Acupuncturists Without Borders -  Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort
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Acupuncturists Without Borders: treating on the streets of New Orleans

by Graham Marks, M.Ac (with Sue Pollard, M.Ac. and Diana Fried, M.Ac.)

Oct 1. The phone rings, it's my classmate and colleague Sue Larkin calling from Cape Cod. "Want to go to New Orleans with me?" I hesitate for about 5 seconds and say, "Of course, when are we going?"....

It has been a dream of Diana Fried , an acupuncturist in New Mexico, to create an organization of acupuncturists that can go to areas of disaster, much like the Red Cross does, to provide acupuncture treatments in situations where this particular kind of treatment would be appropriate. Once people have food, water and shelter, it is of utmost importance to support the healing process from extraordinary trauma. Many relief workers in New York City following 9/11 were treated with acupuncture and it provided great benefit in helping them deal with stress, trauma, and pain and allowed them to find the inner resources to keep going.

Diana felt compelled to make her dream a reality after the onslaught of hurricane Katrina on the gulf coast. She, and a group of other dedicated people, began working tirelessly to create a legal not-for-profit organization which was named Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB). The core group began organizing logistics and started putting together the first team of acupuncturists to actually go to Louisiana. My friend Sue was calling to ask if I would be part of this first team.

Through the AWB web site acupuncturists from around the country were starting to sign up to volunteer, so our mission was to find venues where our professional services could be offered to evacuees and others who had experienced the trauma of the hurricanes, as well as the relief workers who had worked long hours to help and support the victims. Our treatments were free and available to all who needed them. Once we established working possibilities, the way would be paved for the next groups of AWB volunteers who would arrive after us.

So on Tues. Oct 11, I found myself on a plane on my way to Lafayette, La. where I joined Sue Larkin from Cape Cod, Sue Pollard from Albuquerque, NM and Diana Fried from Santa Fe. Diana had made a few contacts in Lafayette and New Orleans, but basically we knew that once we arrived it would be an improvisation. And an improvisation it was - an amazing, exhilarating, maddening, exhausting, and heartwarming improvisation ... a journey much too complex to retell in all of its details so I want to share some of the highlights along the way:

Oct 11 +12 - We are at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, a huge sports arena housing hundreds of evacuees. It was sobering to enter the Dome and see rows and rows of cots set up for people to sleep on. It made me think about just how seriously impacted people's lives have been. I've heard the news reports, and seen the pictures on the TV, but until today I did not really think about the many levels of life that are disrupted. There is next to no privacy for these evacuees. Hundreds of people are sleeping in one big room. Overhead is a giant clock and TV screen playing soap operas. There is no autonomy. Food is prepared for them, curfews are set for them, coming and going in and out of the Dome is regulated by guards checking for ID badges. There is only one door in, and a metal detector is in place to ensure the security of everyone inside. People want to go home, and are told there is no home to go to. All of the people with family or friends and the means to leave the Dome have gone. Only those that have no place to go, no one to take them in are left behind. The Red Cross allows us to set up outside the Dome in a covered walkway. Over the PA system announcements are made that acupuncture is available outside for stress and pain relief. We treat a slow trickle of people who appear, displaced persons, National Guard, local police, and Red Cross Volunteers. Sitting in a circle, the community acupuncture method that we use is well-suited to conditions faced in a disaster. We can set up our treatments almost anywhere and can quickly treat large groups of people with minimal supplies and expense. We use a combination of points in the ear (along with some body points when appropriate). The treatments last from 20 - 45 minutes with people sitting in a chair fully clothed. The effects of the treatment are seen immediately. Many people start to fall asleep and you can see the release of stress in their bodies as they let go of the burdens they all carry....

Oct 12 + 13 - We drive to New Orleans and the reality of the devastation starts to become visible, industrial buildings eviscerated, uprooted trees, blue tarps on roofs everywhere. We go to an encampment where fire fighters from all over the United States are headquartered. From the moment we got out of the car, we were treating fire fighters who, for the most part, had never received acupuncture before. Some were skeptical, but the crew from NYC was familiar with it. They would yell to their colleagues "Hey guys the acupuncturists are here!" and suddenly we would have 20 men sitting down at the same time for treatment. It is wonderful to see men who have been working so hard for weeks go into a deep relaxation. At one point the banter disappeared as everyone went into the "zone" and the energy from the treatments did its job. Men would come up to us later in the day; "I still feel good," "my back feels so much better," " I have really slowed down".....

