Archive for tag: nicaragua

Hasta Luego, Nicaragua

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.

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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.

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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 fires.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

What Would You Bring to Nicaragua

A brave group of volunteers and I will depart for the Natural Doctors International clinic in Nicaragua on April 25th. What will we bring? Sometimes there's no running water, sometimes there's no electricity, and often there's no break from the heat. There's no garbage pick-up, there's a shortage of biohazard and sharps containers, and disposable gloves just seem wasteful.

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What we choose to bring onto the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua should be intentional. New volunteers are asking how many alcohol wipes to bring, how many needles to pack, and what size gloves will work best. My brain is processing it as: "Where will we pile up those dirty wipes? How many plastic guide tubes will we accumulate after a week of acupuncture treatments? And how we can't burn the gloves." Also I'm thinking how hot it is to wear exam gloves in oppressive heat. Eww.

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I'm not trying to sound like an activist or a tree-hugger, or whatever do-gooders are called these days. I'm just being a realist, and isn't that technically the opposite of idealism anyway? So lay off me. I'm simply trying to figure out what we should carry on our backs into Nicaragua, what we should drag onto the ferryboat, and what we should unload into the 3-room clinic.

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There was a guy in college who always said, "Let's be serious." Well, let's be. How do I incite passion in new volunteers, make conscious choices about tipping the precarious balance in the island community, and make sure everyone comes out happy and fulfilled at the end of the 10-day program? My first year, I carefully read the volunteer packet and I remember the line about not giving your host family too large a gift. While it might seem genuine and generous to slip $200 under the pillow on the last day, it's also not well thought out. Will other host families find out? Will they feel jealous, sad, or not as good as your host family? What if it causes not only animosity between the families, but also a robbery?

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While I might have felt somewhat cheap leaving a card, a $20 bill, and two bars of laundry soap for my host family last year, it was probably the right thing to do. The card said thank you for watching out for us, for cooking delicious meals for our VERY PICKY group, and for staying up well past the normal island bedtime of 8pm to wait for us to walk back from the evening meetings at the clinic. The laundry soap was to replace the ridiculous amount that I sailed through while fumbling with my sweat-soaked scrubs on your concrete washboards out back every afternoon. Let's be serious. I totally sucked at washing my clothes. I probably used as much soap on my scrubs, underwear and socks from that day as the family would for a week's worth of dirties. Plus I always left them out hanging too late at night and the red ants were all over them. The $20 was for how bad I felt when I realized that we had been walking across town every day at lunchtime to buy a Coke in a glass bottle from a competitor's store before I was finally clued in that you had your own store on the other side of the house. Way to be observant, Juli.

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Even in a small, raw environment like the community of Los Angeles on Ometepe Island, things are not always easy to see. It took us two days to find out that the house mom wasn't there to welcome us when we arrived, because her own young teenage son had been in a motorcycle accident the day before. She was staying with him at the children's hospital on the mainland, and yet had arranged for her family to be present and hospitable for us when we showed up on her doorstep. All smiles. No hint of worry that would make us uncomfortable or homesick. When grandma laid that fried chicken on the table, everything was perfect.

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So, we're heading back in two weeks. We're carrying down all of the medical donations we've gathered all year. We're flooding that humble, perfect, integrative clinic with acupuncture needles, essential oils, multivitamins, and anything else the naturopathic doctors, herbalists, psychologists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and everyone else who passes through its open-air doors can use. I'll probably bring organic dark chocolate bars for the previous doctor who craves it. I'll pack crunchy organic peanut butter for the current doctor and his family. I'll try to bring as much coconut oil as I can, because as I last heard, "The coconut oil guy went to jail."

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I'll maximize the space in my backpack, because we can't really ship anything to Nicaragua from the U.S. and expect it to arrive this year or intact. I'll try to remember what it was like to be there, treating patients in the backyard under the green mangos, with the end of the dry season winds providing more perfect relief than any air conditioner ever has. I didn't want more latex gloves and disposable wipes. I wanted a dry piece of cloth to wipe my forehead. I wanted a larger water bottle in case we couldn't refill anywhere until the town's water pipe was cut back on for the afternoon. I wanted more stickers and little toothbrushes to hand out to the smiling kids who've been happily waiting out back in line for hours.

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We're going back to Nicaragua, and not a moment too soon. I can't wait to see how the kids we treated last year are doing now. Did we catch their parasites in time, or did they lose too much weight? Did the berberine work better than the lady's metformin? I'm definitely going to stick a giant needle into some farm worker's ST38 and see if it takes his shoulder pain away on the spot. I can't wait to find out for real how the canal project is impacting the island. I want to see if any airplanes have actually landed on the new airstrip between the volcanos. I won't climb Concepcion or Maderas (for the third year in a row), but I'll listen with excitement as my husband tells me how many times he twisted his ankle on slippery tree roots and how beautiful the view is from the top. I'll take your word for it, again.

