Acupuncturists Without Borders -  Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort
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One Thousand Eyes, Hands and Needles

Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy often appears with one thousand arms, hands, and in the palm of each hand an eye. One thousand eyes scan the universe, ready to respond wherever suffering is found. When I reflect upon the work of Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) in New Orleans over the past twelve months, I wonder if maybe She also appears with a needle in each hand, poised to treat a roomful of trauma victims, still struggling to find the ground under their upended lives in the deepening aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.


In the year since AWB quickly assembled their first response team, volunteer acupuncturists from all around the United States have set aside their families and private practices, paid their own airfare and joyfully entered a disaster zone in order to bring a little light, love, and healing to a place of desperation, dust and chaos. Nearly 8000 individual treatments have been offered, and behind each of these, a story is told, sometimes in words, sometimes transcending words.


Regardless of the language, the circle of healing once set in motion, only keeps expanding, touching the hearts of everyone involved – volunteers, residents, responders, family members, the larger community, and the world. I like to imagine that the desire to experience unity with the larger whole - the great circle of healing encompassing the planet and beyond, is the underlying motivation of every acupuncturist, and indeed probably what brought them to the profession in the first place.


AWB, in offering the powerful healing inherent in Chinese medicine to the Gulf coast recovery effort, has certainly performed a great service to the entire region. Everyone loves recognition, especially infant NGOs working diligently to stand and run on their feet, enabling them to fulfill their noble vision long into the future. (Anyone reading this have a spare thousand dollars they’d like to donate?) However, the ultimate benefit in participating in service work, is the gift of giving. Everything circles back in resonance with the mind of the actor.


AWB offers individuals within the acupuncture profession, an incredible opportunity to participate in a relief effort which is both heart opening, but also with vast implications for the future of our world. Can you imagine living in a world based on compassion and healing, instead of war and strife? This precious gift has changed every acupuncturist who has gone to New Orleans. Some have even returned home and radically changed the structure of their practices, switching to a more Community Acupuncture friendly model.


Does this sound like the voice of a Board member trumpeting his own organization a bit too loudly? Again and again, the stories from our volunteers, and those they have worked with, bring home the richness of the AWB experience:


July 2006. The sign on the door says “No new clients being accepted, We have 2000+ applicants on our waiting list.” 11 people have come for ear acupuncture including some of the staff. Many are trying acupuncture for the first time, having heard that the treatments bring immediate relief for symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, as well as for insomnia, pain, and a wide range of other conditions.


An hour later as we’re packing to leave, a woman walks in and is obviously disappointed when she realizes that the treatments have finished. She asks us where she can go for help. She is practically shaking with despair. We invite her to sit down. After placing five tiny needles in each ear, she starts to unload:


“My work is my refuge, my routine. By staying busy, I can avoid all the pain which I don’t know how to deal with alone. My family can’t help. They call me and want to talk about their problems. My father is dying. Another family member was recently killed in a car crash. Many of my friends have left. A few weeks ago, I went online and found information about how to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. I feel so desperate and depressed sometimes.”


Tears start to run down her cheeks. I reach out and she squeezes my hand tightly. Another volunteer puts an arm around her shoulder. For the moment, she has found the strength to carry on.


AWB’s executive assistant, Sarah Tewey writes: “Last winter the people I was talking with were desperate...looking for anything that could help them. I'd ask about internet access and hear about water-logged computers, ask about transportation and hear about cars that were turned over on the next block. I'd hear about missing family members and months spent sleeping on uncomfortable couches, and lost pets. People were heart-broken and traumatized and angry, but they somehow sounded as though they had enough strength to get on with their lives. It sounded as if they were going to be OK and that all of the material losses were secondary to the fact that they had survived.


Based on more recent conversations with New Orleans’ residents I think that we are looking at a very dramatic second wave of trauma moving through the city. The people I've been on the phone with in the last few days are pretty desperate for help. They are all women, all well educated and well spoken and they are also almost all professional caregivers. They all tell me that the storm had a great impact and turned their lives upside-down, but only now are they really starting to deal with the emotional repercussions. Only now are they seeing the damage the storm has done to them internally.


I am worried about the women of New Orleans. They are confessing things to me that are hard to hear. They all start the same way "Can I be honest with you for a minute?" "Can I speak frankly?" In the last few days I've heard of women’s deep and serious relationship issues resurfacing since the hurricane. In the healthcare/caregiver role, many of these women are so busy taking care of their patients that they struggle to hold on to their own mental health. Several have confessed becoming addicted to hard drugs as a means of coping with their heart ache and the enormous loss the entire community has experienced. There is a pervasive feeling of just barely hanging on. I'm very concerned about what I am hearing...it hurts my heart.”


Another volunteer writes: “On the way to the airport I asked our taxi driver if he was from here- ‘Born and raised’ he said. ‘How have you been doing since the storm?’ – ‘Terrible’, he replied. ‘I can't stop thinking about it- and I can't get my spirits up.’ He went on talking for a bit. By the end I had given him contact-info and schedules to all our clinics around town. ‘Thank you’, he said. ‘Everyone has forgotten about us here in New Orleans. Thank you for coming down here.’ He was eager to try acupuncture and said he'd tell the taxi drivers. When I paid my fare he brought me my bags and gave me a hug- ‘Hang in there’ I said, ‘Oh I will, baby’ he said- classic New Orleans drawl –‘I will!’


Jordan Van Voast, L.Ac. is a Board Member of the disaster relief group, Acupuncturists Without Borders. For more information, please visit: www.acuwithoutborders.org

The original story in Acupuncture Today:  

http://www.acupuncturetoday.com/mpacms/at/article.php?id=31408&MERCURYSID=016da26f952cd51b30d29725f75b1144
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