On Feb. 27, the nation of Chile experienced a devastating earthquake of 8.8 magnitude. The epicenter was in the Bo Bo region. The quake affected 80 percent of Chile's population and sparked tsunamis across the Pacific.
As the world was in the throes of responding to the Jan. 12 Haitian quake crisis at the time, many humanitarian organizations were overwhelmed with trying to respond to the new catastrophe in South America. Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) had also been responding to Haiti by sending teams to set up clinics throughout the nation. The AWB Board and staff was trying to assess how we could possibly respond to the Chilean disaster in the midst of our Haitian efforts, when World Healing Exchange and AWB volunteer Micah O'Neal, MS, LAc, received a fateful e-mail from an acupuncturist in Chile.
Trinidad Sepulveda, MS, LAc, had attended Pacific Symposium in San Diego, last year where she first heard of AWB. As she sat amongst the rubble of what was left of her country, Trinidad sent an e-mail to AWB asking if the organization could help come and train local acupuncturists for disaster response in Chile. She remembered, "I did not know what to expect, I had to try to reach out." Micah felt a strong pull to respond. As he reported, "I just felt in the depth of my being we had to go and help these people." Micah and AWB Board Member John Convey, MS, LAc, were able to pull together time and plane tickets to go to Chile on March 8 for what has become a life-altering and bridge-building experience for acupuncturists across the globe.
Equipped with an AWB training manual, lap tops, acupuncture supplies and a printer, Micah and John arrived at the shattered airport in Santiago. They had e-mailed and had spotty phone contact with Trinidad, but had never seen what she looked like. Micah recalls, "I had this picture of a very strong and wise person, and when the crowds cleared, John and I heard this soft voice calling out "Micah ... John, is that you?" They turned around, they were greeted warmly by a very petite, intense young woman, and the adventure began.
John explained, "Trinidad was amazing, we expected to help to set things up, but Trinidad had already organized acupuncturists from around the country, and arranged for a core group to form a board to organize the relief efforts. The first meeting was in a local hospital." The initial Chilean group was composed of 12 members: acupuncturists, an accountant and an attorney. During this meeting, John and Micah spoke of how to set up clinics, create a nonprofit organization, and the importance of creating a sustainable initiative for acupuncture disaster relief in Chile. John also spoke of the necessity to be prepared for secondary trauma for the acupuncture volunteers, and discussed how to meet this challenge in the coming days. They reviewed the NADA protocol and trained one another that evening.
The next day, the broader trainings began. At this venue, 70 acupuncture volunteers showed up. The goal was to help the Chileans help themselves for the long term. In what were sometimes humorous and often heart-warming sessions, John and Micah helped the Chilean acupuncturists learn the NADA protocol, how to deal with paper work, and most important, how to service the care providers in case the trauma of quake victims overwhelmed the helpers. On the next day, there was another training, at which 70 more acupuncturists came for instruction.
On March 13, the newly trained Chilean acupuncturists were to run their first stress reduction acupuncture clinic in conjunction with the Chilean Red Cross Disaster Relief headquarters at a local hospital in Santiago. Earlier that day, there was a 7.4 magnitude aftershock. John, Micah and Trinidad were having a strategy session at Trinidad's 12th-story apartment during the quake. This was all quite new to Micah, and helped her understand what was affecting the locals. When things settled down, the three went off to the Red Cross center.
Because of the strength of the aftershock, the Red Cross center was in frantic response mode. One acupuncture volunteer arrived, shaken by the news that her pregnant sister was trapped in an disabled elevator from the recent tremor. John and Micah took the opportunity to treat her immediately with the NADA protocol. They used this event to highlight the importance of being aware of secondary trauma and how volunteers may often be victims of disaster themselves. The volunteer responded immediately to the treatment and was able to help others at the clinic with renewed focus and a sense of calm. The message of the day was for the acupuncturists to constantly check in with each other and receive treatments as a way to enhance their effectiveness and well-being.
Because of the stress of the aftershock, there was not much negotiation with the Red Cross director as to whether or not a clinic would be set up. Trinidad was given a room, chairs were set up, and the treatments commenced. After the Chilean acupuncturists treated people non-stop for four hours, John and Micah went to the director, Robinson Talavera, to check on the progress of the relief efforts. Robinson reported that he "couldn't believe the shift in the mood of the recipients and the clinic as a whole." He was so impressed that he basically gave his full endorsement for any future clinics, and offered complete assistance in securing locations, chairs and treatment supplies. He told the clinic organizers he wanted acupuncture to be part of the current and any future Red Cross disaster relief plan in Chile from this time forward.
Micah, John and Trinidad later traveled to San Antonio to meet with Mauricio Pacheco, a local acupuncturist who was extremely motivated to set up a clinic. A total of four local acupuncturists showed up at Mauricio's office to receive training under Trinidad. After the training was completed, everyone noticed that there were 25 people waiting in the courtyard of the office building. This was significant, since the clinic had not been advertised at all. A television crew arrived and interviewed John and Trinidad. There is now a trailer on YouTube of this production. Several other clinics followed, with the Chilean's taking the lead. When the week was done, an exhausted but incredibly inspired John and Micah went back to California brimming with hope and a deep appreciation for the power of acupuncture to transform individuals and culture.
Since that fateful week in March, Trinidad Sepulveda and the acupuncturists in Chile have founded a sister organization with AWB. Trinidad said, "Its been a big journey for me. It is a huge task to organize and it has been made possible thanks to my colleagues Constanza Gutierrez, Polma Peralta, Maria Luzoro and Japp Vermeer who now form the essential core group effort for this movement in Chile. I also am grateful of the guidance of John and Micah."
The new organization, Acupunctura Para Chile, can be found at www.acupunturaparachile.cl, where you can become a friend on Facebook, see pictures of clinics and acupuncture volunteers, and view videos documenting the effects of acupuncture relief for quake victims.
AWB is also being contacted by other countries also seeking to set up similar chapters abroad. AWB is hoping that the experience in Chile will create a template for future international actions. The Board is working to make this a reality in the coming months. A major outcome of the experience is the door has finally opened between acupuncturists and the Red Cross, and AWB looks forward to future partnerships in domestic and international relief efforts.
Both Micah and John reported feeling a deep connection with the acupuncturists they worked with in Chile, in spite of a lack of common language. Micah said her lasting impression was that the people of Chile responded to a disaster in similar ways that we do, with a deep desire to help one another. "We are all on this planet together, we need to support one another. If all I have to offer is acupuncture, then I can do that!"
Micah O'Neal, John Convey, Trinidad Sepulveda and countless other acupuncturists all over the world are helping to broaden the vision of AWB, by creating long-term healing to entire communities through community-style acupuncture in disaster relief situations. AWB welcomes your input, donations and membership, and invites you to come to one of our trainings. Please go to www.acuwithoutborders.org for more information.
Stephanie Georgieff practices in Southern California, and is the vice chair of the board for Acupuncturists Without Borders.