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.
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
Nights in Nicaragua were dark. It wasn't just because
electricity was on short supply, although that was true. Nights
were serious, reflective, and quiet...because days were bright,
hot, and characterized by exhausting work in the clinic. During our
10-day program at NDI's integrative medical clinic in Nicaragua, we
volunteers maxed and relaxed as we bounced along at the whim of the
country, its people, and its water shortage.
"Are you coming back next year?" is a question that I heard my
own voice and those of others asking from Day 1. Because of the
earthquakes, the water shortage, the power loss, and the
run-of-the-mill "getting to know you" period with the new doctor,
many of the responding voices said, "No." By day 10, there was a
noticeable shift towards "YES." How did Nicaragua dig into our
hearts and pull us towards the Yes end of the spectrum in just a
Fellow NUHS AOM students Irene Walters,
Yvonne Gonzales, and Melissa Espinoza, and our invaluable ND
student, Kaley Burns, committed to helping a very poor and very
remote community on the island of Ometepe during our trimester
break. What we discovered there was how deserving and appreciative
the people of Los Angeles, Moyo, Altagracia, and many other nearby
towns are of the natural medicine clinic that serves their
Some days went by quickly, as dozens of people were called up
from their backyard waiting room chairs, where they had sat
patiently for several hours, only to be rewarded with a tincture, a
needling session, and a massage as applicable for each condition.
Other days seemed to drag on forever as we sat waiting between
patients in the stifling 99 degree heat in a 3-room clinic. Either
way, we made it back to our homestay families each evening for a
hot meal and a cold shower.
Nicaragua leaves me with so many take-aways that each year I've
been hard pressed to name the most important thing I learn on this
trip. The value of integrative medicine? The versatility of
botanicals? The severe need and appreciation of the people on
Ometepe? The feeling of being so sure that I am on the right path?
Um, all of the above!
The nightly discussions at the Rancho after long workdays, hot
dinners, and cold showers provided the missing information that
I've been seeking for years. Why are these people unable to receive
adequate care in their own country on their own accord? Why do
Americans feel a need to travel to Central America and assist?
Learning about the history of Nicaragua and its relations with the
U.S. is not just enlightening for the volunteers, but it also helps
us understand the role that America and other first-world nations
have played in pushing Nicaragua to its current state of affairs
today. Why do we go there to help? Well, because we were part of
the problem in the first place.
Nights in Nicaragua were dark for a reason. Yes, as everyone
pointed out on Facebook, we had access to the Internet...for about
20 minutes per day, at one location, if it even worked at all. The
nightly Internet access was a small part of our experience, dwarfed
by the gravity of our work during the day. Nightly classes and
discussions in the Rancho--our open-air meeting place in
town--allowed each weary volunteer to start processing what we did
that day in a meaningful way. With each huge, scary gust of
end-of-the-dry-season wind, we grabbed at our flying papers and
felt the country penetrate further and further into our hearts and
Will I go back to the NDI clinic on Ometepe island? Yep. I want
to see how many of those malnourished children used the
toothbrushes that I handed them. I want to see how many of the
little kids with a parasite felt better and started eating again. I
want to see the woman whose blood sugar was over 400 report that
the Berberine was helping manage her diabetes better than the
Metformin was(n't). I was relieved that we didn't see any
brink-of-death premature babies this year, but there were still
many, many people who needed our help. I'll be back. And I hope
that next year YOU come with me!
Ok, I'll do one--one of those kinds of posts. I usually
think it's more interesting and relevant to share information about
some topic of concern or awe to those of us in alternative
medicine, but this time I'm just going to do what the original
intention of this AOM blog probably was. I'm going to share what
it's like to be an acupuncture student fighting her way towards the
end of the trimester.
Now, I'm not fighting because I'm bored, confused, or frustrated
with my classes. On the contrary, I enjoy the nights I get to drive
in a car by myself and sit quietly for 4-5 hours learning about
something I love. It's the most relaxing part of the day. Hey, I
have active young children, a messy husband, and a sometimes
too-demanding teaching schedule to juggle all day. Give me a
graduate night class any day of the week!
No, I'm not fighting in a bad way. I'm excited to reach the end
of this trimester because the day after it ends, I'm getting on the
airplane for Nicaragua. Two weeks in Central America is just what
the doctor ordered for this stressed out, over-committed student.
I'd love to say I'm a good flier, but that wouldn't be true. With
that missing Malaysian plane, I'm going to be grinding ear seeds
into my PC6 points until they're bleeding. Awesomely inopportune
time for that mysterious tragedy. Not to be insensitive, but I
barely make it through my flights as it is. Rescue remedy? Yep,
I'll be using that heavily.
The past several months have been leading up to this medical
mission trip, and soon I know it will be here, then
already--sadly--behind me. Since last year's trip, I haven't been
able to get that clinic off my mind--not that I want to! NDI's
integrative healthcare clinic serves so many appreciative and needy
people, and it's the only medical setting I've ever experienced
where providers of several medical fields all circle around and get
to take a crack at each patient who walks in the door. I know that
when I start my first shift, a middle-aged Nicaraguan farmer will
come into the clinic with the chief complaint of back pain. If I
used a machete all day, I'd develop back pain, too. Instead of that
patient being confined to the limits of one provider's medicine,
this patient will reap the benefits of the naturopath, the
chiropractor, the acupuncturist, the psychologist, and the massage
therapist on staff at the same time. He might get an adjustment,
soft tissue work, some needles, and even a tincture for the road. I
can't get that sweet deal anywhere in the United States, that's for
sure. Did I mention it's free? Sign...me...up.
This is the future of medicine, people.This is it. Integrative
medicine is the way. True, I have to get on an airplane to immerse
myself in it at this point, but I promise you one thing--I'll bring
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
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