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For all the giving reasons, I'm going back to Nicaragua. But don't think it's selfless. I'm going for me. I'm going back to volunteer for a few days, sure, and I love every minute of that clinic work. But I'm also going back because Nicaragua can press my reset button like no other place I've found on earth. My family is free there. We aren't tied to time, we barely know what day it is, electronics are at a total minimum, and we're together. We're full of sunshine, water, fresh fruits and vegetables, and our lungs are full of air, because we walk everywhere. We're healthy there, even if I sometimes come home with Dengue Fever... Worth it!

Bad Acupuncturist. BAD!

That's what I say to myself, in my head thankfully, whenever I look down at my hands and realize my nails are long...again. Yes, to clarify, having long fingernails makes you a bad acupuncturist. Sure, you can still stick needles into flesh with respectably long nails, but you sure can't perform tui na very well. You might even pierce the skin just trying to palpate the channels to find the points. It's just bad...very bad.

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I'll never forget the day I learned this pearl of wisdom. It was rough for me. I've always had long nails -- not creepy curled "never cuts" -- but nice, clear, totally decent nails. I'm also particular about them and the relationship of my fingernails to my own health. You will not catch me with fingernail polish -- toxic, poison-fume leaking, nail-bed suffocating anti-health gloss -- ever. I find it to be a disgusting disregard for health, and I'm not even going into the additional toxins associated with going somewhere to "get your nails done."

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In other words, I already thought my nails were in good shape and I was a shining example of a "live what you preach" type of acupuncture student. My vision was shattered on April 28th, 2014, at 8am. It was our first day in the NDI clinic in Nicaragua, and I was all set to start needling the people (right through their tight jeans, but that's another story). Suddenly, I was slapped in the face with the comment "OH, you need to cut your nails!" by the acupuncturist, starting down at my nails with sheer mortification on her face.

What? "I just did!" I replied. Apparently my version of trimmed nails was nowhere near the skin-nubs-only level that my peers had adopted. OK, I took the nail clippers and went to town. I couldn't have picked my nose if I'd wanted to. No nail remnants survived this attack. Suddenly, everything felt weird. I was stimulating fingertip nerve endings that had never before been stimulated by anything but gently passing breezes. Now, here they were, bald and exposed to the world of stimuli -- Nicaraguan stimuli, nonetheless. Hot air, cold water, thick dust, tight jeans on strangers.

I was totally unprepared, but I put a smile on and went on with my week. What did I learn? She was right. They were all right. Having short -- extremely short -- fingernails is critical to being a good acupuncturist. I palpated so accurately; I tui na'd six layers deep. I was officially a convert. As she said to me when I began the AOM program two years ago, "Those are beautiful nails, but cut them. You'll never have long nails again if you're serious." And she was right.

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Until today, when I looked down and realized that I've been so busy between midterms, kids, work, and Thanksgiving plans, that I must have forgotten to clip those things for almost two weeks. In my defense, I'm taking really good supplements, so they do grow like wildfire. "Why is the pinkie nail longer than the rest," you might be thinking. Well it's not because I'm secretly a coke junkie. It's just the only one finger that I don't have to actively use in pulse taking, point palpating, or tui na. So, secretly, I sometimes don't clip that one...just to see if I can still grow one. I'm beard-challenging myself.

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Rest assured I grabbed the clippers and transformed myself from bad acupuncturist to good girl in less than two minutes. Ah, if life were always that easy!

Gearing Up for Nicaragua

2014-11-14_coughsyrupAlthough our group of volunteers just returned from dusty, hot Nicaragua a mere 6 months ago, it's already time to muster our energy, our spirit, and our medical supplies and get ready to head back. A stock-pile is already starting to form on the floor of my husband's office...first it was a few bottles of homeopathic cough syrup for infants that wouldn't fit in my bag last year...then it was a case of toothpaste samples from my dentist...now it's growing again as I add several bottles of essential oils from my generous sister to the little medicine mountain.

Why am I going back for the third time to volunteer at the Natural Doctors International (NDI) clinic on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua? Well, I'm basically hooked. Sure, they've made me the IL Chapter Representative for NDI, and they call me the brigade coordinator. But honestly, they had me at "would you like to come back next year?" Yep. Yes I would.

2014-11-14_boardingI'm hooked on the country, which is immediately to the north of my long-time favorite--Costa Rica. Nicaragua itself is absolutely beautiful, with beaches, surfing, mineral springs, mountains, and volcanos. Oh, the volcanoes -- talk about a love-fear relationship. This year I'm planning to venture off after the medical brigade and attempt the famous volcano-boarding, which is where you don a protective suit and surf down the scree of a semi-active volcano on a modified snow-board. I think that counts as exposure therapy.

2014-11-14_ppl1I'm hooked on the people, many of whom I know by name and family now. I see the same faces year after year, all who seem genuinely happy to have the natural medicine option on the island. They have options off the island, too, but they have to take a bus, then a ferry, then a bus, and then wait all day at a hospital that may or may not have time for them that day. It's an expense that most people can't meet. The children follow us around the village, giggling and holding up signs they made that say "Thank you."

