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Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Monday, 5 December 2022

My fourth visit to Lesvos to give acupuncture to refugees

I have just come back from a two week visit to Lesvos, where I was giving acupuncture to refugees living in the island hosted by the wonderful Earth Medicine project.

I arrived in the capital Mytilene early on Sunday 13th of November after travelling all night and had the whole day to rest and prepare for the week to come. I was given an update on the changes that had happened since my last visit in July this year. The most important change was that Earth Medicine obtained permission to work from within the camp so I was to spend my two weeks working from their container located inside the refugee camp.

Our days started early, we would usually get to the Earth Medicine house in Mytilene at 8am, have a quick breakfast and from there we would go together to the camp. When I say “we” I mean Sabine, a homeopath from Germany, Sohrab -Earth Medicine’s worker who, amongst other things, drives, translates from the different Afghan languages into English, fixes what needs fixing and buys fresh bread for breakfast-, sometimes Fabiola -Earth Medicine’s founder and director-, and me. Behind the scenes, we had Malvina who works at the office and gets all the administrative things sorted for all of us; and Ali who was cooking food that he would lovingly serve for us when we came back from the camp.

EM's container inside Lesvos refugee camp
Photo by Thomas Rajten
The Earth Medicine container in the camp is beautifully decorated and has been divided into three separate sections. I had use of two of these and the other one served as reception/consultation space for homeopathy. Although I had visited the camp several times in my previous trips, working from there proved to be a very different experience. In contrast with working in the office, where people were brought in the van in groups and we would have 4 or 5 people to treat every hour, here the more limited space meant fewer treatments. However, as 95% of those who came for treatment were newly arrived in the camp, they often required a lot more time and effort from us. We had a constant flow of people who had made appointments for acupuncture since before my arrival, and others who just turned up to ask for help. The main challenge we had was the lack of interpreters. We lacked someone to help us with Somali language, and sometimes also a female interpreter to help us with the Afghani women. Instead, we had to be resourceful and use the universal language of signs and gestures. This meant we were limited in our ability to help but still the treatments we gave, and the human care, resulted in more relaxed bodies and smiley faces. 

Days in the camp went very quickly. During my first week, I gave between 8 and 10 treatments per day, and on the second between 11 and 13 per day. Most of the people I treated were new arrivals, and I saw as many men as women with ages ranging between 5 years and 67. The most common issues were severe back pain and knee pain from over use and exhaustion after very long and dangerous journeys, anxiety and insomnia, abdominal pain, poor appetite and digestion, and severe weakness. Amongst the women, menstrual irregularities were common ranging from very scant irregular periods to extremely painful periods and excessive menstrual bleeding. Most of these symptoms were exacerbated by the conditions in the camp at this time of year. Those staying in tents (usually the most recent arrivals) were freezing cold all the time which increased the severity of their pain. In addition, the heavy rains that we had while I was there easily flooded the camp and meant that going to the toilet or to get food would result in being soaked and cold for the rest of the day.

 

Scalp acupuncture
Acupuncture for knee painScalp acupuncture
Ear acupunctureAcupuncture for pain




I used scalp and/or ear acupuncture on most people to help with pain, mobility and to calm the nervous system, body acupuncture to address pain and issues with bodily functions, different types of moxibustion for pain and to strengthen the body, cupping on those with severe tension, and massage whenever needed to relax muscles and soothe a person. We also had the heat lamps kindly donated by the organisations Acupuncture Sans Frontiers and Le Mains du Coeur Pour le Cambodge, they have proven a hit with the cold weather and we used them on practically everyone who came for treatment this time. Also thanks to these two organisations, other acupuncturists from Europe have been able to come and work with Earth Medicine this year.  As a result, we have managed to get some continuity in treatments and acupuncture has become a well known treatment amongst the refugees. 

There are two things that, in my view, are quite unique in the work we can do at Earth Medicine: one of them is that we get to treat people every single day which gives us the opportunity to check progress and change strategies if needed to achieve the best results. The other one is the multi-disciplinary approach, getting to work alongside practitioners of other disciplines and finding out how we can combine efforts for the greatest benefit to those we are treating.

