OT student opens up to new healing vistas as global travel resumes

April 27, 2022
a street mural of a woman in a mask and surgical cap with a giant covid virus and DNA strand and the words "primera linea" or front line
Rosa Marie Compton said her experiences in Oaxaca, Mexico, will continue to shape her as she embarks on her professional career. Photos provided
group shot of four young women wearing student white coats in a tropical setting 
Rosa Marie Compton, second from right, along with fellow students, from left, Kathrine Citkat, Courtney Fant and Sam Lomnicki. The students working with Child Health Family International come from different schools and health care disciplines. 

It took two years and a change of continents, but Rosa Marie Compton was finally able to travel abroad to see firsthand the role of complementary health approaches and integrative health and how they might fit into the holistic goals of occupational therapy.

And none too soon – Compton graduates in May with a doctorate in occupational therapy from the College of Health Professions at MUSC. Besides being among the first MUSC students to resume international travel, she’s also a part of the first occupational therapy class to earn a doctorate rather than a master’s-level degree.

Although COVID forced some changes upon her educational path, Compton said she came away from her travel experience with new insights.

“I feel so fortunate to have ended up where I did,” she said.

Compton spent 10 weeks in Oaxaca, Mexico, facilitated by Child Family Health International. There, she observed interdisciplinary clinics, met with a recent occupational therapy graduate to compare notes and followed a local healer, a curandera, to observe her work.

Compton first was awarded a travel grant from the MUSC Center for Global Health in early 2020 to travel to India. She had developed an interest in the culture in college, and she thought that the practices of mindfulness and meditation fit well with the holistic approach of occupational therapy. In fact, in her hands-on training experiences, she has used mindfulness for pain management, aromatherapy, progressive relaxation, meditation and even yoga.

The Center for Global Health announced its travel grants on March 1, 2020. Two weeks later, the world shifted. Compton and the other grantees couldn’t travel. In the two years since then, travel has slowly started to resume, said Kathleen Ellis, executive director of the Center for Global Health, but students and faculty have had to apply for special exceptions to travel as well as abide by other countries’ entry and exit restrictions. Only this month have all MUSC pandemic-related international travel restrictions been lifted. Most of that 2020 group of grantees have either graduated or ended up doing virtual exchanges.

So it was especially exciting for center staff members to be able to send Compton off with her long-awaited grant.

young woman standing in a colorful room of pink wall and terra cotta floor tile with traditional drums and microphone set up as for a ceremony 
Rosa Marie Compton in Mexico. By living with a local family and shadowing a local healer, she was able to participate in daily life and even a wedding ceremony. 

But it wouldn’t be to India. India was experiencing a large spike in COVID cases last fall when preparations for Compton’s trip were underway, and so her advisors told her she would have to adjust her plans. Luckily, Child Family Health International had some connections to traditional healers in Mexico, which could fit into Compton’s capstone research project.

Compton wanted to understand how incorporating complementary health approaches and integrative health could fit into the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s triple aim of improving the patient experience, reducing health care costs and improving population health. She also thought it could fit well with the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Vision 2025 to maximize health, well-being, and quality of life for all people, populations, and communities through effective solutions that facilitate participation in everyday living.

She noted that there has been a massive increase in the number of people in the U.S. who seek out alternative health care, but conventional medicine in this country has not embraced alternatives as it has in many other countries.

In Oaxaca, Compton followed a curandera as she traveled to two villages to minister to community members with herbs, limpias, or spiritual cleansings, and massages.

The spiritual cleansings involved practices such as rubbing an egg over a person’s body and then breaking the egg into a glass to read the patient’s energy or emotional state. Such practices didn’t necessarily jibe with Compton’s scientific education, yet she observed how the curandera provided emotional support in villages that had little access to conventional health care.

“The power of the placebo effect isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and also, physical touch is very powerful,” she said.

Spending time with the curandera and seeing how important she was in the community emphasized to Compton the importance of cultural humility. She also noted it’s likely that her future patients will engage in some form of alternative medicine, as seven out of 10 Hispanic Americans use alternative approaches, and three out of 10 Americans overall use alternative approaches.

"At times I felt conflicted about some of the traditional medicine remedies I observed. Gradually, I learned to not let these preconceptions and biases get in the way of recognizing the valuable contributions sabadoras (healers) make to their villages."

Rosa Marie Compton

It’s important for providers to understand other practices and their significance to patients, she said. In the villages she visited, for example, the traditional healers were integral to the community and often provided care to those with the least access.

Ellis said that this firsthand experience is something that simply can’t be replicated by virtual sessions, even though they have opened up the world and forged connections in different ways.

Still, she said, “When you’re actually there, you’re having to navigate in a town or village in a country where you don’t speak the language, the health care practices are different, the burden of disease is different, the types of treatment might be different. And also, having to step back and acknowledge there might be things they do better than we do, with a lot less resources.”

Having returned to the U.S., Compton is ready for graduation and eager for next steps. She said she would like to start her career working in inpatient rehabilitation, but her experiences in Oaxaca will continue to shape her.

“At times I felt conflicted about some of the traditional medicine remedies I observed. Gradually, I learned to not let these preconceptions and biases get in the way of recognizing the valuable contributions sabadoras (healers) make to their villages. So often we are prone to take an all-or-nothing perspective – ‘If I don’t agree with a portion of something, it’s all wrong.’ With this mindset we miss out on the opportunity to appreciate other aspects of a culture we could actually benefit from.”

The Center for Global Health is currently taking applications from students and residents for another round of travel grants.