UC Clermont students return to Mexico to provide medical care

Trip fosters collaboration, offers critical physical therapy to those in need

This spring, five students from the University of Cincinnati Clermont College landed in Mexico — ready to make a difference.

Dillon Bessler, Russ Burns, Catherine Harrington, Sidney Marra and Alyssa Turner are current students and recent graduates in the college’s physical therapist assistant program. They joined Assistant Professor Carolyn Shisler and UC College of Allied Health Sciences faculty and students to provide needed medical treatment to patients in Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, Mexico, from April 27 through May 4.

UC PT students work with a patient in Mexico

Rachel Walters (left), a third-year student in UC’s doctor of physical therapy, and Alyssa Turner, a 2024 graduate of UC Clermont’s physical therapist assistant associate degree, work with a patient in Mexico.

UC Team Mexico, as the endeavor is called, partners with the health branch of the Palace Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Palace Resorts. Students and faculty members treat resort employees, their families and members of the public in the areas of physical therapy, occupational therapy, medical lab science and audiology.

“Good health care is so hard to get in Mexico,” said Shisler. “If you’re wealthy in Mexico, you can get high quality health care; if not, it’s tough. Many conditions go untreated or undertreated as a result.”

In Mexico, audiology and physical therapy health care are difficult to access; occupational therapy to help patients with work-related health concerns doesn’t exist. Medical lab science is important for early identification of high cholesterol, blood sugar and high blood pressure because hypertension, heart disease and diabetes occur at a high percentage in Mexico.

Students from UC’s College of Allied Health Sciences have made the trek to Mexico each year for nearly a decade, but this was just the second trip open to UC Clermont physical therapist assistant students, and the first time for occupational therapy. The students were supervised by Shisler as well as two faculty from UC’s doctor of physical therapy program. Students received course credit, and costs were covered by UC International and UC Clermont.

Alyssa Turner, who graduated from the physical therapist assistant program in April, chose to take part in the service trip because she heard about the impact the experience had on students who participated last year.

UC PT students work with a patient in Mexico

Sara Shinn (left), a third-year student in UC’s doctor of physical therapy, and Russ Burns, a 2024 graduate of UC Clermont’s physical therapist assistant associate degree, help a patient with physical therapy exercises in Mexico.

"I saw the service trip as a chance for personal growth and to gain a broader life perspective,” Turner said. “I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and learn from new experiences and challenges, as well as impact lives in a place with less access to health care than in the U.S.”

Upon arriving in Mexico, the team immediately got to work screening and treating patients. Physical therapy students and faculty provided home exercise programs and orthotics, if needed. Interpreters provided translation between the clinicians and patients, most of whom did not speak English. The team also spent a day volunteering at a foster home for approximately 100 local children.

“We have to provide interventions that the person can continue on their own because there most likely will be no follow up,” Shisler said. “Students were amazed at how welcoming and grateful people were for help. The experience helped them appreciate our own health care system, even with its flaws.”

She also noticed a tremendous amount of professional and academic growth in her students, noting that they were able to adapt quickly to a fast-paced environment and the ability to provide skilled treatment interventions with the help of an interpreter.

Shisler was most excited, however, about the collaboration between the physical therapy and physical therapist assistant students, something UC has been focused on improving at the grassroots level.

“Many practicing PTs do not fully understand the education and role of the PTA in the clinical setting,” said Shisler. “Throughout both programs, we offer opportunities for collaboration to grow the respect, appreciation and communication within the PT-PTA team to make our graduates more workforce ready. This is important not only for the profession but for our patients as the outcomes are better when there is better collaboration on both sides.”

I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and learn from new experiences and challenges, as well as impact lives in a place with less access to health care than in the U.S.

Alyssa Turner 2024 UC Clermont physical therapist assistant graduate

Turner said teamwork among the UC students was “unmatched.”

“The team in Cancun was amazing. The people on this trip were there because they wanted to help people and make an impact on their lives,” said Turner. “I also saw the excitement of the people in Cancun when we got there because the UC team made such a great impression in past years — they knew they were going to get the help they needed when we showed up.” 

Shisler, who led UC Clermont PTA students on a Mexican trip last November for the first time, hopes to offer the international opportunity each year and already has had interest in future trips from potential students now applying to the program. And for students and new graduates like Turner, the service trip offers one more hands-on way to sharpen the skills they’ve learned in the classroom.

“I love physical therapy because it allows me to make a real difference in people's lives,” Turner said. “I’m able to help patients regain their mobility and improve their quality of life. Being part of their recovery journey and witnessing their progress is what makes this job truly special for me.”

To learn more about UC Clermont’s physical therapist assistant program, visit ucclermont.edu/pta.

Featured image at top: Physical therapy group from UC’s Team Mexico in Playa del Carmen, from left: Sara Shinn, Russell Burns, Alyssa Turner, Catherine Harrington, Britaney Dyer and Rachel Walters. Photos/Carolyn Shisler

About UC Clermont

UC Clermont College is in Clermont County on 91 beautifully wooded acres in Batavia Township. The college is an accredited, open-access institution offering more than 60 programs and degrees. UC Clermont is part of the nationally recognized University of Cincinnati. For more information, call 513-556-5400 or visit www.ucclermont.edu. 

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