 

Acupuncture
Combining acupuncture and physical therapy
Photo by Thomas Rajten

Lesvos abundant veg
From what I have observed, appetite and digestive function amongst refugees is often poor and this leads to other issues including lack of strength and poor general health in the long run. For this reason, I give a lot of importance to enhancing digestion at the same time as addressing their main symptoms. I tended to use a combination of points called the Wheel of life on most people. This combination consists of specific points around the abdomen or on the lower back, which aim to strengthen and activate the function of the digestive system as a whole, increasing appetite and improving the ability to process food and eliminate waste products. The food currently offered in the camp, although most welcome by everyone, is not the most nutritious and not at all like the food the people from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Syria would normally eat. It is all packed in plastic and lacking in freshness and in vegetables. For this reason, many people end up with constipation and acid reflux, which adds to their existing issues. Lesvos is blessed with a gentle climate and with fertile land that produces all sorts of fresh vegetables throughout the year, which are very cheap in the market. It would be ideal if a community kitchen could be set up, managed by the camp authority, where refugees themselves could cook meals which would be much more nutritious and a lot cheaper and environmentally friendly than they are in the current set up. This would also help prevent a lot of health issues. Given the continuing conflicts and natural disasters occurring in many countries,  and the fact that small boats are still arriving in Lesvos with people looking for refuge, perhaps a more sustainable, longer-term set up will be necessary.

I went back to visit the burial ground where the bodies of refugees have been laid to rest by the local authorities. The last time I was there, the grass was overgrown shoulder-high, and it was not possible to see clearly many of the graves. This time, the grass had been cut and the site cleared and I could see clearly the hundreds of graves ( I estimated at least 200). They were mostly marked by wooden sticks with a number, some with white headstones which sometimes had the names and dates of passing of the refugees written in fading letters, and only 3 or 4 graves are done in what I imagine is the proper way, I was told because the family of the deceased was around and could afford to do this. I could also see an area that had been marked and separated for 16 graves, most probably destined for the 16 refugees who drowned in the waters around the island while trying to get to safety, over a month ago. Visiting this place to pay my respects has become an important part of my visits to Lesvos. Nobody knows how many lives have been lost since what is called "the refugee crisis" started, and it’s possible that somewhere, their loved ones are still waiting to hear news from them. It would be even more heart-breaking than it already is, if we left them sink into oblivion.  

Three graves, one of them a child's

Space separated for 16 new graves

 A mother and child


When I asked after all the people I had met before, I was told not many were still in Lesvos. The majority of them had been granted asylum and moved on – mostly to Germany, and some others had been relocated to other camps in mainland Greece. I did manage to say good bye to one family I met earlier this year. The father has an amputated leg and their journey from Afghanistan had been excruciatingly difficult. The mother and the daughters were getting all their things ready to travel to Germany after being granted asylum when I stopped by the container which served them as home for the last 6 months. I felt so happy for them, and for all those I didn’t get to say good bye to. May they all get to feel safe, and have beautiful and prosperous futures. 

Every time I have been to Lesvos, despite all the horrific stories, the pain I see in people's bodies and souls, and the less than ideal conditions they have to live in; I somehow come back full of hope, with my heart expanded with compassion and love for all my fellow human beings. This is partly because I see so much resilience, strength, hope and faith in people there that I think to myself, if they can display those amazing qualities under their circumstances, how could I not? On top of that, it's not like there is only sadness.  Within the difficulties, there are always beautiful moments of laughter, friendship, connection and true sisterhood and brotherhood between us all. May there be a world one day, in which we will all be able to enjoy moments like these with each other.

A joyful moment
Original photo by Thomas Rajten


If you would like to support the Earth Medicine's work in Lesvos, click here

Monday, 1 August 2022

My third trip to Lesvos to offer acupuncture to refugees

 

I have just come back from my third trip to Lesvos to offer acupuncture to refugees at the wonderful Earth Medicine project.

As times are difficult everywhere and we are all feeling it, this time I didn’t manage to raise the amount of money I aimed for but I was fortunate to collect just enough to make the trip happen thanks to the generosity of friends and family. Another example of how without help from others we can go nowhere!!

I arrived in Lesvos on Sunday July 3rd, wondering if I was up to the task as I had contracted covid two weeks before I was due to fly. I wasn’t feeling 100% when I got there but, as it turned out, I was well enough to do everything that was needed for the following three weeks, and the sun and hot weather seemed to help my body recover.

