host of other complications. However, when you think of Jose, I don’t want you to think of a boy with an autoimmune disorder, because that doesn’t define him. Instead, think of Jose as an optimistic, energetic and hilarious young boy who has a personality that is larger than life.
While Jose had every reason not to be happy; he was.
In fact, Jose was so happy that it was hard not to smile – his attitude was infectious. In Spanish, Jose’s dad explained that his son taught him how to live life happy. Jose is always smiling and that he is a beacon of light in the world of his parents in spite of what his physical body is going through.
Working with Jose was an honor and a pleasure. He, along with all of the Guatemalan people, reminded me that no matter what our external circumstances, we all can choose to live life happy.
Much like day two, day three began with a 4:00am workout in the dark followed by a 6:30am breakfast. We drove two hours into the mountains to a small city called Esquipulas. We worked in a clinic that was founded and created by Quique, a man who suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) and decided to open up a physical therapy clinic in his own home. We treated patients all day and I had some eye-opening encounters that I can’t do justice explaining in the scope of this blog.
it is possible to turn any “bad” experience into a “good” one
Quique had an SCI and instead of wallowing in self-pity, he chose to use his experience to help others. By all “objective measures,” Quique had every right to close off to the world and be upset. However, Quique turned his struggle into strength. He took action and opened up a PT clinic in his own home which now serves the people of his community. Adversity is opportunity to turn a negative into a positive and that’s exactly what Quique and many Guatemalan’s reminded me during this trip.
Another early morning, another long bus ride, another hot day and another pop up clinic. This time, we set up our tables in an open gymnasium in San Jorge, about an hour outside of Zacapa.
To this point in the blog I have failed to mention that while we (Drexel) traveled down to Guatemala, so did a group of students from another school (Arcadia). This was the first day where we co-treated with the Arcadia students and it was a unique and worthwhile experience. Problem solving with another person is a different experience than doing it alone. Working with in tandem with someone with a different educational background and treatment style was, at times, a challenging experience.
meet people where they are
It was interesting treating patients (with a different culture and language) alongside students with a different educational background.
However, different isn’t always bad; different is different.
With both peers and patients, it’s important to realize that no two people are ever in the same exact place. It’s important to meet people where they are and to seek to understand before seeking to be understood yourself. Conflict in thought processes isn’t always easy to deal with, especially when it arises while treating a patient (who speaks another language nonetheless).
Despite what it may feel like, “conflict” is an opportunity for growth and my experience co-treating in Guatemala gave my peers and I the opportunity to think critically while also challenging us to seek understanding without judgement.
what matters is what’s on the inside
In the end, while there were differences in treatment philosophy and structure between the Drexel and Arcadia students, it didn’t matter. We ended up spending a fair amount of time with each other and got to know each other as more than just physical therapy students… I’d like to think we became friends.
You see, no matter how many differences we might have had, we were all down there to help people in need; our hearts were all in the same place and when that’s the case, surface level differences fall by the wayside.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re from Arcadia – it was so great to meet you and thank you for your work. You’re all awesome people and you’re going to be great physical therapists. Don’t hesitate to reach out – I’d love to get in touch!
Different day, same routine.
After an early morning and a long bus ride, we pulled off the main road and onto the roughest dirt road I’ve ever seen. The sun was beating down hard on the clay colored dirt as we drove past tin huts, piles of garbage and stray animals; welcome to Pueblo Modelo.
It was somewhat of an oxymoron – the poorest community I’ve ever witnessed was surrounded by beautiful mountains and blue skies.
We eventually pulled up to a small church building with a floor covered in large puddles (small lakes). We swept water off the floor and out of the door and set up camp. We treated patients all morning and also visited a day care that was run by HIM in order to allow parents to go out and look for work.
Throughout the hot and action packed day, one patient stood out to me more than the rest. I went on a home visit to treat a young boy with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy who ended up changing how I saw the world.
life isn’t fair, but it could always be worse
I woke up and was frustrated that my iPhone didn’t charge overnight.
Little did I know that I would be spending the day in the poorest community I have ever witnessed and that I would have the opportunity to treat a young boy who would change my world.
This boy lives with his parents in a 10×10 tin hut, in consistently HOT weather, with no running water, limited electricity and no ability to move. Suddenly, the fact that my iPhone was running low on battery was immensely insignificant.
