SFU students help others over spring break

St. Francis University student Nicole Brownyard can still picture the smile on 7-year-old Henry’s face, a child she met while on spring break in the Dominican Republic.

Born with a degenerative disease that affected his bone marrow, Henry was unable to perform even simple tasks such as putting on his own socks.

But with help from Brownyard and other physical therapy students, Henry was able to use a special shoe horn and other tools to not only put on his own socks, but also his own shoes – for the first time.

“He was so happy,” Brownyard said of Henry. “His mom was brought to tears.”

Brownyard was one of the 62 students and staff from St. Francis participating in the Hugs United service group trip over spring break, providing medical and rehabilitation assistance in the Dominican Republi.

A second-year graduate student studying physical therapy, Brownyard said the trip to provide medical and rehabilitation assistance in the Dominican Republic was a rewarding experience.

“Going on this trip, to me, was being able to give these people so much,” Brownyard said. “We learned so much from them.”

Students stayed at an orphanage overnight and worked in various medical clinics during the day, Brownyard said.

Students worked closely with St. Francis professors involved on the trip and staff from the Dominican clinics, said Tom Johnson, a 21-year-old senior studying to be a physician assistant.

Over the course of the week, students met with 1,176 patients ranging in age from infants to seniors, including the 700 students at the orphanage, Johnson said.

The trip was Johnson’s second visit to the Dominican Republic over spring break. The students were welcomed and thanked for their work, he said.

“It was an interesting experience,” Johnson said. “They have a lot less than us, but they have their family, and their faith is very important to them. It’s empowering.”

Hillarie Brace also participated on the trip for the second consecutive year. Students had the chance to work with some of the same physical therapists as last year’s mission and saw the impact of their work firsthand, she said.

“It’s just a week of our lives, but it’s something that impacts these people – people remember you,” Brace said.

Despite having translators present, the language barrier presented some challenges. But as a physical therapy student, Brace said she was able to gesture and point to solve patients’ problems.

Students used their medical knowledge to help educate the staff at the various clinics, Brace said.

In one instance, therapists were using heat in an attempt to decrease swelling for a patient who recently received a knee transplant.

The team advised the therapists to use cold therapy instead, Brace said.

Everyone from the patients to their families were happy to see the students, Brownyard said.

All three students said they plan to visit the Dominican Republic again – either as students or as medical professionals after graduation.

Trying to explain what the trip meant to students and those they helped is nearly impossible, Brace said.

“You are making an impact, but you get so much more back,” Brace said. “You think you’re giving something up, but you’re really getting so much more out of that week than any ‘fun’ trip can ever give you.”

Mirror Staff Writer Zach Geiger is at 946-7535.