Impressions from the First Wave of Acupuncturists Without Borders
I was drawn to the Gulf situation because it’s was so close to home, figuratively and literally. The memory of not knowing how to make a meaningful contribution to the South Asian Tsunami earlier this year and an attraction to help the people from my ancestral lands just strengthened my resolve to do something more than write a check.
Even with weeks of scrutiny on television and internet images of the hurricanes' impact, I was not prepared for what confronted me during the first hours after arriving. The Louis Armstrong International Airport was empty. My plane was the only one on a concourse of thirty gates, and one of less than a dozen flights scheduled that day. A ripe stench of mold and decay permeated the mildly humid, tropical 90 degree heat. This was an odor that intensified the closer I traveled into the city and areas that had been flooded. The longer water had stood, the thicker the smell.
On the twenty mile ride in from the airport picture of refuse and waste began to fill my periphery. Images of brown flood lines streaked across highway underpass wall, along building sides and the windows of vehicles long abandoned before Katrina hit. A mile down the road I saw a fifty foot high mound of sludge, household furnishings and pieces of buildings being built by a dozen tar sands scale mining front end loaders and being fed by a long string of what might have been a hundred commercial dump trucks lined up to empty their last loads of the day. Later I learned much to my dismay that FEMA out of state contractors had overruled and bypassed local experts by deciding to burn the some 85 thousand tons of toxic mix of refuse rather than to elect a more environmentally respectful process. I had not remembered that this is the gulf coast, home to 80% of the nation's petrochemical refinery capacity, and lowest levels of human economic prosperity.
One of the first people that I treated in the devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans was the five state regional FEMA director for chaplain services. He was responsible for the federal effort to support trauma counseling to responders and returnees when they were confronted with the deaths of family members or neighbors, the complete loss of their possessions and homes and the harsh truth from total devastation of their neighborhood, and community. This two decade special forces veteran had spent the morning witnessing the discovery and removal of six corpses and said that he would be able to know immediately if this "Chinese needle thing" was valid. Thirty minutes later stood up an effusively grateful convert. Not only was he ready to tell his superiors about the amazing success of our work for stress relief, he reported that his nagging back pain was gone for the first time in five years. It was apparent to me and the Red Cross medical volunteers standing by that this quiet "Rambo-like" federal agent was not accustomed to spinning yarns to impress people.
At the heart of the elegance of the NADA protocol is its efficacy. It is low cost, low tech and easily delivered without side affects. The treatment successfully works on stress and trauma because it interrupts the "fight or flight" patterns of cortisol release typically triggered in response to disruptive or shocking experiences. The five needle protocol relieves the nervous system's habituated response to stress by facilitating a release of neurotransmitters and endorphins that create an experience of well being. The period of relief from a stress or trauma response can last from several minutes to several hours. During that time the central nervous system can reorganize into a more stable pattern of neuro-endocrine equilibrium. The brain knows to do this because of the dominant patterning that had been established long before the onset of the stress or trauma inducing events. This process in effect interrupts the stress/trauma response thus weakening its dominance over the body and mind. Disrupting the establishment or institution of the response to trauma and stress facilitates the whole person's natural impulse to recover from a traumatic experience. In this way the impact of post traumatic stress responses may be eased, thus strengthening resistance to long term dysfunctional patterns such as PTSD.
Each day brought different challenges and opportunities. Treating people proved to be exhausting and good self care was always helpful. In retrospect one week was a good amount of time to be there. Being with patients meant much more than inserting needles along a predetermined protocol. It required creating a sphere of calm and sanctuary often in an environment that could not eliminate chaotic events and stimulii. It required being a witness to the individual in their pain, grief or the purgatory of their not knowing what was next. On the front line where the full impact of the disaster surrounds you, treatments were seldom ordered with lines, schedules or a discrete location. Often a volunteer Red Cross worker would take me to a cluster of people whom she or he sensed was in need. I might treat one or several people together around the table where they were gathered possibly with other family members who declined needles but were enlivened by the power of being together.
Sometimes shortly after inserting needles a flood of emotion in tears or anger would come to the surface. The movement of qi induced by treatment invariably kept the process going so that individuals were never left in a distressed state. Yet in the process stories might come forth, rising like a tide or even a volcano. We were there to witness, to hold and to facilitate this form of healing. The NADA protocol employed by AWB truly can facilitate this process.
One distraught middle aged lady told me how she had floated around her neighborhood on top of her roof for six days before being rescued and taken to the Superdome. She described watching other houses sink, or break up, while hers served as her ark. She related watching weary, worn and dehydrated neighbors slip into the water “just like in the Titantic movie.” She was the fourth generation of her people(family) to have lived in the ninth ward. Her daughter and grand daughters were the fifth and sixth, but they were in Houston now. She knew that she had lost one grandfather and two aunts each living in different houses in the ward. They had had no way to get out and stayed in their one story homes until the urban tsunami wave of twenty-five feet crashed through the broken levee of the east side of the industrial canal. Another great uncle had died on the bus outside Shreveport after being evacuated from the Superdome. She was glad that they had been able to bury him decently and that he would not have to face what she had to. Of the ten different homes owned by her family members, none were inhabitable, none were still on their foundations, three had completely vanished. She kept coming back to the image of her being delivered through the trauma by her ark. She described it as her covenant with Jesus and mother Mary. She said that she could not know why she was left to pick up while so many others were gone, some to heaven but most to resettle in another town or state, to better jobs and schools. She made me promise to come back and told me that she would be looking for me . I know by the look I saw in her eyes that she was dead serious and that our fates had been linked through those moments of care.
In New Orleans I witnessed such faith. I heard it from firemen who had been working seven days a week since before Katrina hit. I heard it from a ferryman in Plaquemines Parish that had been devastated by what a parish sheriff described as a fifty foot wave from the storm surge rising from the ocean. Both he and the ferryman had lost everything but their jobs and their families. I was told that none of the twenty-six thousand parish inhabitants had returned to live yet as there was no power, no clean water and no agricultural livelihood left after being submerged by six feet of salt water for two weeks. An eight o’clock curfew still required that everyone be off the roads. They assured me though that they would be back, because they had their families intact. This was their place and that their faith kept them there. Ironically, I able to find the family homestead that my lineal ancestors had left, surrounded by giant uprooted trees, but intact.
There is a lot of healing work to be done in the Gulf coast for all kinds of healthcare providers, whether they be acupuncturists, primary care physicians, counselors, physical therapists or the innovators of a sustainable economic and human environmental recovery. Behind this writing lie dozens of other stories from the people and scenes that I encountered over eight short days. An experience like this changes whoever allows themselves to be involved. I have a strong sense that I’ll be back before long.
Over 95% of the responders in the Gulf Coast are 100% volunteer. That means that they left their jobs, families and communities to be there and are not being paid beyond the incredible life experience that they are gaining. The recovery from the storms and social conditions that such devastation will require time, resources and commitment the quality of commitment that money can’t buy. We each have that in us waiting to be engaged. Acupuncturists Without Borders, like its “Doctors” counterpart offers a tremendous opportunity to serve where the need is unquestioned.