In an instant, my deep-seated sentiments from high school flooded to the surface and I was overwhelmed.
Life isn’t fair, but it could always be worse. Be grateful for what you have and do what you can to help those who have it worse.
Life isn’t fair; we all have our problems and our struggles, but this experience reaffirmed my mantra that “it could always be worse.” No matter how “bad” our situations may appear, there are millions (more likely billions) of people who would love to be in your shoes. The fact that you are reading this blog probably means that you have access to the internet… the people of Pueblo Modelo don’t have access to clean water… let that sink in.
I feel that it’s important to note that despite his objectively “bad” external circumstances, our patient was so happy to see us and so willing to work with us. He, like most of the Guatemalans I encountered, exuded gratitude and resilience, something that I think we could all use more of (myself included).
Another early start and another long day filled with life lessons. We drove about an hour outside of Zacapa to a senior center where we treated patients all morning and saw some very complex patients. We made a home visit during lunchtime and then spent the afternoon at a nutrition center run by HIM.
This HIM nutrition center has 20 children (orphans) who live there full time and every Thursday HIM feeds over 100 malnourished children. At the nutrition center we treated a few patients and played with more than a few children.
resilience is a mindset and it can be learned
One child stuck out to me more than the rest; he was about five years old, he had no legs and he moved around using his arms. This child was moving fast over all terrains – he was cruising. Despite being different than his peers, this child kept up and he did it with a huge smile on his face. This child had no legs, no parents and no choice other than to be resilient.
He was born into a situation where he had to be resilient; it was his mindset by default.
Without a doubt, this child will have hardship and struggle as he grows older (we all do and will), however, his adopted attitude was inspiring. Just like this child, we can all choose to be and learn to be resilient.
Before I continue on, I need to point out that this day was my girlfriend’s birthday. It’s about time that she (Michaela) made an appearance in one of my blogs so here it is. Michaela, who is also in my program at Drexel University was also on this service trip. I did my best to make her birthday special and I would be remiss if I didn’t include her in this blog.
selflessness is admirable
Michaela is my best friend. She makes me want to be better in all that I do. While she may not be as outspoken as I am, she speaks with her actions and this action needs to be broadcasted. Michaela chose to spend her birthday in the sweltering heat serving the people of Guatemala in need – she didn’t ask for anything, she didn’t complain and she didn’t want special treatment. She put her own needs on the back-burner and did her best to help those who needed it… that’s selfless if I’ve ever seen it and I think that’s pretty cool. So, if you’re reading this Michaela, well done. I’m proud of you and I love you!
Keeping with the theme, it was an early morning and a long ride. However, this bus ride wasn’t to a clinic, rather, it was four hours to Antigua, Guatemala where we would spend our last three days exploring and immersing ourselves in the local culture.
Once in Antigua Michaela and I spent the afternoon zip lining in the mountains. Now I’ve been zip lining before, but never like this. After a precarious ride up the steepest mountain roads I’ve ever seen, we zip lined six different runs. The lines got progressively longer and the last two were 1,300 feet and 1,700 feet respectively.
sometimes you need faith
When you’re about to zip line 1,000+ feet elevated 200+ feet in the air between mountains, you need to trust that the cables and harness are going to hold. In other words, you need to have faith. Whether it’s zip lining or anything else in life, faith is a must. Faith means believing in something even if you can’t see it. Faith gives us strength and incredible power and when you have faith you have freedom,
fun and freedom are on the other side of fear
Along the same lines as faith, zip lining reaffirmed that fun and freedom are on the other side of fear. I’ll be honest, I was anxious and somewhat afraid to zip line the monstrous ones that we did. However, that anxiety and fear immediately left my body as soon as I jumped. Almost instantaneously, the fear was replaced with freedom and the anxiety was replaced with fun.
If you want a more eloquent and captivating explanation of this phenomenon, I would highly suggest watching this short video by none other than Will Smith.
After zip lining we went out to dinner with our peers and professors. As we sat at dinner I realized I wasn’t feeling too well. My head hurt, the room was spinning and as dinner went on I realized that I likely had a fever. My classmates were excited to go out salsa dancing after dinner but I felt like sleeping. I wanted to experience authentic Guatemalan salsa dancing so instead of giving in and spending our second to last night in bed, I took some Advil and “rallied.”
I made the choice to go out dancing and I told myself I was going to have fun.
