I'm home. I know it, physically. I see my house, my car, and the
backpack already waiting to go back to class. But, my mind is still
in Nicaragua. This morning I subconsciously shook out my shoes
before putting them on. You know, to check for scorpions, since we
have so many here in Illinois. I tried to put my used toilet paper
into a basket in the bathroom at Target yesterday, and stopped
myself just in time. Go ahead and throw it right into the toilet,
Juli. Welcome home.
The week I spent volunteering at the integrative medicine clinic
in Nicaragua with Natural Doctors International (NDI) is sticking
with me for much longer. Even though it was my third time going,
pulling up to the rancho, strolling into the clinic, and meeting my
"mami" for the week was just as exciting as ever. The village of
Los Angeles on the island of Ometepe is a dry, dusty place at the
end of April, as the hungry families yearn for the rains to start
and signal the planting season.
The roughly 30,000 people strung around the base of the two
volcanos that form the island aren't starving, though. There aren't
clusters of orphaned children with protruding bellies scavenging
garbage piles with flies landing in their eyes. Even though
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere
-- after Haiti -- life on the island is not what you might expect.
The children are mostly dressed, everyone has at least rice to make
in the outdoor kitchens, and villagers are seemingly low-key for
the most part, smiling, saying "Buenos Dias" as you walk down the
dirt roads punctuated only by horse poop and the never-ending small
Again, I'm awed by the graciousness of the people, who walk,
ride, hitch, or bike to NDI's free natural medicine clinic, and
then wait patiently and happily in the colorful plastic chairs out
back for hours. We learned that many of them give us a run-down of
five or ten general health complaints simply hoping to get a refill
on multivitamins, omegas, or probiotics, which they treat like gold
when we dump them into a plastic baggie for them. We delighted some
children with a new toothbrush to hold while Daddy hopped up onto
the table for some pain-relieving acupuncture.
We volunteers smiled as baby horses and cows causally strolled
around the village. After a few days we stopped asking, "Whose
horse is that?" when we realized that the animals knew where they
lived and ended up back at more or less the right house at the end
of the day. We struggled -- some of us more than others - to
communicate with our host families in Spanish about everything from
food preferences to how to refill the bucket for a shower. We even
celebrated a fellow volunteer's birthday with a birthday cake and a
huge bottle of Coke; the power only went out on us once.
Times were good. Patients were appreciative. Volunteers were
learning. We reminded ourselves how unique NDI's clinic really is
-- not just for Nicaragua -- but for anywhere in the world.
Mainstream western medicine is starting to shift, yes, but it's not
yet common in the U.S. to walk into a free clinic, have a consult
with a naturopathic doctor and receive supplements and a take-home
parasite-in-my-poo test kit, have a consult with an acupuncturist
and get needled under the mango trees, and enjoy a lavender oil
massage after a grievous counseling session with the in-house
psychologist. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Sign. Me.
Up. For. That. I even found the beach in our village this year,
after three years!
By day we performed the abovementioned magic out of the 3-room
open-air clinic. By night we grappled with the tough questions
during our evening classes on global health history and policy. Why
aren't we helping out in our own country? Why couldn't we carry in
all of the donations that we raised? Why are naturopathic doctors
not recognized in most states in the U.S.? Did they break ground
for the new canal? Why is smoke coming out of the volcano that our
village is ON!
Nothing is answered definitively; earthquakes rolled on days
after I left the island. I returned home to the pile of donations
that we couldn't get into Nicaragua. I still can't get my insurance
to cover a naturopathic doctor visit in Chicago. We didn't cure
every patient; the rancho still needs to be re-thatched before the
rains come; and the clinic ran out of children's multivitamins
before we even got on the ferry to head home. And it's OK. We are
fulfilled. Our work was done and cannot be undone. And guess what?
Hasta Luego doesn't mean "good-bye." It means "until next time."
Yep, I'll be back.
When they ask you why you
came in for an appointment today, go ahead and let them know that
your urine is coming out in long, clear streams, and that your
dreams have been creepily vivid this week. Tell them that your
bowel movements are light brown, formed, and coming with ease twice
per day in forearm lengths that would make Dr. Yurasek proud.
Mention that you've been feeling kind of cold and that you can't
stand being out in the wind. That heaviness in your arms? Mention
Dive straight into the rest of Oriental Medicine's famed "Ten
Questions," noting whether you've been extra hungry, not so
thirsty, frigidly anti-sexual, exhausted from periods with
quarter-sized black clots, or muzzy-headed in the afternoons. It
all matters. If you're in an AOM clinic, these are the types of
things you can expect to be asked by your acupuncturist or
herbalist. No one here bats an eye when patients share the color
and consistency of their bowel movements. In fact, if you withhold
that information, we can't really help you very well.