I was surprised to find that most of the people I met last year were not in Lesvos any more. Some had been moved to other camps in Greece but many of them had actually been granted asylum and had moved on to other countries, mostly to Germany.  This made me very happy especially for the grandmothers and those with disabilities who had endured the bad terrain and poor conditions in the camp for so long and for the children who can now go to school and have a future but it also made me sad as I would have loved to see them one last time to give them a hug and wish them good luck. I hold them all in my heart and pray that they will always be safe and that they will have a beautiful future.

  

New Arrivals

In contrast with my previous trips, when most of the people I treated had been living in the camp for at least a year, this time practically all of the people I saw had just arrived. This meant that they were still experiencing the physical, mental, and emotional consequences of their long and difficult journeys, of their sudden change of status, of their finding themselves in a place they didn’t know or understand. Amongst them, we had people who experienced rape, torture, who had been shot at, a family who walked over the mountains for days trying to cross borders between Pakistan and Iran and Iran and Turkey without food or drink, terrified of being shot at by police; and a young woman in her early twenties who had had a stroke.


Most people were having difficulty sleeping and could not relax at all when I first met them, many had nightmares about attacks they had experienced and about the night journey on a flimsy boat from Turkey to Lesvos, the mass of water representing a terrifying dark hole where they could die. Everybody’s bodies were solid with muscular tension from the fear that got stuck inside them even before leaving their homes, the wear and tear, the exhaustion and shock from all the difficulties of the journey; and, in many cases, also from the hard labour of many years, were also evident. There were also some very sad faces, and some others with the unmistakable look of chronic pain, both physical and emotional.



                              

Mr A.

We saw men and women from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Sierra Leone. The newest arrivals were mostly from Afghanistan and a few from Somalia.

 Amongst the Somalians I treated from the first day was Mr A. He is in his early 20’s and arrived in Lesvos in 2021, fleeing Somalia after his father and brother were assassinated by paramilitary forces. His family had a business, and he has a young wife and some land but he was forced to escape or he would have been killed too.

 In the last year, he has experienced many health issues including TB, after which he developed polyneuropathy that resulted in a complete loss of sensation in his lower body and rendered him unable to walk or even stand.  He was in this state when he first came to Earth Medicine in February this year and he was also extremely thin and unable to eat due to severe abdominal pains. Initially, his treatment solely consisted of special food made for him to restore his ability to eat and digest so that his body could start to build the strength necessary for his recovery. When his digestion was better and he was absorbing nutrients, physical therapy started to be used to recondition his lower limbs and spine and he had some acupuncture treatments from practitioners who visited in March.

 

By the time of my arrival, Mr A had already regained strength and was able to eat good meals. Over the months of physical therapy sessions, he has worked very hard showing he is determined to fully regain his mobility. On our first treatment, he was already standing and walking very slowly with aid, his feet stuck to the ground as he was unable to lift them at all. At the end of my first week, he had had five scalp and body acupuncture treatments followed by sessions with the physiotherapist. He made progress every single day and we were all delighted with his spirit and strong commitment to getting better. By Friday, he was able to lift his knees, started to bend his ankles and lift his feet off the ground, and gave a few careful steps all without aids. I nearly shed some tears that day seeing the effects that the team work in this amazing organisation combined with the hard work and zeal of a person can produce. Mr A continued making a lot of progress and by the end of my second week he was playing basketball and walking without any trouble at all! He was so excited he started over exercising and ended up with pain from over using tissues that hadn’t moved for months. We had to stop all the work to allow this to subside but when I left, he was still walking, without aids and looking forward to a bright future if he is granted asylum.

Scalp acupuncture treatment for the lower limbs and anxiety
 

Acupuncture at four hands!

On my second week Lyna Trinh, a brilliant and very experienced acupuncturist and TCM practitioner from France, arrived to give a hand. We had never met but felt instantly united in our desire to help and everything went very smoothly. We work a bit differently but we managed to combine our knowledge and experience and learn from each other (I was the one who learned the most!!) in order to offer the best we could to people. We used the different systems of acupuncture we knew, between us we had Scalp acupuncture- Yamamoto, Jiao and Lin systems-, Tung acupuncture, Ear acupuncture, as well as the normal body acupuncture, we also did a lot of cupping, different types of massage and loads of moxa as well as using a TDP heat lamp kindly donated by the organisations Acupuncture sans frontiers and Les mains du coeur pour le Cambodge. 

