Morgan Horne ’20 DPT says she’ll never forget the island of St. Lucia or a girl named Ebony, both of which changed her life and the way she sees her future as a physical therapist.
Horne, a first-year Doctor of Physical Therapy student at University of Lynchburg, was in St. Lucia with DPT students and faculty from January 6 through 13. It was the third time the DPT program has sent students and faculty to the eastern Caribbean nation, which has a population of about 178,000 but just one pediatric physical therapist.
“There are no physical therapy services in their schools and one pediatric PT on the island that might visit the schools one time a year,” Dr. Lori Mize, an assistant professor in Lynchburg’s DPT program, said. “There’s a huge gap in the provision of services in the special education schools. There are five schools that are only for special needs [children] and a couple of them have students with very, very severe disabilities.”
In the schools, Dr. Mize, Dr. Terry Leahy, and their DPT students — some first-year and others second-year — assessed the students’ physical capabilities and then recommended therapeutic activities that could help the students to their teachers and parents. It was at one of these schools that Horne met Ebony, a severely disabled 13-year-old girl.
“Her mom drove her in so that we could assess her and treat her that day,” Horne said, adding that because of her condition Ebony didn’t attend school regularly. “She essentially had no gross motor function and had to be carried everywhere she went. Her mom carried her in and laid her on a mat for us to treat her, which was the position she was in all day, every day. Her mother didn’t bring her to school because she was afraid that she would fall over and hurt herself because she didn’t have the strength to sit up on her own.”
What Ebony desperately needed was a wheelchair, which the DPT program was able to provide, thanks to a partnership it has with Virginia-based nonprofit Children’s Assistive Technology Service. CATS provided several pieces of mobility and other equipment for the St. Lucia trip, including walkers and wheelchairs.
The difference the wheelchair made was immediately obvious. “She instantly was smiling and looking around, because this was the first time that she was able to see the world in this way and interact with the environment around her,” Horne said. “Her mother pushed her out in her new wheelchair, smiling ear to ear. It was an amazing experience to see both Ebony and her mom so happy because of the services and equipment that we were able to provide.”
Working with Ebony and the other children on St. Lucia convinced Horne that she wanted to pursue a career in pediatric physical therapy, working specifically with special needs children and babies with developmental delays.
“Children just bring me so much joy, especially those who need special attention, and I love to watch them achieve new things,” she said. “It’s awesome to see them be able to enjoy and achieve things that able-bodied kids would do and the rewarding feeling it brings to see the child, their parents, and those around them.”
Horne wasn’t alone in her experience.
“A lot of the students felt like this was a life-changing trip for them,” Dr. Mize said. “One of the students said, ‘Before I came, I was afraid of students with special needs because I’d never experienced that. I didn’t know what to do. It intimidated me. Now, I realize they’re just people who have various needs and I’m not afraid anymore.’”
On a personal level, Dr. Mize said she’s seen “significant improvement” in some children since the DPT program started visiting St. Lucia in 2016. She credits teachers, many of whom have no formal special education training, with following through on the program’s recommendations.
“One little boy stands out,” she said. “When we first came and met him, he was barely able to walk. He fell all the time. Now, he’s running without any issues, without falling. Now, we’re having to focus our interventions on something different and progress that, which is beautiful.”
Shortly after returning to the States from St. Lucia, the DPT students and faculty got some heartbreaking news: Ebony had died following a seizure. “We were all distraught, as this little girl had truly changed our lives and we were grateful for the time we got to spend with her and her mother,” Horne said.
But the bad news was accompanied by a bit of happiness.
“Her mother explained that after she got her wheelchair, over the weekend, Ebony was able to play and interact with her environment,” Horne said.
“Her mother was able to watch and enjoy this sight from her front porch. This story truly changed my life. Even though Ebony didn’t get to enjoy her wheelchair for long, the last memories we have of her … are seeing her sweet face, full of joy, interacting with the world around her. The wheelchair was truly preparing her for a better place, where she is now, running and laughing and playing with the other kids, without her wheelchair.”