Marianne Chalmers, a 2010 Pacific College of Oriental Medicine New York alumna, lives 90 minutes away from Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado struck on May 22, 2011, leaving a devasting path of destruction in its wake. According to National Weather Service records, the recent Joplin tornado was the deadliest twister in more than 60 years. The tornado left a 13-mile long trail of destruction, killing 142 people and leaving close to 8,000 homes decimated.
Armed with her Masters in Traditional Oriental Medicine (MSTOM) and a long interest in AcupuncturistsWithout Borders (AWB), Chalmers responded to the call for volunteer acupuncturists. Chalmers became pivotal in getting the AWB training and on-site venue set-up, as well as organizing and scheduling volunteer participation. Volunteer acupuncturists and massage therapists (who provided acupressure treatments) work 8 – 10 hours a day on site, and treat between 35-40 people daily.
Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) is a non-profit organization that was created in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Since then, AWB has provided free acupuncture and acupressure in areas of natural disaster to evacuees, residents, first responders, emergency personnel, volunteers, and other care providers. In New Orleans and the surrounding areas alone, AWB treated close to 8,000 individuals. The outpour of positive responses increased the demand for AWB’s services, and it is now a national organization, prepared to lend a helping hand in times of crisis anywhere in the U.S.
Chalmers details the untiring effort made by the volunteers, “We have had 15+ acupuncturists dedicate their time and energy to drive anywhere from 1.5 – 5 hours to the site in order to treat the survivors of the tornado. They get gas out of town so as not to use Joplin’s remaining resources. They sleep in their cars and shower at gas stations. They bring their own supplies. Lhasa OMS and Blue Poppy have been very gracious to offer donations as well.”
Acupuncture treatments for survivors began on-site in Joplin with just one table and a couple of chairs. “Volunteers are savvy about bringing their own supplies. One person brought recliners, which made the space more inviting.” Says Chalmers.
Chalmers points out that it was a trial to find a place to create the treatment space, and the Salvation Army was kind enough to allow the volunteers to share their area. In addition to performing treatments, the volunteers made an effort to educate the public about the benefits of acupuncture, and to alleviate any misconceptions. Volunteers developed tactics to interest people and draw them to the AWB booth. One strategy involved a ‘free seats available for children’ sign. Once the kids were engaged, the parents were enticed to find out more about the treatments offered.
Diana Fried, Founder and Executive Director of Acupuncturists Without Borders explains, “Since 2005, AWB has provided disaster relief to tens of thousands of survivors of disasters – in places like New Orleans (hurricanes), California (wildfires), Iowa (floods), Haiti (earthquake) – and has also supported many local acupuncture relief efforts in places like New Zealand, Boulder, Colorado, Tucson, Arizona, Chile, and more. AWB has also trained about 1500 acupuncturists (and ADS) around the U.S., Canada and the world to help build the local capacity of acupuncturists to respond in their state or country where they are licensed or certified.
AWB also trains acupuncturists to run local volunteer community clinics helping to heal the wounds of war for veterans and their families, and to provide service to other populations in need, such as survivors of domestic violence. There are many opportunities to get involved. The first step is generally to attend an AWB training or to participate in a World Healing Exchange trip. Information about trainings can be found at www.ACWB.info <http://www.ACWB.info> . AWB is also a member organization providing many member benefits to those with interest in this area of domestic and international community service.”
AWB practices what is called “community treatment”. Community acupuncture is an efficient way of providing treatment to a large number of people. and so it is a useful model in a disaster area. Patients are treated in a group where each person sits in a chair, fully clothed. Community acupuncture being offered in Joplin follows a protocol developed by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, in which five acupuncture points on the ears are the focus of the practitioners. Originally developed to treat addiction, these points on the ears can reset the nervous system and provide a highly effective way to treat anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, and tension. In addition to addressing practical logistical considerations, treating clients in a group setting also helps to combat the isolation many are struggling with in the aftermath of a large scale disaster. Clients are often comforted by the presence of others. When a disaster strikes a community, it devastates the community infrastructure (schools, churches, health centers), as well as the individuals involved. Consequently, it is helpful to heal as a community, as well as to heal at an individual level.
Chalmers saw firsthand the improvement of patients with the use of community style acupuncture. “The model that AWB taught for disaster relief training creates an environment that is safe and open for survivors to release trauma from the disaster. Since the beginning of June, we have treated over 500 people and many are return patients. One patient disclosed that he has cut his methadone prescription in half since coming to the tent. Other patients report better sleep and less pain.”
Many of the treatments offered at disaster relief sites for anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress disorder are verbal (various forms of counseling) or require medication. Community acupuncture in a group setting has advantages over these conventional treatments in that it doesn’t require clients to be able to verbally process their experience, and it doesn’t present the possibility of side effects and addiction that medication does. It can also be used along with more conventional talk and medication therapies to enhance effectiveness.
“After getting food, clothing, shelter and support from charity programs, each person is still left with the trauma in the aftermath. When someone tells you they slept better from a treatment when they have lost everything, it validates how acupuncture is really necessary for trauma recovery.” Chalmers said.
The circle of patients sitting for community style acupuncture is mirrored in the group of acupuncturists performing the service. Fried comments, “The volunteers in Joplin who have been providing acupuncture to survivors of the tragic tornado disaster have been doing a truly phenomenal job. They are testament to the power of a volunteer-run effort, supported by AWB but led by volunteers, and how together, a group can make such a difference in so many people’s lives. I read the volunteer stories about the impact on their lives of doing this work, and I cry. I am in awe of their response, and I believe what they have done can serve as a model for others around the country.”
Cynthia Neipris, Director of Outreach and Community Education at Pacific College’s New York campus, comments, “We’re very proud that Pacific College graduates, like Marianne Chalmers, working with organizations like AWB, are making such a difference in the lives of many at what may be the most difficult times of their lives,” remarks Neipris. “In addition to providing much needed relief, they are educating communities and relief workers all over the world about the benefits of acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Interestingly, they often find that their community service efforts also have a positive effect on the growth of their private practices, as their regular patients are inspired and enthusiastic about supporting someone who is doing such great work. By supporting their practitioner, they too feel connected to the good work that is being done.”
At its heart, Traditional Chinese Medicine is a service oriented field: its goal surpasses helping just the body, but also the mind and spirit. Many practitioners are open to ways outside of their own practice that they can be of service, but may not see all the opportunities in everyday life to utilize their TCM skills while lending a helping hand. As the acceptance of the practice of acupuncture and other traditional TCM modalities increases in modern mainstream culture, so too do the opportunities to spread the word and make a difference. Pacific College is proud of its alumna that have participated in AWB’s meaningful work.