By Diana Fried, MAc, LAc, Dipl. Ac. and Melanie Rubin, AWB Managing Director
I recently returned from Haiti. So many people ask whether Haiti has recovered since the earthquake of January, 2010. Once you've been to Haiti, you would never ask that question. It doesn't make any sense.
Haiti was desperately poor financially before the earthquake and the earthquake made things worse by an order of magnitude. But, how can you tell? You know when you talk to the people and they speak to you of their loss, their grief that is still unresolved as life goes on and Haitians must draw upon every ounce of resource they have to survive. Yes, they are resilient – but even the most resilient people come to a point when their reserves begin to fail.
Hundreds of thousands live in what now appear to be permanent tent camps within Port-au-Prince. These camps seem to go on for miles, with shoddy tarps ripping in the wind, masses of people walking about, doing their work, carrying water, keeping the fires going to cook food. And the city itself is still in rough shape even with all the rebuilding that has taken place. Driving on the horrendously bumpy dirt roads one passes mountains of trash and rivers full of garbage and pigs. The diesel fumes, dust and heat combined are overwhelming. Early in the morning you can see throngs of people elbowing to fill their buckets with water from the public supply so they can begin their day. The streets are crowded and crushed with people from early morning until late at night. It seems like the people never sleep.
People in Haiti work hard – very hard – in what often appears to be endless days and weeks. They are also strong, kind, rebellious, a bit fierce at times, and as our Haitian Program Director, Nathalie Guillaume says, "very dramatic." But given conditions in which so many live, I cannot imagine a theatrical drama that could truly describe what life here is like. I have traveled a lot in my life, often within the global South, and have never been anywhere as hard or as harsh as Haiti.
Photo by Carole Devillers
As the executive director of Acupuncturists Without Borders, me and a group of acupuncturists responded to the Haiti earthquake by sending teams in 2010 to do free community acupuncture for thousands of Haitians. At the request of local health care providers, we then provided two trainings in this work for Haitian health care practitioners and community leaders, one in August of 2010 and one in May of 2011.
In February of this year, I went to Haiti with trainers Melanie Rubin and Randi Savage to lead another training and to see how the trauma recovery work AWB initiated in 2010 is unfolding.
The acupuncture we do after disasters has been proven to treat acute trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. Our treatments are very simple and very effective – we insert five tiny needles in each outer ear and the results are astounding. This protocol was refined and shared by the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) starting 25 years ago in the U.S.. It is based on the Chinese medicine tradition of treating points on energetic "meridians" in the body that correspond to major organ systems. Often people who have experienced traumatic events say after NADA treatment that they remember what it feels like to be who they were before the crisis – to sleep and eat again like "normal." As well, the treatments often reduce pain, increase range of movement, lower blood pressure, and improve overall well-being, amongst other benefits.
I have to say, even though I've been leading this work for many years now, and have seen how incredible the results are around the world, in the U.S., with veterans, after disasters, etc…I seem to remain a skeptic at all times with any new program we implement, until proven otherwise.
I feel as though what happened in Haiti with our work is a bit magical. Louissaint Alcide is AWB's Haiti Clinic Director. Without him, this project could never have happened the way it did. Louissaint does not have any previous training in acupuncture, nor in management or organizing an effort such as this. When AWB came to Haiti Louissaint was working in a support capacity in one of the clinics where we provided treatment. He saw the importance of the work immediately and wanted to be involved. When AWB offered the first training in 2010, Louissaint was asked to participate, and he became trained in this methodology. He has dedicated his life and his work to getting acupuncture established in Haiti, which hasn't been easy, financially and otherwise. He took us to his house on this trip – a small concrete room in a compound of similar dwelling units, mostly filled with a bed (for his wife, himself, and his five-year old son), clothes and items piled on the edges of the room, no refrigerator (they use a cooler and buy ice, as do many Haitians), no electricity, and a shared bathroom for many people who live in the small community.
Since the beginning of our work with Louissaint he has managed to find excellent participants to come to our trainings; the professionals who would take this work forward and pioneer something so unique, so powerful, for the Haitian people. We have now trained several psychologists from Partners in Health's Haitian sister organization, Zanmi Lasante, as well as nurses, doctors, and community health workers, and medical students. Thanks to Louissaint's careful support and cultivation of this network of healers, the work continues to grow in Haiti.
During the February training, you should have heard the room roar with excitement and release when our staff taught qi gong (a Chinese movement system). They were the most dynamic qi gong practitioners I've ever seen, and I've taught qi gong around the world and across the U.S..It was hard to believe how they soaked up the peace when we taught meditation, as if they'd been wanting and needing this practice for years. When it came to them learning the NADA auricular acupuncture protocol, it seemed the approach and technique were completely natural for the trainees and within Haiti in general. Haiti's people are open to things that are outside the box. Within three days just about the entire trainee group was ready to go out and change the Haitian experience with their needles. I really mean that. I could never have imagined how smoothly and seamlessly this would go. Former trainees also came back to attend the training, soak up more knowledge, and tell stories of the impact of their acupuncture work over the last 1 – 2.5 years since they attended their first AWB training.
