Migrant farmworkers and their families give physical therapy students one-of-a-kind experience

In a rural farming community in Southwest Georgia, underneath the hot midsummer sun, Brenau University physical therapy students pick vegetables alongside migrant farmworkers.

For the migrant workers, this is just another day in the life of continually stooping, reaching, picking, heavy lifting and moving — all of which take a toll on their bodies.

Alex Bates, a physical therapy student from Pittsburgh, Pa., helps a migrant farmworker stretch out a sore leg during the Farmworker Family Health Program in Moultrie, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

That’s where Brenau comes in. The Department of Physical Therapy this year joined the Farmworker Family Health Program, an interprofessional, culturally immersive, service-learning experience founded by Emory University.

Vital health care is delivered to farmworkers and their children for two weeks every June in a farming community near Moultrie, Georgia, by students from Emory’s Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, University of Georgia College of Pharmacy, Clayton State University and Central Georgia Technical College Departments of Dental Hygiene, and Georgia State University and Brenau’s Departments of Physical Therapy.

Eleven third-year students from Brenau’s doctor of physical therapy program participated for the first time this year, according to Jean-Marie Peters, a third-year DPT student from Marietta, Georgia.

“There are two parts of the trip: In the morning, we go into the schools and work with the kids in summer programs, screening them and making sure they aren’t falling behind developmentally,” Peters says. “Personally, I’ve really enjoyed the second part: coming at night to the farmworkers. It’s been eye-opening, and it’s something that not a lot of people know about and get to see.”

Brenau physical therapy students speak to migrant farmworkers through the use of a translator to help diagnose and treat job-related injuries during the Farmworker Family Health Program in Moultrie, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Peters and her classmate, Amber Holmes from Gainesville, Georgia, said the most challenging part of the program is the language barrier. Most of the migrant workers speak Spanish and very little English.

“It’s been very difficult, but it’s been fun,” Holmes says. “We have been entirely immersed in their culture, in their language. We’re getting to understand our patients by their body language and the things they aren’t saying. That’s been the most amazing thing to me. They don’t understand what I’m saying, I don’t understand what they’re saying, but we both know that I am here for the betterment of their lives.”

Holmes says their objective has been to provide not just physical therapy, but education for the patients, better techniques for the physical work they do, and ways to make their lives easier and their pain more manageable.

The majority of the workers experience low back pain and radiating arm pain from continually reaching, according to Peters.

“A lot of these workers don’t know the biomechanics, how to use their bodies correctly to lift, and that’s what they do all day, every day,” Peters says. “We’ve evaluated their lifting, and so many of them are completely bent over, not using their legs, their lower extremity muscles. And we’ve been working on their shoulders, too, to loosen them up.”

Holmes says work-related pains are normal in any society or profession.

Chloe Cecchini, a physical therapy student from Warner Robbins, Ga., gives a shoulder massage to help relieve tension for a migrant farmworker during the Farmworker Family Health Program in Moultrie, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“If you’re sitting too long at a desk, you’re going to have issues,” she says. “They’re doing a lot of farmwork, and they have those work-related aches and pains that we’re trying to treat.”

Dr. Judith Wold, director of the farmworker program that is part of the Lillian Carter Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility at Emory, has been part of the program since it began 25 years ago at Georgia State, where she was a nursing professor. It started with six nursing students and today has 105 participants.

Wold says the contributions Brenau brings to the program are numerous.

“The migrant farmworkers are the hardest working individuals in this country, and they are the lowest paid and the least appreciated,” she says. “As you might imagine, picking vegetables all day long — stooping, picking, bending, lifting, weeding, all of it — takes a toll on the body. The average lifespan of a farmworker is 48-49 years. Most of these guys are young and healthy, but when you put the strain of 12 hours a day out in the fields in the hot sun on your body, physical therapy becomes very, very important.”

The 11 participating students were joined by physical therapy professors Dr. Robert Cantu and Dr. Tammy Buck, who is a pediatric physical therapist.

“A pediatric physical therapist is something we’ve not had before,” Wold says. “Dr. Buck has been a real help diagnosing some of the problems with the children. That is a really valuable addition to our skill set here.”

The program not only benefits the farmworkers and their families, but it is a beneficial experience for the students, too.

“I’ve been humbled,” Holmes says. “Just driving around, seeing their community, understanding that this is their livelihood — everything they do, they do it so they can survive, bring their families and have a better life. I think that’s very inspiring.”

Additional reporting by AJ Reynolds

Amber Holmes, a physical therapy student from Austell, Ga, works with a migrant farmworker to help with job-related pain during the Farmworker Family Health Program in Moultrie, Ga. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

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