“Me Voy!” Simple Devices Bring Movement, Play and Exploration to the Dominican Republic

Published on in CHOP News

Jennifer supporting Johan walkingTwice a year, five or six employees of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) are selected to serve as Global Health Allies. This unique team, which represents disciplines across the Hospital, spends four months preparing for an intensive week in the Dominican Republic (DR), applying their expertise in pediatric healthcare and collaborating with community health promoters. Community health promoters are women who are leaders in their communities in the DR, who serve as advocates and role models to educate their peers on preventative care and health best practices.

Responding to critical health needs of Consuelo, a low-resourced, rural town in the Dominican Republic, the Global Health Allies have often provided physical therapy (PT) services and education. PT plays an important role in global settings where thousands of children with physical disabilities and developmental delays need skilled support and training to optimize their potential to move, play and live. Health workers in settings like the DR are highly motivated to help these children, but sometimes lack the training and equipment needed to provide these services.

“At CHOP, we’re able to refer our patients to other professionals with expertise in any specialty,” says Helen Milligan, PT, MPT, Physical Therapist and member of the June 2016 Allies group. “But patients in resource-limited communities don’t have this opportunity, making this work critically important. Just a few weeks of access to experts who understand the needs of these children has the potential to truly change lives.”

Defining the need

During the June 2016 Allies visit, Milligan met several children in Consuelo with developmental delays. During visits to their homes, she assessed their needs and spoke with family members about the limitations their disabilities had imposed on them. Then the wheels started turning. How could she help?

Milligan returned to Philadelphia with the needs of the children fresh in her mind. She coordinated with the Center for Rehabilitation at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to find three gently used wheelchairs and two walkers that would allow these children to sit with support or learn to walk, and allow their parents to take previously homebound children on walks outside. This equipment would make the journey to the Dominican Republic on the following Allies trip in November 2016.

Returning with help

Jennifer with Genesis smilingPhysical Therapist Jennifer Pensto, PT, MSPT, was selected to continue Milligan’s work on the November trip. She returned to the homes of the children Milligan had met, but this time with a walker or wheelchair for them to keep. Penston adjusted the equipment on the spot to the child’s size and position. She also taught parents, family members and neighbors how to use the equipment to ensure that a sustainable support system was in place. 

“Wheelchairs and walkers are so available in the United States but so very rare in the Dominican Republic,” says Penston. “The Global Health Allies program made it possible to put this equipment in the hands of patients who need assistive devices for support and mobility. These are simple tools that we take for granted in the US, but which give children improved quality of life, reduce their risk of illness and deformities, and let them explore their environment more effectively and appropriately.”

Life-changing breakthroughs

The impact of Penston’s visits was immediate. Some parents responded with joyful tears as they realized the effect that these devices would have on their child’s and family’s lives.

“Gregorio loves to be outside, but it’s been so hard to get him out,” said the mother of one 10-year-old boy. “Now I can take him for walks!” And indeed, when the group returned to adjust Gregorio’s chair the next day, he and his mother were just returning from a walk around the neighborhood. “They were both so happy to be able to be out and about, it brought tears to my eyes,” says Penston. “It highlighted for me just how life-changing our efforts are for these families.”

Another little boy, Johan, is 2 ½ years old and has cerebral palsy. He’s young enough that he still has the potential to learn to walk – but to do this he needs the help of a walker. With Penston guiding him with the walker, and demonstrating to Johan’s family members how to help him, this grinning, radiant little boy took his first independent steps yelling, “Me voy!” (“I’m going!”). “He was so excited to be able to take himself out of the house, on his own two feet. “We walked for about 10 minutes and he didn’t want to stop, even though his legs were tired,” says Penston. “His smile was beautiful and contagious.”

The story was similar for Jesús and Genesis, two 10-year-olds who, like Gregorio, received wheelchairs for support and mobility, and for Maivelyn, 2, who received a walker to help her walk despite her blindness.

These are just a few examples of CHOP’s commitment to promoting health for all children, particularly those in the lowest-resource settings. “The Global Health Program makes me proud to be a part of Children’s Hospital.” says Milligan. “We have thousands of professionals here who have a huge range of expertise, experience and knowledge. We have access to the latest medical advances and research. And we have a responsibility to share these resources with the communities that need our help.”

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