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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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."
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.
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.
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!
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.
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."
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.
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.
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!
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.
I'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.
I'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."
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.
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.
volunteers: medical students, providers, and Spanish speakers are
preferred but not required. We need donations: vitamins,
supplements, probiotics, botanicals, needles, and herbs
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
Yes, 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.
Some 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.
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.
The 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.
No, 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.
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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