Acupuncturists Without Borders -  Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort
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Abigail Thomas-Costello

By Abigail Thomas-Costello MS, LMT, LAc

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend some time in to New Orleans with the not-for-profit group Acupuncturists Without Borders. Teams of volunteer acupuncturist from the organization have been part of the disaster relief and recovery process in New Orleans since Sept. 2005, when the region was devastated by hurricanes and a series of levy breaks that flooded the city. Over the course of 10 days, our team of two licensed acupuncturists and two support people treated over 275 people for stress and trauma with an auricular (ear) acupuncture protocol. The objective of Acupuncturists Without Borders is to provide acupuncture as a means of trauma care for people in crisis situations. The main venues for the organization’s work, since its inception in 2005, include New Orleans and a new project to care for the latest generation of war veterans as they return home. The organization is laying plans to begin working internationally as well as domestically.

In New Orleans, patients lined up to receive acupuncture treatment at a number of venues throughout the city. Trauma, in New Orleans, is widespread. We treated people in their workplaces, including police and fire stations, military operational centers, hotels and social service offices. We also set up in public spaces; at a farmers market and several church-sponsored community events.  Finally, we reached out to the many volunteers who have come to the region to lend a hand. All across the city, we met an inspiring mix of residents who rode out the storm, newly returning evacuees and people who had come to the region to help.  Along with providing acupuncture treatment, we listened. The stories of the residents were colored hope and tenacity, anger and despair.

New Orleans is shifting from a disaster zone into a phase of recovery. Parts of the city have again become operational and inhabitable. Many of the thousands of abandoned cars and piles of debris that littered the streets just months ago have been cleared away. In some neighborhoods, residents and volunteers are working to gut and rebuild dwellings and businesses. White FEMA trailers dot many streets, indicating that the people who lived their before the disaster are returning. One resident, who was working on revitalizing his neighborhood association, said that nearly all of the people that he knew are doing some form of community volunteer work, in addition to their paying jobs The lights in the French Quarter, the city’s main tourist attraction, are lit and its streets crowded with visitors. However, according to the taxi drivers, business continues to fall far short of pre-Katrina levels.

In other areas of the city, the devastation is much more obvious. The streets are empty and life seems hesitant to return. In place of houses sit huge, jumbled piles of building materials and personal belongings. In these neighborhoods, normalcy is a long ways off. Many evacuated residents have been unable to return or have chosen to stay in the communities to which they were evacuated.  Life since the disaster is difficult to manage. Many of the people we met are working two and three jobs to cover the increased cost of living expenses. According to residents, rents on inhabitable housing increased by as much as 25% following the disaster.

New Orleans currently has the highest rates of murder and suicide in the nation. Social workers described a city in which most people are suffering from anxiety and depression. The number of functioning hospitals and healthcare clinics was dramatically reduced by the hurricanes and flooding. Volunteer organizations have created mobile clinics and some hospitals have returned to operational status. However, there are few options for mental health services to help people to recover from the crisis and trauma. This is largely where acupuncture treatment fits into the picture of disaster relief and recovery. Our treatment consisted exclusively of a five needle auricular acupuncture protocol that was originally developed in the context of substance abuse rehabilitation. Like traumatic situations, the detox process is a time of great physiologic and psychological stress. As this protocol has become a standard part of many rehabilitation plans, it has also been found to be effective for people under other types of stress.

This protocol of ear acupoints is an example of ancient acupuncture practices put to use in a modern context. The treatment consists of three points to support major body system function and two points that promote relaxation and a calm spirit. Auricular acupuncture has been shown in lab tests to stimulate the release of endorphins in the brain. These neurochemicals are responsible for the sensation of calm and well being that people experience when they are in safe, secure situations. In this way, the acupuncture treatment can help to counteract the physical and mental effects of being in a traumatic situation. The auricular acupuncture treatment is an effective part of recovery from trauma. People who received the treatment in New Orleans reported feeling a “greater sense of well being for several days after” and “lighter.” Those who came for multiple treatments told us that they were better able to sleep, felt fewer craving for food and cigarettes and that the 20 to 40 minute treatments made them feel refreshed, as though they had slept.

For Acupuncturists Without Borders in New Orleans, the next step is to continue to work together with mental health service providers as the networks for mental health care are reestablished in the New Orleans area. The group is contemplating the best strategy for offering treatment during the recovery phase.

My experiences providing acupuncture care in New Orleans made it time well spent. I was again impressed by the effectiveness of the acupuncture treatment and the strong interest of people in receiving this kind of care. Being in the environment of a disaster provided valuable perspective for those of us living in relative calm. The strong spirit of New Orleans and her people was an inspiration and a gift to those of us who went to lend a hand. Information about Acupuncturists Without Borders is available online at acuwithoutborders.org

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