Aspiring therapists gain credit and a new perspective helping patients in Mexico
MSU Denver’s partnership with a clinic founded by former Mexican President Vicente Fox provides hands-on learning opportunities.
What’s the most good you can do in five minutes?
That’s the question Juan Jose Andrade asked himself while working with patients in Centro de Rehabilitación Integral de San Miguel de Allende (CRISMA), a rehabilitation center three-and-a-half hours northwest of Mexico City.
He was one of four graduate and 11 undergraduate students from Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Health Institute who received hands-on experience and academic credit this summer thanks to a partnership with the community health resource and an anonymous donor who funded the students’ travel.
Located near a UNESCO historic site filled with examples of Mexican Baroque architecture, CRISMA was founded by former Mexican President Vicente Fox and his wife, Marta Sahagún. The partnership with MSU Denver began in 2019.
“This partnership provides (students) with practical experience and an opportunity to develop intercultural communication skills and learn about health topics not covered in the U.S.,” said Hope Szypulski, DNP, dean of the University’s College of Health and Human Sciences. “The personal transformation is one of the most valuable elements, though the relationships with the people and culture of Mexico will last a lifetime.”
Originally from Colombia, Juan Jose Andrade is committed to working with Latino patients. His skills are particularly needed in Colorado, where Spanish-speaking households were more than 20% less likely to visit a doctor than English-speaking ones.
“Communication is how we interact; it’s such a major part of our wellbeing,” Andrade said. “And when it comes to effective health care in Spanish-speaking communities, access and trust are so important.”
Clients, who largely travel by bus or shuttle from rural areas, come to CRISMA for a range of rehabilitative issues such as physical therapy, psychological services, speech therapy and the emerging practice of nutrition and occupational therapy.
As a graduate student in MSU Denver’s Speech-Language Pathology program, Andrade, 35, was drawn to the degree program because of its bilingual concentration option, the only one available in Colorado. And though the CRISMA facilities were a stark contrast from the comparatively resource-rich clinic on the Auraria campus he was used to, the compassion and ingenuity he experienced transcended language.
“What struck me was the thirst for knowledge and commitment to the community,” he said. “The therapists were very innovative. They used whatever they had to help people, without making excuses.”
The trip to CRISMA reinforced his career path, but it was also one fraught with risk. Andrade was undocumented and didn’t receive a green card until two days before his departure.
“I almost didn’t go because of immigration concerns,” he said. “I’m so grateful I did, though — participating is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
A safe environment
Cintia Cardenas was also part of the recent trip to CRISMA. She felt a deep connection to the work as well and described the trip as being the most unique experience she’s ever had, prompting a profound sense of connection to the clientele.
“My parents are from Mexico, so it was emotional for me. It’s like a home, like working with family,” she said.
The Psychological Sciences senior noted the experience helped her overcome impostor’s syndrome and solidify her career path. Cardenas worked with children and adults, building rapport and applying concepts she’d studied while the clinic’s staff and University faculty guided her, providing real-time feedback.
One client, Cardenas noted, was there for physical therapy. Wheelchair-bound, he would often isolate himself from others. On the days he participated in talk-therapy, it had a noticeable effect on his overall wellness.
“That’s when the connections struck me,” Cardenas said. “Whether it’s physical therapy, speech or psychology, it’s all about facing trauma in a safe environment. You can’t have one without the other, and when they’re combined, you really do see the progress.”
“A whole-person approach to care is huge,” said Christine Odell, Ph.D., professor in MSU Denver’s Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences. “We mirror that kind of approach in our curricula, so (CRISMA) is a natural fit.”
Prior to the CRISMA trip, Hayde Cardoza received certification from SPEAK OUT!, a program that helps people with Parkinson’s maintain their vocal abilities.
She quickly put it to use.
The graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology worked with a client who suffered from dysarthria (affecting motor function and speech) and dysphagia (swallowing).
“We worked on taking breaths together, rest-breathing… all the things we take for granted,” Cardoza said. “I was only able to meet with her twice, but by the end she was saying, ‘I got this, I know what I need to do.’”
In the U.S., advanced cognitive and neuromotor disorders such as Parkinson’s, ALS and traumatic-brain injuries are seen by specialized hospitals and providers, so it was eye-opening for Cardoza to treat these kinds of patients in a clinical setting.
The experience reaffirmed Cardoza’s desire to the help meet the need for bilingual services here at home. At a recent medical observation, she noted only two Spanish-speaking staff for a caseload of more than 400.
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She also learned from the tireless CRISMA staffers not to take resources for granted.
“Here we have regimented lesson plans, data sheets, all kinds of software,” Cardoza said. “The experience really helped me work on my cultural biases. Even if you might not have the same tools (at CRISMA), we’re still called to just go and do as much good as we can.”
Now that the program has resumed after a hiatus due to Covid-19, Odell hopes it will continue.
“It’s such a transformative venture for students to see a different perspective in a place many have roots,” she said. “Hopefully, we have the support to keep it going for years to come.”
Support for future CRISMA program participants can be designated on the Health Institute giving page.