Students of physical therapy provide therapy to migrant farm workers in South Georgia

Sophie-Ann McCulloch

ATLANTA, GA — Farmer labourers, lined up in rows, stand in the field during a hot South Georgia July night. The laborers are waiting for a short period of individual care from third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy students, who may be the only healthcare they get all year.

The clinic is part of the interdisciplinary, multi-university Farm Worker Family Health Program, which is sponsored locally by the Ellenton Clinic. Physical therapy students have made Moultrie, Georgia their usual venue for two decades. These employees earn their living doing physical labor in the scorching sun with no perks.

It also evaluates the growth of migrant workers' children. More than sixty children move through stations at an elementary school where physical therapists execute one-legged jumps, pushups and other activities to test a child's gross and fine motor skills.

“The kids had a lot of fun [doing the evaluations], and most of them scored at least average or above in motor skills,” said Tiffany Greenwood, a third-year DPT student.

In her PT experience in Moultrie, she most loved evaluating the youngsters.

“I want to work in pediatric PT,” Greenwood said. She is a former children's dance instructor who has returned to school in order to pursue a new job.

Following a boxed lunch provided by a local church and a little nap or study period, the PT students relocated to locations near the fields where the adult farmworkers worked. For four nights, from 6 to 11 p.m., the students treated around 110 individuals. Workers came in for treatment after eating dinner and taking a shower, seeking relief from the aches and pains associated with their repetitive motion employment.

“We evaluated them for orthopedic issues such as back, shoulder and knee pain,” Greenwood said.

Under the supervision of the faculty, the PT students identified soft-tissue injuries and joint pain and treated them with manual therapy, exercise and, where necessary, a back or knee brace. The kids also demonstrated exercises that could provide relief to the workers.

“These workers start their day at 5 a.m. and work until 6 or 7 p.m. most days,” Greenwood said. “It was humbling to help them with their orthopedic issues.”

“They [the farmworkers] work so hard for us, so it was nice to do something for them,” said DPT student Alex Maeder.

Maeder said she learnt a lot from the instructors and welcomed the chance to increase efficiency in worker care.

Jodan Garcia, PT teacher and trip coordinator, stated that the planning for the 2021 service-learning opportunity was different from previous years. Except for physical therapy students, who were specifically requested, the program accepted fifty percent fewer student health practitioners.

“COVID protocols made treatment more challenging,” Garcia said, “especially communications since we were all wearing masks.”

Kimberly Morelli, D.P.T. program director and trip co-coordinator, said COVID compelled the faculty and student team to become more structured.

“The interdisciplinary faculty team wrote a fifteen-step standard operating procedure manual before the trip, something we needed to do but hadn’t made time to get it on paper,” she said.

The trip was ruled by flexibility, and the students reacted to the multiple challenges and adjustments better than any prior group of PT students. The students involved in the Moultrie-based project elected to go on the trip, and several expressed a desire to serve again as professionals following graduation.

“The whole clinic was very efficient, possibly because students were used to adapting because of the hybrid learning model implemented during COVID restrictions,” Morelli said.

“The Farm Worker Family Health Program matches who we, Georgia State University, are as a community,” Garcia said. “Caring for those who are forgotten and underserved.”

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