It was a feeling Chris Donnelly '12 still can't quite put into words.
Like a virtual hug, perhaps?
As a St. Ambrose engineering major, Donnelly traveled to Ilheus, Brazil, in the summer of 2011, in the company of Christine Urish, PhD, a professor of occupational therapy, Jodi Prosise, PhD, an assistant professor of engineering, and fellow St. Ambrose engineering and OT students.
They took with them a compression vest Donnelly and others had developed through the Program for Assistive Technologies for the Underprivileged (PATU), a course of study taught by Prosise in collaboration with Urish and the engineering science program at Sweet Briar College near Lynchburg, Va.
The vest was meant for Max, a 15-year-old Brazilian with severe autism, and it was designed to address Max's constant desire to be hugged. "He absolutely craved hugs," Donnelly remembered. "He was kind of hyperactive unless he was being hugged."
Donnelly and his partners developed the vest without ever having met Max, and then traveled to Ilheus, a sister city to Davenport, to present the device. "We put the vest on Max and it was instantaneous," he said of the calming effect of the mechanical embrace.
That's when Donnelly felt his own internal hug. "You kind of felt something inside to see it work so well," he remembered. "I can't imagine what it was like for him to always be seeking out that hug, that touch. It was just kind of amazing."
Amazing stories like that have become the norm since Urish and Prosise created this Study Abroad partnership that represents a natural synergy between the Occupational Therapy and Engineering Departments at St. Ambrose.
Healthcare for the indigent is lacking in Ilheus and Itabuna, a pair of Quad Cities-sized communities located in northeastern Brazil.
Urish began trips there to provide occupational therapy assistance in 2005, and ultimately recognized a keen need in clients like Max for affordable adaptive assistance.
Enter Prosise, who was completing her doctoral thesis in biomedical engineering when she joined the St. Ambrose faculty in 2009.
"I went into biomedical engineering because I wanted to do stuff to help people," she said. "One of the draws for me coming to St. Ambrose was the strength of the health science programs."
As it happened, Urish was assigned as Prosise's faculty mentor. Prosise's interest in creating an engineering study abroad trip merged with Urish's interest in developing adaptive solutions for under-served Brazilians.
The partnership with Sweet Briar's engineering program already had been formed, and faculty at that women's college were eager to launch an engineering trip abroad that addressed medical needs as well.
The engineering-OT partnership works like this: Urish will travel to Brazil with OT students in even years. While there, she will identify adaptive needs that engineering students might be able to meet.
"I take pictures, I take video and I come back and share with Jodi," Urish said. "We talk about options, she turns them over to students, and they choose their projects."
This year, Chris Lorenzon, a senior engineering major from Bettendorf, Iowa, went to Brazil with Prosise. There, he delivered a third iteration of an eye-blink communication board designed to help Emanuelle, a 15-year-old girl with severe cerebral palsy, communicate basic needs to her parents and caregivers.
For Lorenzen, as for Donnelly, the reward is learning while creating something that solves a real human need. "The takeaway is that it is really nice to use knowledge to help people and make a positive change," he said.
The June trip also resulted in promising preliminary discussions about involving engineering students from the Universidad Estadual de Santa Cruz, who served as hosts to the SAU-Sweet Briar traveling contingent, in ongoing assistive technology projects in the region.