You know what?
Despite not feeling well, I had fun. I told myself I was going to have a good time and for a few hours, I forgot I was sick.
The lesson here is that mindset matters when it comes to salsa dancing and when it comes to life. Whether or not I’m a “good” salsa dancer will be left up to interpretation…
Although I was a little under the weather, I immersed myself in Guatemalan culture and it was awesome. This day was Guatemala’s Independence Day and man do they like to celebrate (google it).
The highlight of this day for me was a two-hour private chocolate making class that Michaela and I got to experience. The chocolate making class was informative, fun and insightful. I enjoyed spending the time with Michaela, I learned so much about chocolate and I extrapolated that knowledge to life – surprise!
have some patience
During chocolate making class, our instructor explained that dark chocolate should have three tastes: bitter at first, nutty second, and fruity third. He explained that you need to “give it a chance.”
He repeatedly asserted that when eating dark chocolate, “don’t give up when it’s bitter at first.” He explained that “too many people give up too early” and miss out on the full experience because it’s more than just bitter.
Just like dark chocolate, don’t give up when things get tough (bitter) because there’s better stuff down the road and it’s all part of the experience.
take your time
During the class our instructor also explained that we should eat chocolate slowly and enjoy it because it takes a long time and a lot of effort to make. After making chocolate myself, I can attest to how much work it takes. Chocolate is a lot of work, and like most things in life, we seem to consume it fast and don’t take the time to appreciate the taste.
Whether it’s chocolate, work or life in general, take some time to slow down; take time to enjoy and appreciate what you (or others) worked hard for.
Who knew that chocolate and life had so much in common?
(travel back to US)
On our last day a group of us got up before sunrise to hike to a small scenic overlook – it was beautiful.
We spent the remainder of the day (12+ hours) traveling home to the US.
The day was much like the chocolate from the previous day – bitter sweet. I was going to miss Guatemala but I was also ready to go home.
reflection is important for growth
This trip was busy and there was little down time. I still can’t fully process all of my emotions but it’s been helpful and insightful to make the attempt. Reflection is when you become aware what you couldn’t see while you were in the thick of it. Reflection is part of how you grow and I hope this reflection has been as useful to someone out there as it has been for me.
While some themes seemed to fit naturally with each day, there were other insights that were weaved throughout the trip and that are worth mentioning here.
body language is everything
I always knew how important body language is; it encompasses over 70% of communication and it can speak volumes (pun intended). However, practicing physical therapy with a verbal language barrier gave me a new appreciation for just how universal and powerful body language is. This is just a friendly reminder to be cognizant of your body language because it’s a potent way to alter or enhance all communication.
be grateful for what you have
Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to be grateful for what you have – I take time each morning think about what I’m grateful for. However, it’s weird how profoundly grateful you become for the little things after witnessing conditions where people don’t even have the little things. Guatemala ignited a deep-seated gratefulness for all that I’m blessed with, from my family to running water and everything in between. Take some quiet time to think about what you’re grateful today and every day.
have fun in all that you do
It’s easy to get bogged down in the daily grind of work, especially when you’re exhausted and always on the move in a third world country. However, my classmates and the people of Guatemala have reminded me how fun physical therapy can be – I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the value of play in physical therapy (especially when it comes to pediatrics). Whether it’s at work or not, find the fun.
comparison is the thief of joy
It would be easy for the people of Guatemala to compare their situation to that of other’s. It would be easy for them to want things that they don’t have and wallow in sorrow. However, thats not what they did. These people focused on what they had and they were grateful for it. The people of Guatemala reminded that part of being happy is being present and focusing on what you’ve got, not what you don’t.
Thank you so much for reading this blog and sharing in my Guatemala experience. I hope that this blog and my insights were valuable to you in some way shape or form. Now, in typical “Joe fashion,” it’s time for a quote.
“Life’s not fair, but it could always be worse” – me (?)
Take time to be grateful for what you have and go out of your way to help those who need it, even if it’s something small.
If nothing else, I hope that this blog helped you gain some perspective and a better understanding of my Guatemala experience. I’m not one for international travel, however, I would highly recommend taking the opportunity to go abroad on a service trip – if you ever get the chance, get out of your comfort zone and help others while you’re at it!
Thank you again for reading and I’ll talk to you all soon!
Joe Rinaldi, DPT