Oct. 14 + 15... We discover a remarkable organization called Common Ground. It is a grass roots collective providing free medical care in a mosque in the Algiers section of New Orleans. Nurses and doctors have flown in from all over the world and they are putting it all together without any federal, state, or city help . They are very enthusiastic to have acupuncture as part of the clinic and because of good weather and limited space we set up chairs out on the sidewalk and begin treating. We treat the doctors and nurses also, many of whom have been here for 5-6 weeks. One of the nurses, with tears in her eyes, told me how much she appreciates acupuncture being a part of the clinic. She says not only can she see the difference in the patients but also that the treatments have given the staff the energy to keep going. It is gratifying to experience acupuncture in this social context and discover that it can be so portable, flexible, useful, and community based. Common Ground also has a distribution center a few blocks away. Young men and women, most in their early twenties, go out into some of the devastated communities and do the hard gritty work of cleanup, roof repair, tree cutting, and helping homeowners deal with mold so their homes are not condemned. They construct composting toilets and deliver food and supplies that have been donated. Some of them have been working here for 6 weeks now, living in tents. So in the early evening we go to the distribution center to treat. They definitely need an energy boost! They are very impressive in their idealism and their accomplishments. It really fills me with hope to see what they are doing.

Oct 16. Common Ground has mobile clinics each day. Nurses travel to different neighborhoods to do immunizations in areas where there is no medical assistance. As part of our developing collaboration with Common Ground we start to go with them and offer acupuncture treatment at the same time. We are invited to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. It is in a Vietnamese community where hundreds have just returned for the day to celebrate mass together. There is no electricity or water and the homes here were devastated yet they were incredibly grateful for what we were doing. These resilient people were sitting in church pews with acupuncture needles in their ears! They invited us back next Sunday when 2000 people would be returning, along with the Archbishop. A woman kept coming up to us and kissing us and saying "God bless you". Many here were refugees from Vietnam. Father Luke said: "We will survive and we will rebuild!" You can feel the strength and unity in this community and we know Father Luke's words are true.

Oct 16 - This is the hardest day. We go on a mobile clinic to the lower Ninth ward. The lower ninth ward is the community where the levee broke and was almost completely underwater. After the waters receded what was left was an ashen landscape of debris and shattered homes. It is hopelessly devastated, silent, a ruin. Some streets are still blocked off by the army because bodies are still being discovered in the wreckage of homes. We set up at the Red Cross tent and offer treatment to the few people there. A woman sits down for treatment. She has brought her grown kids back to see the house they grew up in because she knew it would be the last time. She relaxes into the treatment and at the end asks me, " Where in New Orleans are you from?" I tell her I am from western New York State. She is shocked and asks " Why are you here in this place?" I say, "To try to help" and she starts crying. I start crying too. The flies are everywhere and the odors are intense. We are all silent in the car as we drive through the neighborhood streets that are accessible. Later that evening I call my wife and when I hear her voice I start weeping. The grief and the loss of these people just wells up in my heart.

We are staying in a huge tent encampment for emergency responders on the grounds of the water treatment plant in Algiers. It is a self- contained base with showers, laundry and a food service that prepares three meals a day for about 800 people. They are grateful that we are there and we are grateful for the shelter and acceptance. They give us a tent in which to set up a clinic for the tent city residents. As I go through the food line one of the cooks behind the counter who is serving us sees my ID that says "acupuncturist" and says, "My wrists are killing me from preparing so much food. Can you help me?" We get her set up with Amy, the massage therapist who has joined us. Amy just put her table in the car and drove from North Carolina to New Orleans on her own. We connect at the Common Ground Clinic and start a wonderful collaboration with her. The cook gets a good massage and then I do a treatment. Next day on the food line she is beaming. " I slept so well and my wrists feel so much better!". I see her the next day and again she is beaming, " I slept well again and the wrists are still good!"

For me, sleep is elusive. Tent city is illuminated with "night-buster" lights and the generators run all night. Those from cities seem to sleep pretty well but those of us from the country find it too loud even with earplugs.