Here they are, in detail but translated by me:
The Ten Questions
Your acupuncturist or herbalist not only wants to know these
things, but also actuallyneedsto know many of these things in order
to properly diagnose your condition and begin a treatment plan. If
you have long, clear streams of urine, loose stool, weak knees, a
sore lower back, and feel cold all the time...well, we know what's
going on. No, I'm not going to tell you here. Look it up. Better
yet, visit an acupuncturist!
So, if you're in an AOM clinic, have your thoughts on these
vital topics prepared beforehand. Otherwise, you might be so thrown
off guard by some of the Ten Questions that you can't formulate
sentences. That's actually fine, because none of the 10 questions
directly correlate to grammar skill level. Thank goodness, right?
However, if you find yourself in the office of an MD, keep in mind
that you might not want to just jump right in with details about
where you are in your menstrual cycle and how gassy you've been, if
your chief complaint is seasonal allergies. Just a tip, from me to
Of course this just happened. It's springtime. Spring correlates
with the Liver and its interior-exterior partner in crime -- the
Gall Bladder. I'm unfortunately already prone to the ridiculously
difficult to eradicate pathogen known in TCM as "Damp-Heat." My
protective wei qi was still struggling to recover from the exotic
array of assailants it managed to fend off in Central America last
month. "Oh, Juli, did you get Dengue Fever again this year?" "Well,
not that I know of..."
The pathogenic stars had aligned. The signs and symptoms
appeared over the course of 2-3 days. First, it was just a
seemingly innocent wiry Liver pulse. OK, OK, it's springtime; I'm
irritable and I know it. No big deal. A quick tongue check in the
mirror confirmed that yes, of course, I'm teeming with damp heat in
the lower jiao. What would I be without my characteristic tongue
coat? (A healthier person, for one!)
I go about my day only to realize that by afternoon I'm starting
to feel weird. Really weird. There's no valid excuse for the sudden
and growing nausea, accompanied by an intermittent, unilateral
shooting headache that jumped around as if someone was sprinkling
headache pop rocks all over my temples, vertex, forehead, OWW! I
usually don't get headaches, and I'm not usually nauseous. I wanted
to vomit and get further down the road towards recovery. Then the
blurry vision started in, and I noticed I'd been ignoring a
hypochondrial pain all day. And, oh MAN, what is that strong bitter
taste in the back of my mouth? Did I just crack a filling and let
the poison ooze out? Gross. I'm getting dizzy and don't feel like
lifting the phone to call the dentist.
Aaaaaand it finally dawns on me. It's
all over me, from head to toe. I have Damp-Heat in the Gall
Bladder. As I run to the mirror for a tongue progress report, I get
all the confirmation I could ever dream of. There's the Damp-Heat
coating, yep, and now it's grown in size and had two long greasy
arms on display down the sides of my tongue. But, oh no, what…?!
You have to be kidding me. Are thosepurple spotsall over the sides
of my tongue, too? I mentally scanned the other symptoms I'd
noticed over the week, and realized it was true. I also had Liver
Blood Stasis. Great. Hey, it's not like I had anything else planned
for the next few days.
Why do I always get the stubborn pathogenic scenarios? At my
first visit with a doctor of oriental medicine, she struggled a bit
with my diagnosis. Was it yang deficiency? Or, was it yin
deficiency? Maybe it's both. She said I had Spleen deficiency and
Kidney deficiency. Don't forget the Liver Qi Stagnation! Seriously?
I know this is a first-time appointment, but isn't that almost
So, here's when TCM swoops in and saves my holiday weekend.
After doing the dangerous deed of self-diagnosing (never
recommended) on Thursday afternoon, I started in on an
individualized acupuncture treatment plan. Then I repeated it the
next day, too. What points did I use? Don't try this at home, but I
did: LV3, GB43, GB41, GB40, GB34, SP9, LI4, and LI11. Is that
right? Sure, in my limited opinion. Of course, there were more
difficult-to-reach points that I should have added in, but hey, I'm
needling myself here! And judging by the fact that I felt almost
normal again by Friday afternoon, I'm calling it awesome. Sure, I
also made some dietary changes to balance the Damp Heat and give my
overloaded Liver and Gall Bladder a rest from the constant
inundation of delicious fatty foods.
Yes, whole-fat dairy and meat is good for me, generally
speaking, but when my Liver boss and Gall Bladder assistant are
under siege, I have to abstain from the delights of my life. That's
right -- no buttery popcorn this week. Instead, I emphasized the
cooling foods like celery and watermelon, some beverages like green
tea, and I focused on eating really light for a couple of days.
That went surprisingly well, considering I had completely lost my
appetite from the Damp-Heat in the Gall Bladder thing. Western
natural medicine has noticeably compatible suggestions for altering
your diet during the spring to help cleanse and support the Liver
and Gall Bladder. They emphasize a diet of light, sprouty and
shooty foods; must avoid those heavy, greasy foods for a while!
Gall Bladder Springtime
By Saturday, the greasy coated arms of the Damp-Heat beast that
lives on the back of my tongue had receded, as did almost all other
symptoms. I beat you, Springtime. You got me good -- but this time
I was prepared to fight back. Sorry, Spring -- maybe next year!