Many people ask where the aid has been used that was sent to Haiti. Many people also ask where the organizations have gone that said they would stick with Haiti until she healed. I cannot vouch for most of the aid, or explain what happened to the organizations that have left. But I can tell you that I have seen that aid makes a real difference when the funds are used to build local capacity and strengthen a skill base (or introduce a new skill that is directly applicable within the community). And this works best when the community requests the skills training, and you deliver it in a way that truly serves them. We offer our trainings for free. This makes it possible for the trainees to come. Many of them then take what they've learned to the streets, doing free clinics themselves. Some of them charge a nominal fee to those who can afford it, so a source for generating income is being created as well.
After the training we went to visit sites where acupuncture clinics are being run by AWB trainees. We visited a rural clinic about three hours from Port-au-Prince that is run by Zanmi Lasante. After jogging along bumpy roads, and around many swerving mountain curves, we finally came upon a small wooden church, on a hill. Outside a group of people were gathered under a mango tree. As we got closer, we could see that many had needles in their ears.
This clinic in Thomonde is conducted once a month as a mobile clinic. In the little wooden church next to the mango tree, Zanmi Lasante practitioners do medical assessments and treatment for various kinds of mental illness, hyperactivity in children, and a range of physical conditions. After the sessions in the church, patients go outside, sit in the cool shade of the tree, and receive ear acupuncture. We heard stories of people with Parkinson's who had stopped shaking and people with depression who had started being able to function again. Many of the practitioners attribute these changes to the acupuncture, and are amazed at the results. Father Eddy, Zanmi Lasante's Mental Health Program Director, who was trained in a previous AWB training in Haiti, sent several of his clinicians to learn the NADA protocol during the training we did on this trip. We watched one of the recent trainees give a treatment, proudly, and with confidence and grace.
Another site we visited, Kay Lasante (House of Health), is a small community health clinic, housed in a small office and compact set of rooms within a neighborhood that has little access to health services. It is a tiny, peaceful oasis in this part of the city – this clean, jewel of a clinic with orderly bottles of medicine. On Friday mornings, after blood pressure screening, the patients line up in chairs under the tent outside, ready for acupuncture. Some people travel to the clinic for 4-5 hours each way, often just because they want acupuncture. We heard several miracle stories about the benefits of treatment. One of the new trainees at this clinic had seen the impact of acupuncture, and urgently wanted to be trained. She spoke to us passionately about the need in Haiti, and the incredible hope she has for what this treatment protocol will do to help heal the sorrow of the Haitian people.
We also visited a clinic in Leogane, which was the epicenter of the earthquake. The clinic is run by Jean Marie Exavier and Elouse Thumas, who have known each other practically since they were born, and have been great friends all their lives. Both are dedicated to natural healing, and have studied herbal medicine and other healing systems. We walked down a muddy little alleyway with a small creek running through it, with a tent to one side (Jean Marie's home and herbal apothecary), and were greeted by about 75 people sitting along the wall, in chairs, wherever they could squeeze in. Mothers, children, husbands, grandmothers, babies – all waiting for treatment. They knew the drill; many have been coming for a long time to this clinic, because the treatment is helping to heal their wounds since the earthquake, helping to heal their families, and this devastated community. Jean Marie, when interviewed, told us of his immense gratitude for this methodology, and also his need for more support to do this work on an even larger scale, as he'd like to do.
The trainees are so jazzed about the potential for this work, how it has healed them, and what they can do for the people of Haiti. What I saw among the second or third-time trainees is that the training has changed the trainees – given them an empowered sense of themselves, helped further develop their identity as professionals, and given them hope for the possibility of change that in some cases they did not have before.
Though the mountainsides are bare in Haiti due to massive deforestation, and there are still so many signs of the earthquake's devastation; though Haitian society has had to bear crushing oppression and destruction from many sources; though trauma and grief is still so prevalent; though the financial poverty (in contrast with the strength of Spirit) in Haiti is unimaginable; what I saw is that it is possible to begin to shift the trauma and support the deep resilience of the Haitian people. The trainees are doing this by offering skills that not only heal, but tap into a deep well of love, support, hope, and transformation, which the thousands and thousands of people treated will be able to draw on forever.
Diana Fried is the executive director of Acupuncturists Without Borders. She has worked in international grassroots community development (Oxfam America), including travel and work in Mexico, Central America and Africa.