UNE student Celia Larson poses with a group of peers at the Hillside Health Center

Clinical education, with Caribbean flair

Physical Therapy students carry out clinical rotations in Belize, a first for UNE

Two students in the University of New England’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.) program recently returned to Maine after completing clinical rotations in Belize, marking the first time the Department of Physical Therapy has sent students to the Caribbean nation to conduct their field work placements.

Ana Maria Castellanos and Celia Larson, both students in the D.P.T. Class of 2023, spent their weekslong rotations at the Hillside Health Center, just outside the town of Punta Gorda in Belize’s Toledo District.

Ana Maria Castellanos poses in front of a sign welcoming visitors to Punta Gorda

Ana Maria Castellanos

There, they provided volunteer care for patients in and outside of the clinic, educated the center’s employees about best practices in physical therapy, and made personal and professional connections with health professions students from across the entire globe.

“Students flew from all over the world for this experience,” Castellanos remarked. “I worked alongside a mix of pharmacists, nurses, physicians, and physical therapists from all parts of the world, including Austria, London, Armenia, Texas, and from Belize itself.”

“On a day trip to a local resort, in the middle of the jungle, we even met a couple traveling from Boston, so it really is a small world,” Larson added.

Among the students’ many adventures were trips to local ruins, including the Nim Li Punit ruins, a smaller complex of Mayan civilization in the south of Belize.

The name of the site is Kekchi Mayan for “Big Hat” and was adopted after an image of a ruler, wearing an elaborate head-dress, was found depicted on a slab at the site.

Celia Larson poses in front of a rainforest view

Celia Larson

They also had the opportunity to learn from women in the Kekchi Mayan community how make corn tortillas from scratch and to weave baskets in the traditional style.

A group of PT students poses at the entrance to the Nim Li Punit ruins
Ana Maria Castellanos makes tortillas with Kekchi Mayan women
Ana Maria Castellanos poses with her clinical group
Celia Larson poses in front of a waterfall
A traditional Garifuna drum circle

The trip was close to home for Castellanos, who hails from Tegucigalpa, the capital city of nearby Honduras. Castellanos called the trip humbling, having provided home-based care to some of Punta Gorda’s low-income residents. But she also said it taught her to make do with what she has, a valuable skill for when she becomes a practicing physical therapist.

“The benefit to me is seeing how creative we can get as clinical providers to improve someone’s quality of life in a place where we don’t have as many resources and tools to help them,” she said. “But what we do have, we make work.”

Larson, similarly, described the trip as “foundational” to her education as a future physical therapist.

Working with the town’s underserved population “pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me how to hone my skills in communication and empathy in a way I didn’t know was possible,” Larson reflected, noting that many of the challenges faced by people in Punta Gorda — including poverty and disability — affect people in Maine and all over the world.

“This experience not only made me more confident as a clinician. It gave me the confidence to know that I can provide care to someone anytime, anywhere,” she said.

Ana Maria Castellanos teaches clinical skills to a health center employee
Celia Larson poses with her clinical group on a yellow boat
View of a horse and small farm
Celia Larson sits at a cafe table outside
Celia poses in front of a giant set of the letters "PG," for Punta Gorda

Amanda Benner, PT, D.P.T., NCS, assistant director of Clinical Education in UNE’s Department of Physical Therapy, also spent a week at the Hillside facility, an experience she said will leave a lasting impression on her values as a practitioner, teacher, and learner. She also commented that the center’s programming provides a parallel experience to UNE’s unique approach to interprofessional education that best prepares students to work alongside other health care professionals.

“This is such an amazing opportunity for our students to immerse themselves in another culture and grow both professionally and personally,” Benner remarked. “This enriching experience will leave a lasting impression on our students about the importance of cultural humility, teamwork, sustainability, and the profound effect of physical therapy on people’s lives.”