I pretty much hate microwave ovens. Everyone who's been to my
home knows that I haven't even had a handle on the door of my
microwave in the past 5 years. I distrust this appliance. I find
them abhorrent. I think they are one of the actual and figurative
problems with American society today. Why do people regularly cook
food in a box that changes it at the molecular level, rendering the
food nearly nutritionally void? Convenience, my friends.
I'm committed to using the oven and the stovetop as
my cooking methods of choice. Sure, any heating destroys some of
the nutritional content of many foods, but these methods are
gentler and less damaging on the goods. Why is a microwave worse?
Mike Adams, editor of NaturalNews.com,
explains, "Microwave ovens heat food through a process of
creating molecular friction, but this same molecular friction
quickly destroys the delicate molecules of vitamins and
phytonutrients (plant medicines) naturally found in foods."
This isn't groundbreaking news, people. Years ago I was scarred
for life after reading that the microwave destroys around 97% of
the vitamins and other nutrients in vegetables. Apparently, many
people are OK with this, judging by the new microwavable veggies in
"steam bags" available at your local grocer. Yuck, and no thanks.
If I'm choking down peas, they better have full nutritional value,
thank you very much.
If you haven't faced the hidden toxins in your
microwave popcorn by this time, let me offer you a hand up to 2014.
One of the most special ingredients in the little bag is diacetyl,
which, although derived from butter, acts as an artificial butter
flavor in the microwave popcorn. Sounds nice enough, until you find
out that when heated it releases a gas that frequently gives
popcorn factory workers a condition called "popcorn lung." Actual
name--bronchiolitis obliterans. Break that Latin down. "Obliterate
my bronchioles?" Yep. Turns out, it can also happen to the consumer who heats
and eats this stuff at home, and it can certainly happen to the
mice in laboratory settings that are exposed to this heated
And that brings me to the reason that I keep my old
broken microwave around at all. Well, first of all the gaping hole
above my stove would look weird. Mostly, though, the reason that I
keep my microwave is because I actually melt butter in it when I
air pop popcorn, which, if you know me, you'll know is all the
time. I try to lessen the evil of my popcorn addiction as much
as possible, believe me. I melt the organic, grass-fed cow butter
on low power in a glass dish. I pour it over organic popcorn (to
reduce my pesticide exposure). I lovingly tap on a good amount of
sea salt, and then I eat it with voracity that only another popcorn
addict can understand.
So, I'm guilty. I hope I never said I was perfect, because that
would be way off. However, I do what I can to reduce my exposure to
some of the health-hampering substances on the market today,
including microwave popcorn. For now, the microwave, which I
vehemently hate, stays... if only for one small but critical
purpose in my life.
Make time to take time...for yourself, that is. As we students
return to the NUHS classes this week, after a well-needed winter
break, many of us find that we aren't quite as well rested as we
thought we'd be. Personally, I envisioned a two and a half week
stint of total relaxation...or, at least, as relaxing as life can
be with two young children! Instead, what I got was the usual
hectic schedule of drop-offs and pick-ups, with my own work crammed
in between appointments and holiday travels.
The welcoming sight of a snow-covered Lombard campus as we
returned for the "spring" trimester.
Yes, that's right. I came back to campus in January just as
stressed out as when I walked off after my last final exam back in
December. How did this happen? After talking with some classmates
this week, I quickly realized that I was not alone. Sure, a few
people took it easy and maintained the "AOM" lifestyle of healthy
eating and weekly acupuncture treatments. Lucky them. The rest of
us overindulged with the holiday treats and put the exercise
routines on hold while we visited relatives and friends.
What's wrong with us? Don't we, students of acupuncture and
oriental medicine, know better? Don't we know that a relaxing and
rejuvenating acupuncture session is even more important when we are
stressed out by final exams and holiday travels? It turns out,
we're just like everyone else. We don't always practice what we
preach. And, the prognosis isn't great for our future actions,
either. An article in Newsweek revealed that 44% of
male doctors are overweight or obese (Kalb, 2008). Sure, this is
better than the average American statistic, which puts around 65%
of Americans as either overweight or obese, but it's not role-model
material! (Kalb, C. (2008). Drop That Corn Dog, Doctor.
Newsweek, 152(15), 17.)
If we don't take the time to make time for ourselves--for our
health and well-being--now, as students, then how can we become a
strong force for good in our future patients' lives? I want to
model the behavior and lifestyle that I am explaining to my
patients. If I can't prioritize and sacrifice to make time for my
own acupuncture sessions and yoga classes, then why should a
patient take my advice to do so? If they see me wolfing down my
fast food in between appointments, then why should they look to
more healthy options for their own lunch?
My personal path this year will be to slow down, to be more
aware of my choices and my priorities, and to model the lifestyle
and mindset that I want to introduce to others. Welcome, 2014.
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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