Acupuncturists Without Borders -  Hurricane Katrina Relief Effort
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Pointing the way

Acupuncturists Without Borders program offers free treatments to help locals find relief from post-Katrina stress, insomnia, pain and trauma

The Times Picayune

By Chris Bynum, Staff writer

February 17, 2006

It was a brilliant blue February day, and all seemed right with the world. The aroma of hot meals filled the air in the domed Emergency Communities tent in St. Bernard Parish as the airy sound of a flute being played by a volunteer floated above the bustle of Katrina-induced fellowship.

Storm survivors Curtis and Detra Jackson put away their plates of food and paused by the sign that read, "Free acupuncture treatments for stress, insomnia, pain, trauma." Maybe all wasn't right with their world after all.

"She needs some help," Curtis Jackson said with the intonation of a concerned husband. Husband and wife took a chair and prepared for their first experience with acupuncture, a technique adapted from Chinese medicine through which areas of the body are pierced with tiny needles to relieve pain or discomfort.

Quang Huynh, a local acupuncturist who moved to New Orleans a month before Hurricane Katrina, prepared to treat them. Jackson hasn't been able to sleep since the storm. He and his wife are living in a trailer, waiting for their Mid-City home to be repaired. They consider themselves among the lucky ones, but sleeping at night escapes them. And his shoulder won't stop hurting.

"The most stressful thing about life right now is life," Jackson said. "I hear stuff. I see stuff. People ask me what's wrong. Sometimes I don't even want to talk about it."

Acupuncture is not exactly a mainstream treatment, maybe not even a household word in these storm-ravaged communities. "Acu-whuuut?" a contractor had asked Diana Fried at the Belle Chasse Air National Guard Base when the founder of Acupuncturists Without Borders launched her program in post-Katrina New Orleans last fall.

But acupuncture was what Fried knew she had to offer when, in her New Mexico home, she watched television coverage of the aftermath of Katrina. Fried, a licensed acupuncturist, wanted to take some kind of relief to Katrina victims, rather than watch their suffering via the distance of a remote control. She mobilized fellow licensed acupuncturists all over the country and headed to New Orleans.

"Box lunches and motel vouchers are important, as are mega-plans to rebuild the levee and devastated neighborhoods. But unless the (emotional) foundation is repaired, fixing broken windows will only go so far," team member and acupuncturist Jordan Van Voast of Seattle wrote on the group's Web site, www.acuwithoutborders.org. "The foundation for any vibrant civilization includes a just and compassionate society which nourishes the body, mind and spirit."

Talking or expressing feelings is not required for acupuncture. One simply sits, fully clothed, to receive treatment. Curtis Jackson was vocal enough, however, to refuse needles and go for the beads, which apply gentle pressure sans puncture.

His wife accepted the full 20-minute treatment with needles, and she closed her eyes as Chris Haskell, an Atlanta-based acupuncturist, inserted needles around her ears.

"I wake up between 3 and 4 every day, no matter what time I go to bed. I would still wake up then, even if I went to bed at 1 a.m.," Detra Jackson said. "You know how you try to think something until you believe it? I try to think life is normal, but it isn't."

She closed her eyes and settled into a relaxed state, tiny silver needles protruding from her ears like miniature satellites trying to pick up any calm in the air.

Jackson is one of 4,000 people who have been treated in 20 local venues since the storm.

"We do 'community-style acupuncture,' " Fried said of the treatment style that has been used in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and in Honduras after a hurricane there. People sit in chairs in an informal circle as acupuncturists tend to each, one by one. Then they sit quietly, most often with eyes closed, for at least 20 minutes of relaxation.

"We can treat 10 to 40 people in an hour's time. And the treatment is powerful due to the group dynamic," said Fried, who says the group sessions are an effective and efficient way both to treat a variety of conditions and to reach the large number of people found in disaster areas.

The recent midday group at the St. Bernard Emergency Services tent formed naturally when storm victims and workers came for lunch. After the meal, people gravitated one by one toward the acupuncture area, where licensed volunteers were standing by. An abundance of chairs provided an open welcome for anyone seeking relief from stress or pain or fatigue, or even a case of curiosity. Paperwork was a short questionnaire of five yes-or-no questions. And there is no charge for the service.

A woman named Annie still lingers in Haskell's mind, someone she had treated days earlier at a health fair at the Audubon Zoo. Annie's husband had drowned in the storm after he and Annie had stood in line at the Superdome and then at a hospital, waiting for assistance. Because of their medical conditions, they were unable to stand in line for hours, so they went back home. After Annie's husband drowned, she was evacuated by helicopter and went into the evacuation tailspin experienced by so many.

"When she came to the health fair, she was depressed and had no appetite," Haskell said. But the 65-year-old woman found herself in a circle of support; she began to eat. Then she began to share the memories of her husband as she ate. Haskell, whose acupuncturist role was expanded into that of a friend, recalled the story:

"On a day like today, he would make gumbo. He would always say his gumbo was better than mine. And I would ask him why, and he would say, 'Because I wiggle my toes in it.

On that day, they all laughed.

But it is not unusual in the process of acupuncture for someone to start to cry, Huynh said.

"With the relief of physical pain often comes the release of emotional pain," he said.

There are even those, he said, who before treatment thought of acupuncture as "sticks and twigs" but who returned for more sessions.

Shannon Bowley of Bellingham, Wash., has returned for several treatments. As a volunteer coordinator for Emergency Communities, she has battled stress and "Katrina cough" in the five months she has spent in New Orleans.

The battery of points used in ear acupuncture is targeted to relieve insomnia, muscle pain, joint stiffness, anxiety, depression and fatigue -- the majority of complaints from storm victims.

When volunteer acupuncturist Korben Perry of Philadelphia left New Orleans, he told Fried of an Algiers resident who said, "Dealing with Katrina and its aftermath is like trying to get off crack. Your body is a battle every second, and cannot relax. You're desperate for a little hope, a little good news."

Fried hopes this social style of acupuncture provides a little hope or at least a healing respite from the waiting game of recovery. Due to licensing laws that were suspended temporarily to allow out-of-state medical and health practitioners to offer their services immediately after the storm, AWB was able to operate here. But the last group of volunteer acupuncturists will be leaving soon as those extensions expire, Fried said.

"We're hoping to return," she said, "if they extend us the right to continue."

Fried's work has solidified her belief in the power of community healing.

"I do believe," she said, "that having groups of people sit together in a circle where they are getting love and care and healing for the body-mind-spirit is a very powerful method of bringing people together."

. . . . . . .

For more information about Acupuncturists Without Borders, including where their services will be offered next, call (505) 991-0112 or e-mail info@acuwithoutborders.org.

Staff writer Chris Bynum can be reached atcbynum@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3458.

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