2014-11-14_ppl2And finally, I'm hooked on the clinic. The clinic offers free acupuncture, botanicals, homeopathics, massage, chiropractic, and whatever else we volunteers bring down on the brigade. I've seen premature babies, clinging to life, which honestly wouldn't have made it had they not found their way into the NDI clinic that day. We treated pregnant women and farm laborers, both with excruciating back pain. Liliam, the local licensed psychologist, quietly walks the abuse victims over to her counseling area, where we really learn about the dark side of a community. We've called the police to pick up a rapist. We've escorted a barely teenage girl off the island to that distant hospital to get imaging done on the lemon-sized lump she found in her breast.

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If you want to give back, to experience another culture, and to see many types of case that you might have not exposure to at our clinics in Chicagoland, then contact me.

Check out www.ndimed.org for more information on the upcoming brigade -- a 10-day program including 1 orientation day, 4 clinic days, 1 farm day, 1 free day, 1 closing day, 2 travel days and informal evening courses in global health and natural medicine. Come back to school after your spring break with a certificate showing your 40 service hours of hard and rewarding work in a truly integrative medical setting.

2014-11-14_team2We need volunteers: medical students, providers, and Spanish speakers are preferred but not required. We need donations: vitamins, supplements, probiotics, botanicals, needles, and herbs preferred.

Want to learn more about this opportunity? Contact me anytime with questions, concerns, help with setting up the first-giving fundraising tool that most of us choose to use, or just stories about how we treat people even when there's no water or electricity for days. The group is forming NOW, and I hope to hear from YOU soon!

Why Are We So Wimpy?

2014-06-10_wimpYes, I said "we." I'm lumping you all in with me and almost everyone else I know. We're wimpy. My sister said it best several years ago in a comment about the "wussification of America." No, I'm not sure how to spell that. She was speaking about the general wussiness of people these days, and I'll see that new word and raise it to another contextual use.

I'm sure you know what I'm talking about. If you have had a baby in the past 10 years, you've certainly had to explain to a grandmother (your kid's or otherwise) why baby has to ride in the car seat for every little trip. "Yes, grandma, I know we're just riding up the street to the corner store. Yes, she still needs to be strapped into her car seat. Just because." Grandma undoubtedly replies, "I never strapped your father into a car seat, and he lived. He would ride all the way to Florida to visit Aunt Ida every year and nothing ever happened to him." Then simply to justify my own wussiness, I make up something about how I'll be arrested if the police see me with my kid riding on my lap.

2014-06-10_signSome of you might not be convinced about the car seats. They're important. Even I strap my kids into those things just to ride up the street, and I don't consider myself a huge wussy. Just start extrapolating this theory, though, and you'll surely jump onto the "wussification of America" bandwagon. We all drink light beer. Every kid gets a trophy. They cancel school when it snows. I'm so hot walking the 10 feet from my air-conditioned car to my air-conditioned office. I have to wait 3 whole seconds for my Facebook page to load on this old phone. Waaaah.

How does this relate to Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine? Well, the wimps don't leave their wimpiness at the door of the clinic. That is for sure. I can write this post without fear of offending anyone, because I, myself, am a needle wuss. That's right. I don't want to feel the needles. I'll needle you, but don't you try to needle me.

Clearly I am not alone. Sure, you have a few patients who never flinch when you insert a needle. They never complain that something hurts or feels weird. These are the lovely "exception" patients, and they are few and far between. Most of us recoil in pain -- pain that is really just an unfulfilled apprehension of pain -- with the insertion of each needle. At first, I liked seeing this reaction from patients, because it justified my own wimpiness. Now, though, I've evolved. As I become less wimpy about needling myself and letting others needle me, I think I subconsciously expect more of my patients, too.

2014-06-10_smokeThe people in Nicaragua never flinched. We would jab those needles right into the sore back or the tired feet, and the patient would hardly notice. Are Nicaraguans simply a stronger people than Americans? Probably, but I didn't stop there. No, what about the Chinese needling? So deep, so hard, so scary for most Americans. Are they inherently stronger than us, too? They want to feel that moxa until it burns a blackened memorial into ST36. I would move to Japan, home of "shallow needling," to avoid those 6-inch needles I've been told so much about from the Chinese professors and clinicians.

2014-06-10_needleNo, I don't think it's that Nicaraguans are freakishly strong or that Chinese people are particularly masochistic. I just think Americans are caught in the throes of the recent trends towards wussification. Be careful, don't get hurt; don't let the sunshine get you! I reject wussification insofar as I legally can, but I am still and will always be one of the wimpy ones in the clinic when I'm on the receiving end of that needle business. So, if you're afraid of needles and therefore have not yet tried acupuncture, this post is for you. If I can do it, you can do it.