By Marianne T. Puhalla
Staff Writer, Misericordia University
All you have to do is ask, and occupational therapy (OT) Professor Joseph Cipriani, Ed.D., O.T.R./L., will talk at length about a first-of-its-kind OT collaboration in Jamaica and how far beyond his expectations his students went during a specially designed service-learning trip to the island nation in May.
It was not a typical mission trip. Upper-level OT students had to apply and be accepted into a three-credit class that Dr. Cipriani designed specifically around the one-week trip. Most importantly, Dr. Cipriani did a pre-assessment visit to the region early in the semester and made contact with caregivers at the Mustard Seed Communities, an organization that operates homes for severely disabled children and adults across Jamaica and around the world.
“I did a preliminary trip and toured many of the Mustard Seed sites with Therapy Missions, an organization of therapists who volunteer their services around the world,” Dr. Cipriani explained. “From a therapy perspective, what made this trip different was that we took the opportunity to ask the caregivers in Jamaica what we could do to help, and developed plans of action to address particular issues involving specific residents and groups of residents even before we left. It was very collaborative and designed to address long-term needs and provide training based on our students’ clinical and theoretical knowledge.”
From a pool of 25 applicants, the students selected included 2015 graduate John Ignatovich, Forty Fort; fourth-year students Amanda Casem, Mountain Top; Kristi Cianfichi, Moscow; Jamie Opela, Binghamton, New York, and Maria Weidemoyer, Perkiomenville; and juniors Kerrie Hall, Lynbrook, New York; Deirdre Stevens, Schenectady, New York, and Mary Boyle, Fairfield, Connecticut. Assistant Professor Jennifer Dessoye, O.T.R./L., accompanied the group as a specialist in pediatric OT.
While in class, the students studied Jamaica inside and out, looking at, among other things, the culture, dialects, family structure and health care needs of the island nation, where there are only 12 certified occupational therapists to provide services to 3 million residents.
The students spent time during the later weeks of the semester designing and creating equipment and therapy aids to take with them based on Dr. Cipriani’s observations. One in particular, a sensory stimulation mat created by Casem and Cianfichi, was designed to help severely disabled children with limited movement feel sensations, such as touching a rope and seeing themselves in a mirror – that healthy children experience in their everyday lives. Weidemoyer created a V-shaped sensory box to help give children access to sensory stimulation while being securely supported by staff in an upright position.
Upon arriving in Jamaica in late May, the students were not only immersed in the culture, they experienced an intensive interaction with therapy assistants and the large number of severely disabled children that are cared for in the Mustard Seed homes. For all involved, the learning was amazingly eye opening, offered unparalleled clinical experiences, and planted in the students the seeds of how they, as individuals, can help address global health care needs one patient at a time.
“This experience showed our students that there is more to OT than the fancy, new-century equipment they have been trained to use,” offered Dr. Dessoye. “These children are severely disabled and have no iPads or fancy wheelchairs – what they need is help with feeding and the other very basic skills of daily life. Our students needed to go back to the fundamentals of basic therapy and be creative in their approach.”
The students exceeded expectations in accepting the challenge.
“Working at the Mustard Seed Communities was such an incredible experience,” said Casem, who had the satisfaction of seeing the sensory mat she designed being used to help young children. “Not only did we work with some amazing kids, but we presented an in-service for the staff, educated them on some therapeutic techniques, and brought and made some equipment that they do not have access to. As the first of hopefully many annual trips of our OT department to Mustard Seed, I believe we got the ball rolling to really make a difference and change the kids’ lives for the better,” she added.
“Not only does our (Misericordia’s) connection with Mustard Seed benefit the kids, but I learned a lot as an OT student while we were there,” Casem emphasized. “I was able to gain hands-on practice of the skills that I learned in the classroom, and even though we were faced with such limited resources and equipment, I learned how to be more adaptable. Learning skills through experiences like this will help me for the rest of my life as a future OT.”
Ignatovich was the only graduate of the group, as he was awarded a master’s degree in OT at Misericordia’s 89th Commencement just a week before the trip. “My experience in Jamaica was a humbling one,” Ignatovich offered, citing the joy brought on simply in sharing a smile with a young boy. “I learned how the basic necessities in life, such as friendship and culture, could be so important for quality of life. As far as my career as an OT goes, this experience helped me to understand that I can really build a rapport with anyone. It doesn’t matter the culture or religion of the person … we are all human beings. I look forward to the future in finding ways to improve the quality of life with any patient I work with.”
Immediately following the trip, Ignatovich began his career as an occupational therapist at Wayne Memorial Hospital, Honesdale. He plans to continue his education at Misericordia and earn a doctorate degree in occupational therapy.
“Since Amanda (Casem) and I had been to Jamaica before, we knew a little bit about what to expect, but this experience was still very different from our previous one,” added Weidemoyer. “Because this experience was focused on OT, we had a different frame of mind. We had projects and things to focus on before we went down, and when we got there we were so determined to work on everything that we saw.”
Weidemoyer says that one of the hardest parts of the trip was recognizing that their time in Jamaica was temporary and their work may not be continued after they left. “This was their everyday life, and we weren’t about to completely change it after only one week,” she added. “Even with this in mind, every smile we put on the face of a child was worth the anxiety, fear, excitement, sadness, and hard work that we endured before, during, and after the trip. Our professional lives are now changed forever. We now know that our practice area as OTs does not only lie within the borders of the United States – we are proud globally practicing OTs, and we can’t turn back now.”
Dr. Cipriani explains that based on the successes seen during the Misericordia trip, the efforts in Jamaica will soon involve additional universities that are being brought together by the occupational therapists who volunteer at Therapy Missions. It is an opportunity to be a part of a unique educational collaboration that he said was previously unheard of on the island nation. Skype sessions involving OT students and faculty at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan; Georgia Regents University, Augusta, Georgia, and Misericordia have been held. The plan is to have each university adopt two specific Mustard Seed homes in Jamaica and visit each one annually with the hope to improve the continuity of education of the Mustard Seed staff and care of the residents.
Donations are welcome to help defray the cost of future trips. For information on the Misericordia University Jamaican OT project, contact Dr. Cipriani at firstname.lastname@example.org, (570) 674-6412.
For more information about Misericordia University, please call (570) 674-6400 or log on to www.misericordia.edu. Founded and Sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy in 1924, Misericordia University is Luzerne County’s first four-year college and offers 34 degree programs on the graduate and undergraduate levels in full- and part-time formats. Misericordia University ranks in the top tier of the Best Regional Universities – North category of U.S. News and World Report’s 2015 edition of Best Colleges and was designated a 2015 Best Northeastern College by the Princeton Review.