Oct 18 +19 + 20. A new group of five acupuncturist volunteers arrives. It is amazing and gratifying to think of what we have been able to accomplish in a week. They hit the ground running and the day they arrive we are all hard at work throughout the city. We go to Washington Square Park, which is on the edge of the French Quarter to offer treatments. This neighborhood is relatively unscathed, but there is no gas, so people cannot cook. In the park a group called the Rainbow Family, a wonderful flashback to the sixties, has set up a kitchen amongst their painted buses and the palm trees and they serve three free meals a day for anyone who is hungry. There is also a tent for free clothing. They offer us a tent in the middle of the park in which to set up our clinic. We also go to St. Bernard's Parish, - another devastated community that received the full blast of the hurricane. There does not seem to be a building with any structural integrity left; everything is destroyed and twisted. We find a Wal-Mart parking lot where FEMA and the Small Business Administration have set up a tent to process claims from the residents of the Parish. We end up treating a few residents and a lot of FEMA officials who are exhausted. In their work here they hear one tragic story after another, so they are glad for a respite and the relaxation that the acupuncture can bring.

Oct 21 - After almost two weeks we need to try to let go of all that we have seen, the suffering, and the sadness, so we head to the French Quarter where we find a wonderful restaurant that has just re-opened the night before. We have a great meal of red beans and rice and garlic chicken and then listen to live New Orleans jazz! It is just what we needed. We feel the joy and spirit of the music wash over us.

Oct 22. My son Arley arrives from Providence, RI. I have been calling him and telling him about the great things the people at Common Ground are doing, so he drove down with two of his friends to join this group for a while. I am sure they will have an amazing time being part of the community work that is happening here. I visit with them briefly and then go to the airport and fly back home. My time in New Orleans is over, at least for now.

Home after two weeks: I have a little taste now of what it must be like for men who come home from war and try to transition back to their old domestic life. There is something about the excitement, the intensity, and the camaraderie, that makes it hard to just slip right back into the old routine. I went to Wal-Mart today and there was such a sense of contrast. Here life goes on as usual. It made me want to shout, listen up, this is what is going on out there! My wife Megan and I have been taking ballroom dancing lessons for the last year and again there is the almost surreal contrast, literally one day on the streets of New Orleans and two days later doing the foxtrot. Very, very, strange.......

I will never forget the spirit of New Orleans and its people. I think of the hundreds that we treated and the stories they told and the way acupuncture was of benefit to them. I think of a man at the Common Ground Clinic, on the sidewalk in the row of chairs in our improvised clinic. I ask him what he needs and he says, " I haven't cried yet. " We start the treatment. I do the five ear points and when I put the Lung point in, the grief comes up and he weeps quietly throughout the treatment. (In Chinese medicine the emotion associated with the lung is grief). And the man who comes back to the clinic the day after a treatment dancing down the middle of the street he says, "This acupuncture makes me want to dance. It makes me happy. I couldn't sleep before. I saw so many horrible things in the flood. Dead bodies... Now I have joy again...The needles help keep my mind straight. You really fixed me up." I awkwardly reply something like, "Well you know it's not me, I'm just an instrument" and he shoots back, "Well I don't care, I'm coming back tomorrow and I want you to instrument me." He came back for treatment everyday we were there. And another man who complained that he was not sleeping. He was a photographer and from his bag he pulled out two thick photo albums. The first one was filled with photos taken from a boat in the lower ninth ward after the levee broke. The second album contained photos taken in the Convention Center where he was trapped for days. The photos caught the desperation, the humiliation, the death. I can't help but think of the same moment back home, driving in the car, listening to the NPR coverage of the aftermath of Katrina and a reporter from NPR on the ground at the Convention Center reporting the dire conditions and the fact that no help of any kind was arriving. After the report a NPR commentator got on the air live with Michael Chertoff, Head of Homeland Security, and described to him the conditions and with outrage demanded to know why after days no help was arriving for these people and Chertoff replied, " We can't respond to rumors." Back on the sidewalk I do a treatment. I see him the next day and he tells me how much better he is feeling and that he slept through the night.

AWB is a non-profit group that depends on contributions. Please go to to learn how to donate. Any amount will be greatly appreciated and help us continue this work.

Graham Marks has an acupuncture practice in Alfred, New York and at The Jones Memorial Hospital in Wellsville, New York

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