A Dream Vacation

Prior to 2016, when people talked about a vacation in the Dominican Republic (DR), I pictured my toes in the sand and Caribbean music lulling me into complete relaxation, where thoughts of complex rehabilitation technology (CRT) were simply not possible. Don’t get me wrong — I love my job and this industry. But everyone needs to take a break from reality for their own well-being!

Angie Kiger with client

Angie Kiger with a new friend.

So what is the mental image I get when thinking of a week’s vacation in the DR these days? I excitedly picture myself volunteering alongside colleagues and other health professionals, many whom have become friends. Our goal: To provide a lasting, positive impact on individuals with disabilities through equipment and educational seminars for therapists, teachers and caregivers from all over the country through a program called Propel DR.

What Is Propel DR?

Propel DR can be traced back to 2002, when one of its founders, Anna Harper, PT, MPT, was a student at Wake Forest University. For spring break Anna went on a week-long mission trip to the DR through Mission Emanuel (http://missionemanuel.org), which has a mission site just outside of Santo Domingo in the town of Cielo. After finishing PT school, Anna and her husband worked on the summer staff of Mission Emanuel for five weeks. Anna met several children with special needs, and the seeds for Propel DR were planted in her heart.

Clinicians perform mat eval in DR

Over the next several years, Anna expanded her network of connections in the DR and recruited two coworkers from the hospital where she worked in Dallas to join her quest to provide better services to ­individuals with disabilities. Deanna Lusty, PT, MPT, ATP/SMS, took her first trip to the DR in 2009 and helped Anna open a therapy clinic as a part of Mission Emanuel’s medical facility. In 2011 Laura Rogers, PT, DPT, accompanied Anna and Deanna. That year, the three PTs began a relationship with the Association of Dominican Rehabilitation (ADR), a large medical campus primarily focused on rehabilitation. ADR offers physician services, therapy services (PT, OT and speech therapy) for children and adults, orthotics and prosthetics, equipment technicians, and school (pre-school through vocational school).

Seating team with happy result

Since then, Project DR has expanded to work with the Centro Atencion Integral para la Discapacidad (Center for Integrated Services for the Disabled [CAID]) in addition to ADR.

Anna, Deanna and Laura determined early that to make a lasting impact, training and education needed to be at the forefront of the program. Long-term goals are to build a self-sustaining wheelchair provision model for pediatric patients and to provide access to continuing education seminars for Dominican professionals.

Propel DR continues to evolve. In 2017 the lecturing team comprised three physicians (pulmonology, physical medicine/rehabilitation, neurology), five PTs, and one OT. Throughout the week, more than 700 Dominicans were in attendance! The main rehabilitation center closed its clinics for three days to allow staff to be fully present in the courses. The Dominicans are seeking, appreciating, and most importantly, applying the knowledge they acquire each year.

ATP with boy in wheelchair

Propel DR relies completely on donations of equipment from the United States. While over the years there have been generous donations of new equipment from manufacturers, the vast majority of equipment is used. Donations are gathered throughout the year, primarily in Dallas [see Editor’s Note]. The largest expense by far is shipping equipment from the United States to the DR. Each year, the all-volunteer Propel DR team works to not only coordinate shipments of equipment, but also to raise funds needed to transport the items.

On the first day of clinic, equipment is cleaned and organized by the U.S. team. Over the following four days, families bring children from near and far to the clinic to be evaluated for a seating system and wheeled mobility device. The U.S. team — including veteran therapists, rehabilitation technology suppliers and technicians, almost all of whom are ATPs and/or Seating and Mobility Specialists (SMS) — works side by side with DR therapists and technicians.

When a new client is brought into clinic, the multidisciplinary team identifies the child’s needs via a thorough evaluation, then fabricates the best equipment based on parts and pieces available. It is common for Deanna to remind us to “Use our Dominican brains” to optimize the items we do have rather than get caught up in what we would have access to if we were in the United States. There is nothing more exhilarating than providing a child with independent mobility for the first time, or giving a mother a safe way to transport her teenage son with postural deformities instead of carrying him from room to room.

The U.S. team has grown from four members in 2011 to 20 in 2017. More volunteers and donations has meant that more children receive custom CRT equipment. In 2017 our team provided more than 50 children with equipment. Since our last trip, at least four children have been evaluated by a team of Dominicans, including a PT, an OT, a wheelchair technologist, and a social worker. Each child was provided with a custom “new to them” wheelchair fabricated from equipment from last year’s trip.

Dominican Republic volunteers with donations

Changing My Perspective

One of my favorite aspects of my job as Clinical Strategy and Education Manager with Sunrise Medical is collaborating with professionals from all over the world. I met Deanna in 2012 at a meeting in Colorado. Since then, we’ve had several ­opportunities to work together. During training at Deanna’s clinic in December 2015, I met Laura. After the training, Deanna and Laura were reflecting on their trip to the DR in October, just as a couple of individuals from Numotion and National Seating & Mobility (NSM) who participate in the trip happened to be walking through the doors. Hearing how Propel DR trips re-energized them personally and professionally led me to inquire about taking Deanna up on the invitation she had extended me for years.

A month later, I received an e-mail with the trip date. My Caribbean vacation was going to be spent teaching seminars to professionals who did not speak English and working in a pediatric wheelchair clinic with therapists, physicians, CRT suppliers and technicians, most of whom I did not know. As I landed in the DR for the first time, I had doubts about whether this trip would be the escape from reality I was seeking. The activities and people I would be spending time with made this seem like just another work trip.

ATPs with happy client

This year, as I plan my third trip as a member of Propel DR, I can honestly report I am at a greater level of peace than I am while on traditional vacations. I’ve not only had the chance to teach educational seminars and “wrench on chairs” again, but I have also put my pediatric recreation therapy skills to use by adapting toys and creating games for children during the long process of evaluation to creation to fitting the custom mobility device.

In addition, I have the chance to work with folks who on any given work day I may only perceive as a referring therapist, customer, prescribing physician, etc. No matter what part of the United States we come from, our educational background, or who we work for, while in the DR we are all members of the same team! I can’t wait to go back in a few weeks to see the progress since last year and continue our mission of creating a positive and sustainable impact.

Want to participate? Provide ­financial support to cover the costs of shipping donations. Donate new or gently used CRT equipment. Or serve alongside of us on our trips. Contact PropelDR@gmail.com for the specifics.

Editor’s Note: Volunteers in 2017 included Mala Aaronson (NSM/Boston), Bruce Cowley (Numotion/Dallas), Miguel Perez (Numotion/Dallas), Heather Pinkerton (Numotion/Dallas), and Ron Seely (NSM/Dallas).

Smiling child

Aaronson added, “Due to the amazing support of NSM this year, I have been able to collect equipment and funds from the East Coast to add to those coming from Dallas. I have had an overwhelmingly positive response from local clients as well as manufacturer partners, with an additional 25-30 wheelchairs and several cartons of seating products. A huge thanks to Stealth Products, Permobil USA, Sunrise Medical, Ki Mobility, Motion Concepts and Rehab Marketing for their donations, as well as NSM for providing transport of all of this equipment.”

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