Physical Therapist Treats Patients Against the Clock

"Every time a patient would smile at the end, when you really knew you helped them feel better, that was such a good moment"
Andrew Thomas August 30, 2018

When Gabriella Camacho broke her arm when she was 13 years old, she didn’t think it would end up taking her on an eye-opening journey to Mexico 10 years later.

It was the process of healing that inspired her to want to heal others too—but what she would encounter in Mexico was beyond her expectations and experience.

When the 13-year-old Camacho broke her arm, she needed surgery followed by three months of physical therapy after the break healed.

She was in immense pain, and was nervous about the physical therapy she would have to endure to regain full use of her arm.

“I was afraid to move my arm, and I knew these people were going to move my arm,” Camacho told Humanity.

The doctor who performed Camacho’s surgery had told her that she would never be able to extend her arm fully. However, her physical therapist assured her otherwise.

By the end of her treatment, she had full range of motion in her arm again. She went back to her doctor to show him the success.

“I straightened my arm, and this grown man just got really giddy,” Camacho recalled.

The doctor called in all the residents to show them what Camacho was able to do with her arm again.

Her experience of working to regain movement in her arm motivated her to become a physical therapist herself.

Camacho treating a patient. (Courtesy of Beth Bextermueller)

Now 24 years old, Camacho is a physical therapy graduate student at the University of Cincinnati.

During the summer of 2017, she had her first hands-on experience treating patients. It was exciting for her to see what she had learned in class applied to a patient.

“It’s just a good feeling to know that you got them to feel better,” Camacho explained.

Camacho and her colleagues from the University of Cincinnati College of Allied Health Sciences. (Courtesy of Beth Bextermuller)

This spring, Camacho and a contingent of students from the University of Cincinnati College of Allied Health Sciences had the opportunity to travel to Cancún, Mexico, to get even more hands-on experience.

Camacho was particularly excited by the trip because her mother grew up in Mexico and her father is Colombian.

Both her parents had been in Mexico the summer before, and when her mother came home she told her a story.

There was a woman who cleaned their room every day, her mom said. She worked in Cancún because that’s where she was able to make a living, but she wouldn’t see her kids for weeks at a time.

Her children lived with grandparents hours away, and she sent money home to support them.

“That was kind of my nudge,” Camacho explained. “Yes, I wanted to go to Mexico because I wanted to go on a trip. But then I was also really drawn to the idea that these people work really hard and this is an opportunity to serve them when they are in the business of serving people.”

She had no idea how intense yet rewarding the experience would be.

Unlike treatment at home, Camacho only had 45 minutes to treat each patient throughout the week.

(Courtesy of Beth Bextermueller)

Monday, April 30, was the team’s first full day of treating patients at the Sunrise Hotel. She was thrown in at the deep end and was terrified she wouldn’t be able to help people.

“The first day at Sunrise, I was frustrated with myself because I felt like I hadn’t done very much. I kind of felt useless. I felt like I had to ask a lot of questions,” Camacho remembered.

The patients she encountered had all sorts of injuries, some with potentially upsetting origins.

One woman had severe back pain. The pain was so extreme that Camacho thought she had a torn rotator cuff, which is an injury to the group of muscles and tendons that keep the upper arm bone in the shoulder socket.

The patient told her that five years earlier, someone had pulled her backwards by her hair—she couldn’t remember how she fell, she said.

From the way the patient was describing her injury and withholding how she fell, Camacho got the feeling that she had been abused.

(Courtesy of Beth Bextermueller)

Camacho didn’t know if she should probe her further about it. She was unfamiliar with domestic abuse laws in Mexico, and didn’t know if asking about the abuse would help.

Also, Camacho’s translator was a man and she didn’t know if the patient would be comfortable discussing the abuse in front of him.

“That broke my heart because I felt really helpless. I knew she was one of those people I would want to see a lot more. Also thinking about her well-being and her safety,” Camacho recalled.

However, in that moment Camacho realized she could help her with something—her back pain.

“That was a moment where I was like, maybe I can’t do anything [about the suspected abuse], but I can give her 45 minutes of being able to rest and maybe feeling a little bit safer,” Camacho explained.

Camacho treating a patient with her colleague Gabriela Bobadilla. (Courtesy of Beth Bextermueller)

The next day, Camacho treated a patient suffering from severe knee pain who had been hit by a car 20 years ago. She realized he most likely had a torn ligament.

The treatment was an exhausting 50 contractions of the thigh muscle. But afterwards, they were both feeling good.

“I was excited because I figured it out [in only 45 minutes],” Camacho remembered. “He felt so good. He was like ‘my knee doesn’t hurt anymore.’ So that was a really cool moment.”

Camacho treated a second patient the same day who was in really bad shape. He arrived in a wheelchair, and told Camacho he wanted to walk again. He hadn’t walked in three years.

“What? I can’t help you walk,” Camacho remembered thinking.

After she’d examined his strength, she determined that by performing some stretches and exercises he might actually be able to walk again.

Camacho was able to get the man to use the back of his wheelchair as a walker, and he took his first steps in three years.

An elated Camacho arranged for a walker to sent to the man’s home in Cancún, so he could continue practicing at home safely.

“It felt incredible. It was one of those moments that your like, ‘Wow, I’m not going to forget this,'” Camacho recalled. “That was a confidence booster, realizing you can do something.”

(Courtesy of Beth Bextermueller)

After a week, Camacho and the other students had to leave. It was a difficult experience going home.

“I cried the whole plane ride. I wasn’t expecting to be so emotionally attached,” Camacho recalled. “Every time a patient would smile at the end, when you really knew you helped them feel better, that was such a good moment, and having to leave that …”

But what she takes away with her will likely influence the rest of her professional career.

(Courtesy of Beth Bextermueller)

The time restraint was a big mindset shift. Normally, she would treat patients and tell them they would feel better in a few weeks. Now, she’s thinking about the different methods and treatments she can use to make patients feel better sooner.

“Why am I going to take my time getting them better when there’s a possibility that I can make them feel better now?” she said.

Her biggest realization, though, extends beyond just medical care—the need for compassion to all people, whatever their situation.

“We have this responsibility to humans in general.”