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Physical therapy doctoral students care for disabled children in Nepal

The Hospital and Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children in Banepa, Nepal, is light-years away from the Boston hospitals where Maggie Goldberg and Christa Rocco did their first co-ops in physical therapy.

In Nepal, Goldberg and Rocco tend to children with ailments virtually unseen in Western nations, such as polio, clubfoot and untreated fractures. Their hospital runs on electrical generators most of the day. Nepal’s general health-care infrastructure is, by Western standards, practically nonexistent.

And the students love every challenging minute of it.

The hardships they’ve encountered while on co-op in Nepal have only served to sharpen their learning experience, they say, forcing them to be innovative in their treatment. According to Rocco, they have “to think outside the box to provide adequate care.”

A 16-year-old girl paralyzed from the waist down offered such a treatment challenge. The patient, who was recuperating from hand surgery, needed to relearn fine motor skills, like gripping objects and brushing her hair, as well as how to slide from her bed to her wheelchair.

“Typically, for a case like this, we would use a slick board to allow the patient to slide from one surface to the other,” Rocco says. But the hospital didn’t have a slick board, “so we had to fashion a makeshift piece of equipment for this use.”

In the Banepa hospital, walkers are made from bamboo, and the prosthetic lab has to be “creative” to provide simple, effective artificial limbs, Rocco adds.

The pair have also adapted to working with Nepali physical therapists who lack formal training yet routinely see many more problems than U.S. physical therapists have to face.

“One of the physical therapists we trained with has been doing the work for 19 years,” Goldberg says. “Watching him, we learned what questions to ask and what symptoms to look for in diseases we were never trained to screen for.”

This has broadened the students’ professional knowledge dramatically, Goldberg says: “The physical therapists here have been able to teach us about issues we typically take for granted in the United States,” such as patients who have little or no access to infection treatments, adequate pre-natal care or vaccinations.

If the health-care environment is a far cry from Boston’s, so is everyday life in the Kathmandu Valley. Goldberg and Rocco, who live with a host family, eat dal bhat, a rice and lentil dish, two times a day. Their commute to work is a 40-minute walk through rice paddies, potato fields and wheat fields—and occasionally through monsoon rains that cause local flooding.

Goldberg and Rocco embraced the chance to work in Nepal, because it squared with their resolve to go where they could do the most good. After researching regions of the world with the most need for physical therapists, they planned their co-op in collaboration with Projects Abroad, an organization that helps students pursue volunteer internships in the developing world. Goldberg and Rocco are the first physical therapy students from Northeastern to undertake a co-op in Nepal.

Going to Nepal was the best decision they could have made, Rocco says: “It’s enriched our education. The experience is unforgettable.

“It’s given us a glimpse into a culture completely different from our own.”

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