I was fortunate to be able to join Acupuncturists Without Borders in its relief efforts for the victims of the San Diego fires that burned for weeks in October. The area I was positioned in was 60 miles southeast of metro San Diego, and less than five miles from the Mexican border.
As I drove toward Barrett, Calif., on my first morning of volunteering, I began to smell the pervasive scent of burned wood. I was still 15 miles away from my destination, yet I was surrounded by a scorched landscape. Low bushes, oak trees, prairie grasses and buildings alike had been reduced to piles of charcoal or blackened skeletons of their former structures. "Dramatic" couldn't explain the wide open landscape, etched with distinct fire lines, seemingly of another planet in comparison to the untouched strip malls and gas stations not more then three miles behind me.
Arriving in Barrett, I met our group at a locally famous restaurant, known among Sunday motorcycle riders as the best place to stop along some of the most scenic roadways in Southern California. Sadly, riders were now coming to stare in awe at the destruction, rather than the natural beauty. The restaurant was owned by a local couple who had been spared the destruction of fire but had no utilities to open their business. They had donated their space as a central location to all relief agencies that had come to Barrett, including Acupuncturists Without Borders, allowing us to operate out of a tent on the porch. We shared the space with FEMA, Red Cross, local and state police, and others doing relief work. Residents of the small border town wandered in and out of the parking lot, looking for food, clothes, services and even socialization as a way to find some familiaraity within the chaos. Some stopped to inquire about the services we offered and seemed too pre-occupied to think about something as strange as acupuncture. I hadn't been there long, but I started to question the role of acupuncture in this setting. I learned soon enough.
The acupuncturists who had been working for the past two weeks were exhausted, yet they all remained inspired by the experience and ready to lead those of us who were new to the scene into action. I was stationed 10 miles further up the road in a small town called Potrero, where I was given permission to treat in the back yard of the California Department of Forestry Fire Department. I was a little skeptical as to how many people would find me and be open to the services I had to offer. However, it wasn't long before I could put those concerns to rest.
That first day, I treated many of the Potrero residents and volunteers. I used only the NADA five-point protocol, adding some points on the hand from time to time. I was nervous at first, wanting this to be helpful but not really sure how these simple needles were going to impact the people who had been so devastated by the fires. What I saw suspended all doubt. Throughout the day, I saw this simple protocol relax people, relieve pain and lull them into a soft sense of comfort as they shared their stories of loss and heroics with me - an unexpected gift. Some were very forthcoming in telling me about how the needles made them feel, while others simply sat in silence and offered deep gratitude when they left. I did not know exactly how the acupuncture affected these more reserved people but the change could be seen in their demeanor, their bodies and eyes.
I began to see how acupuncture helps those in crisis. The short period of relaxation, relief and reprieve allowed them to carry on with strength in the face of rebuilding their beloved community, as well as their personal lives. One woman who spoke only Spanish came for pain relief. Her daughter told me that in all the stress of the fires, her arthritis and osteoporosis pain had been terrible. The 86-year-old woman was doing a (careful) dance and smiling by the time I removed the needles. A group of six memorable people found relief in joking and laughing for the entire 45 minutes that they sat with needles in their ears. Relaxation showed itself in the form of endless puns and comedic conversation - another pleasant surprise to me. As they joked and laughed like old friends, I learned that only four of the six knew each other before coming to have acupuncture. While sitting with needles in their ears, the bonds of this small community grew even tighter. They left with promises of keeping in touch to share ways of helping each other access resources through the rebuilding.
Another surprising group was the fire-fighting team that was housed at the fire station. A young, tough group, I was apprehensive as to how to explain to them how they would benefit from taking a short break and sitting with needles in their ears. I did my best but, by now, I had learned to let the medicine do most of the explaining. Because the fire chief had experienced acupuncture before, he showed them there was no harm in acupuncture and sat for 30 minutes. His team of six followed and became my most faithful group for the next three days. It made me laugh to pull up to the firehouse on the second day to hear one of them say, "Hey look! It's the acupuncture lady. Nap time!" They reported the best sleep and energy they had had in weeks. This was yet another lesson to me on how this medicine can help the recovery process after a crisis. I was becoming convinced that it was more effective in this situation than anywhere else I had administered acupuncture. There was no need to enhance it with music, lighting or other such modifications many of us make in private practice. Here were the results of acupuncture in its raw, pure form.
I treated in Potrero for three days - a very short stint compared to those who had been involved before I came. Yet in three days, I observed the strength in the bonds of a community like none other I had ever experienced and how I could help in its recovery. The media largely ignored this small town, far from the commercial structure of San Diego, because there were no high-profile houses or names that were affected. However, in this small community nestled in the hills adjacent to Mexico, I saw the impact that this medicine can make. It is daunting to think that my small effort and even smaller needles could aid in the recovery from such an overwhelming disaster. I almost felt guilty, leaving with the gifts that were shared with me through stories, conversations and the overall experience of being invited into such a community. I know that these lessons and experiences will carry over into my practice, as well as into my daily life - the most enduring gift of all.
Jennifer Leonard practices in Denver in a community acupuncture clinic as well as a private practice. She volunteers providing acupuncture to the homeless community in Boulder and at the Denver Hospice.