196 wheelchairs distributed

“We gave them a wheelchair, but they gave us a moment of hope and inspiration.”

– Kimberly Phongprateep ’20

In October 2019, Whitney Davis ’00, ’03, PT, DPT, PCS led four doctor of physical therapy students, Sierra Downum ’20, Karandeep Gill ’20, Jessica Matias ’20, Kimberly Phongprateep ’20, on an eventful trip to Portoviejo, Ecuador to distribute wheelchairs. The trip marked the latest chapter of the partnership between Pacific’s Department of Physical Therapy, Rotary International and Hope Haven West, a non-profit organization dedicated to “providing dignity through mobility.”

The team’s arrival on October 4 coincided with a time of civil unrest in Ecuador. Just a few days prior, on October 1, Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno announced a decree ending decades-old fuel subsidies, which were reportedly costing the country $1.3 billion annually. Revoking the subsidies triggered a spike in fuel prices. The economic impact was immediate and widespread. In response, protests quickly spread nation-wide.


At the height of the protests, the capital, Quito, was crisscrossed with barricades and streets were filled with tear gas. Less than 250 miles away in Portoviejo, peaceful marches blocked major roads, hindering access to the wheelchair distribution sites. Negotiations brought the protests to an end on October 14. Despite the obstacles created by the protests, the team distributed 196 wheelchairs.

The team observed when an individual receives a wheelchair it not only impacts their life but also their family. “You can see the immediate relief you give to these families and these individuals,” Downum said. She recalled an interaction she had with a male in his 20s who was diagnosed with brain cancer. “He was nonverbal, but he never stopped smiling,” Downum said. “He knew he would be wheeling out of there with a little bit more freedom. His parents knew that part of their burden was going to be lifted from their shoulders.”

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Matias worked with a female patient in her mid 20s whose wheelchair needed extensive adjustments as she was not able to sit fully upright. Her younger brother was her primary caregiver and worked alongside the team to modify her wheelchair.

Phongprateep deeply empathized with a patient who came in with her sister. “During our conversation she mentioned that it was just the two of them, both of their parents had already passed on,” Phongprateep said. “I thought about this patient who had grown to adulthood and all of the life experiences she and her sister may have missed out on. As a clinician, I know that our education and our efforts to help do not stop at one person, they ripple outward.”

Gill described his time in Ecuador as a genuine human experience. “I honestly feel I was able to grow and develop as a human being,” Gill said. “Throughout the week there were consistent moments where I felt ‘present.’ We gave them a wheelchair, but they gave us a moment of hope and inspiration.”

Read more about their experiences in their own words on the Beyond Pacific blog.

Prior to the trip, the students learned of the key events contributing to the current severe humanitarian needs in Ecuador.

  •  January 2016 | Torrential rain caused flooding and landslides
  • ■ April 2016 | A 7.8 magnitude earthquake in northern Ecuador caused significant loss of life, widespread destruction and the displacement of thousands of civilians
  • ■ July 2016 | An outbreak of the Zika virus is reported
  • ■ December 2016 | A 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit northwest Ecuador
  • ■ February 2017 | Portoviejo declared a state of emergency due to flooding
  • ■ June 2017 | A 6.3 magnitude earthquake further set back restoration efforts

By Anne Marie H. Bergthold
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