Imagine a world in which people line up at the door for the chance to see a physical therapist—one where a PT has the power to change a patient’s entire life in a single therapy session. To most American PTs, that probably sounds like some kind of alternate universe; after all, overwhelming demand for physical therapy services isn’t something PTs in the US typically experience. In the small Caribbean nation of Haiti, however, that world is all too real. And it’s the reason physical therapists Justin Dunaway and Morgan Denny are putting their hearts, souls, and personal savings into a project that has the potential to ensure that every Haitian who wants or needs PT care is able to access and receive it.
It all started back in 2009, when Justin—who had recently graduated from the PT program at Youngstown State University—was exploring volunteer opportunities. “I wanted to do something different—something outside of the box,” he said in a recent interview at WebPT. He was surprised to find that, due to his lack of experience, it was actually pretty tough to land a spot as a volunteer PT. So when he got the opportunity to join a group of medical providers traveling to Haiti to provide services to amputees, he jumped at the chance. The group saw about 65 patients that first trip, and when they left, there was still a line outside of the gate.
Nearly a dozen visits later, Justin and his colleague, Morgan—who also has made several volunteer trips to Haiti—have turned their focus to creating a permanent solution to Haiti’s dire need for access to physical therapy care. “The hardest part about every trip is leaving,” Morgan said. “Seeing that line of people outside of the doorway makes you realize how much we can do. But we don’t want to keep being this Band-Aid. When we leave, the wound is still big; we’ve just covered it up for a few weeks.”
That’s where STAND—Sustainable Therapy and New Development—comes into the picture. As the project’s website explains, STAND’s mission is to “establish permanent access to orthopedic rehabilitative services in the country of Haiti through direct patient care and clinical training of its citizens.” And it’s the second part of that mission statement that truly differentiates STAND from other medical volunteer efforts in Haiti. “The goal is that our group won’t need to exist in 20 years,” Justin said. In other words, to borrow phrasing from the old saying, it’s not just about providing fish; it’s about teaching others how to fish so they can provide for themselves.
To that end, the group has partnered with a Haitian nursing school to begin building physical therapy education into the program’s curriculum. That way, graduating nurses will be capable of providing top-to-bottom care for their patients. STAND’s focus on training native medical providers to deliver culturally-appropriate physical therapy care is what makes the organization’s model sustainable—and scalable. “Once we’re successful in starting one [permanent clinic], we can take that model and start to apply it throughout Haiti—and even throughout the world,” Morgan said. “We can give it as a package to someone else. It could be replicated, and there are so many places around the world that could use PTs. This is just one.”
And that need is much more immediate in countries like Haiti, where the vast majority of people make their livelihoods performing some type of manual labor. “Here [in the US], if you hurt your back, you take a week off from work until you feel better,” Justin said. “But there, if you hurt your back, you can’t go to the farm, which means you can’t eat—and your family can’t eat.” Essentially, in Haitian society, movement is a basic need—just like food, water, and shelter. “Their whole life is physical activity, and when they can’t do that, life stops,” Justin continued.
But it’s not just workers who line up at the clinic door and wait patiently for their chance to receive PT treatment—though Justin and Morgan have dozens of success stories from patients who fit that profile (including one particularly ecstatic man who immediately dropped to the ground and busted out a set of push-ups upon realizing his pain and stiffness were gone). Some of their most memorable patients are the little old ladies they’ve affectionately dubbed the “dancing grandmas”—elderly women who shuffle in hunched and inflexible and, after receiving one session’s worth of physical therapy, literally boogie their way back home.
Through their experiences with these patients, Justin and Morgan have witnessed the true power of their profession in a way they never would be able to at home. “It’s such a life-changing experience,” Justin said. “It changes the way you think and feel about everything—in a good way.” Morgan has discovered a newfound faith in her skills and instincts as a therapist. “It’s really empowering,” she said. “It’s made me push my patients a little more in the states because I trust myself more.”
As they start putting their plan for establishing a permanent clinic in motion, they will be looking for a team of volunteers to take with them—and they’re encouraging anyone who’s interested to reach out, regardless of whether they have previous volunteer experience. “We don’t care about experience,” Justin said. “Volunteers can be new grads all the way up to retired PTs. The only thing that matters is that you work hard, you’re good at your job, and you’re open-minded.” (If you’re interested in getting involved, fill out the form on this page.)
They’ve already cleared one major hurdle to making their dream a reality: recently, Justin and Morgan finalized the lease for the building that will serve as STAND’s first permanent clinic location. Now, they’re working on filling it with therapy equipment. Of course, as anyone in the PT business knows, none of that comes cheap—and so far, the majority of the necessary funding has come out of Justin’s and Morgan’s personal savings. “We really have our hearts in it,” Morgan said. “We’re invested in Haiti. When you’re there, working with these people, they become part of your personal life—part of your family. So we feel like we’re helping our family.” Eventually, they hope to get more people behind the project and—hopefully—drum up more financial support. (On that note, those interested in contributing can do so here.)
So, while Haiti might seem a world away, it’s a shining example of how meaningful the PT profession really is—and a compelling reminder of the life-changing power physical therapists wield in their own communities and across the globe.
Have you ever contributed to a PT volunteer effort abroad? If not, would you consider doing so? If so, what was your experience like? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.