Importance of Pro Bono Care

Luke Cancilla, SPT ’21

I made my decision to commit to enroll in the DPT Program at the University of Pittsburgh in December 2018. A few days after making this decision, I along with a group of fellow students from John Carroll University flew from Cleveland, Ohio to San Salvador, El Salvador to begin a ten day immersive experience with CRISPAZ – an organization dedicated to building bridges of solidarity between marginalized communities in El Salvador and communities across the world through mutual accompaniment[1]. Over the next week and a half, we learned from firsthand accounts about the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980’s, current socioeconomic circumstances many Salvadorans face, and intimate migration experiences. Many Salvadorans shared stories about their lives, histories and hopes for the future. Towards the end of our experience, we travelled to Nogales along the US/Mexico Border to further learn and experience the realities that many migrants seeking a new life face. Throughout this experience of solidarity I had feelings of guilt, helplessness, and anger because of the challenges many of these human beings face. However, these same human beings that we lived with and talked to provided me with whole new meanings of hope, community, and humanity. These three values have driven my identity as a physical therapy student and are the foundation for what I strive to emulate as a clinician.

Since this experience, it has been those feelings of hope, community and humanity that have carried me through the long hours of studying and the stresses of PT school over the past few years. These continue to motivate my passion for physical therapy and my desire to join the physical therapists who reach out to all of our community. This experience of solidarity taught me the lesson that although no single person may be able to change the world completely, we all have the opportunity to change someone’s world and make small impacts to make our community more welcoming to all. Whether you are a teacher, accountant, or lawyer you can play your part. My part will be as a physical therapist.

During the 2020 fall semester clinical rotation, I have had the privilege of providing care at the Birmingham Free Clinic, a UPMC multidisciplinary pro bono clinic that provides care to the underinsured and uninsured of Pittsburgh regardless of their immigration status and socioeconomic standing. This clinic reaches into the shadows of our city and calls out to those too often overlooked by the American healthcare system in order to provide the care that many of our neighbors are in need of. By providing physical therapy care at this clinic, we have been able to help people walk pain free, babysit their relatives without limitations, and return to doing the things in their lives that bring them the most joy. Through this pro bono clinic, we have been able to help human beings in a way that all should have the opportunity to be helped. The Birmingham Free Clinic provides holistic healthcare to those who need it the most with a true sense of hope, community, and humanity.

Luckily, the Birmingham Free Clinic is not alone in providing pro bono physical therapy services to people who would otherwise be overlooked or do not have the means to receive this type of care. Throughout the United States, physical therapy programs have started their own student-run pro bono clinics to bridge the gap to all those who need our services[2] in their communities. Pro bono care continues to gain traction within our professional governing bodies with the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) ensuring that “pro bono services are consistent with our profession’s values and vision” [3]. Across the world, organizations such as Move Together are working to “increase access to quality rehabilitation medicine around the corner and around the world” by shaping leaders in physical therapy and establishing sustainable clinics and programs throughout the world[4].

Throughout this semester providing care at the Birmingham Free Clinic in Pittsburgh and continuously learning about fellow physical therapists’ involvement in pro bono services, it continues to fill me with pride and hope. It fills me with pride to be in a profession that recognizes the role it can play in expanding access to care. It also gives me hope that as a profession, we can continue expanding access to care for all those who need our services, both locally and globally. The Birmingham Free Clinic is just a drop in the ocean and there is certainly a need to further expand our outreach into the communities that we serve, ensuring that no one is overlooked. By spending this past semester at the Birmingham Free Clinic, I have been able to experience PT services that exemplifying the meaning of hope, community and humanity in a way I haven’t experienced in physical therapy before. This clinic realizes that although it doesn’t change the entire world, the healthcare it provides can change someone’s world. This is a realization that all physical therapy clinics and clinicians should emulate.

[1] CRISPAZ Delegations – El Salvador e-Encounter. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from

[2]The Pro Bono Network. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from

[3] Pro Bono Physical Therapy Services. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from

[4] Healthy Movement. Healthy Communities. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2020, from