Written by Sharon Smith, PT and director of Carolina PT Northeast location
You probably know that physical therapists work in outpatient clinics and hospitals. You probably also know that they go to people’s homes. But what if you are of Quechua descent and live on the side of the Andes Mountains in a house with a dirt floor 9000 feet above sea level? It’s a little trickier then! Once a year a group of medical and non-medical people from Riverland Hills Baptist Church in Irmo, SC will come to your house to provide physical therapy and other medical services.
At any one time our group consists of physical therapists, physicians, nurses, and dentists. We work with local medical clinics in the bigger villages to identify those in need of medical services in the more outlying, rural areas. Some of these people walk 5 hours just to see a doctor at one of the medical clinics set up in the larger villages! And we complain if we have to wait 15 minutes!
As a physical therapist, I am given a list of patients to see and a local guide to take me to the homes along with a translator. By “take “me to the homes, I mean we will hike up and down the Andes Mountains to various villages. At 9000 feet you can get a little out of breath, but the locals just laugh at us breathing so heavy and having to stop and rest as they literally run up and down the mountains in flip flops or barefooted.
Most of the patients we see have orthopedic problems like back pain, shoulder pain, and knee pain. Most of the people in the mountains are farmers and the main crop is potatoes. Since they live on a mountain their fields are not flat but rather sit on the side of the mountain at a pretty steep incline. They don’t have John Deere tractors either. It’s homemade tools and true muscle power. The women carry their vegetables, babies, even little lambs in cloth mantas on their backs. So, you can imagine that over time joints start to wear out.
We teach them how to perform their work duties using good posture and ways to put less stress on their joints and backs. We also teach them exercises to help stretch out tight muscles and strengthen weak ones. They are so appreciative that someone has come to their home to help them, they often want to “pay us.” We of course take no payment for what we do there but we have been given eggs and potatoes as “payment.” And of course they all want to prepare food for us. Yes, I have eaten guinea pig!
We also do scoliosis screenings in the village schools and hold health campaigns in the villages where we teach basic hygiene, back care and dental care. As we are addressing their physical needs, our non-medical team members, along with local missionaries, are addressing their spiritual needs by telling Bible stories and sharing the Gospel. We are often told we are a blessing to the Quechua people in the Andes Mountains, but the real truth is they are a blessing to us!