Between Lyna and I we gave around 180 acupuncture treatments in 3 weeks. Dozens of people received treatment and we saw some big changes and sometimes complete relief in mood and sleep, digestion, pain levels, and mobility. We even saw smiles sparkle on previously sombre faces. By the end of my stay, pretty much everyone was smiling, chatting and able to relax, which filled me with joy. 

The stories I hear from the refugees and the conditions they live in always fill me with sadness, but I am also filled with awe and respect of the resilience, strength, dignity, hope, and ability to heal that they display.



To me, as a human being and as a Chinese medicine practitioner, it's a huge privilege to be able to do this work, to receive the trust of people, to be offered their stories, gratitude, and warmth, and to learn so much from every single person. I am humbled and feel more human at the end of each trip. I am also more hopeful despite all the pain and suffering I witness because of the experience of the effects that community, solidarity, and love can have on all of us, no matter who we are. I have great appreciation and gratitude for the work done at Earth Medicine not just because they are doing such an amazing job, but also because they give us all an example of how to create community and hope where there were none.

With gratitude, love and hope,

Sandra

 

If you would like to donate to support Earth Medicine's work in Lesvos, please click here

 

 

Thursday, 16 December 2021

My second trip to Lesvos to offer acupuncture to refugees

 


After my first trip to Lesvos in August this year, when I saw the huge need for treatment and human care amongst the refugees living on the island, I decided to go back to offer my skills and to use the needles and moxa I had left from the donations made by Balance UK and Phoenix Medical UK. Through a fundraising page, I collected enough money for my flights and my stay, which came from contributions made by friends, colleagues, and even people I have never met, to whom I am very grateful.

I arrived on the island on November 20th to a surprisingly cold and windy morning. I immediately realised I hadn’t packed the right clothes for the trip. I wasn’t expecting it to be hot but I didn’t expect it to be so cold either! I travelled on a weekend to give myself time to rest, prepare, and discuss the appointment schedule for the week with Fabiola, the incredible woman founder and director of my host organisation, Earth Medicine.

Acupuncture cabinet at Earth Medicine

Earth Medicine had just moved to new premises, a huge house in Mytilene, the island's capital, and it now boasted three different rooms where treatments could be done. In one of the rooms, I found a dedicated acupuncture cabinet where all my needles and moxa equipment had been lovingly placed for my arrival. I was warmly welcomed by people I had met back in August and the first week was already fully booked with treatments. During my stay, there were many people coming to offer a hand, all of them from Germany: a photographer who has been documenting the lives of refugees in Europe for some time, four young women of Afghani and Syrian descent who have started an organisation dedicated to help people from these countries, a young physiotherapist, two homeopaths- one of them I had met in August, and a young woman who was driving the blue van used to transport people from the camp to the clinic and back, including wheelchair users.

In contrast with my first visit, when we were sweating constantly in the intense heat and people living in the camp were unable to sleep because of this, this time the temperature at night was very low and we had strong winds and stormy weather for many days. This, and the shorter days, had a definite impact on the refugees’ physical and mental wellbeing and made their symptoms even more severe and even more urgent. There were several older women from Syria with the exact same presentation of water accumulation in the whole body that produced severe pain and soreness everywhere, their pain was so intense that they could hardly be touched. There were also men and women in their 40’s and 50’s with dangerously high blood pressure and sugar levels – often occurring simultaneously- that no amount of medication seemed to be able to control. Amongst the refugee population, these conditions are not a result of any dietary excess but purely a consequence of severe trauma and of the high stress and uncertainty that comes with living in a refugee camp. I understood that without treating the stress and trauma already lodged in these bodies, the pain, the sugar levels, and the blood pressure could not be forced to become stable. We saw some – often dramatic- improvements in most of these cases as a result of a multidisciplinary approach which this time involved homeopathy, massage, scalp and body acupuncture, and loads and loads of moxa.

Severe leg swelling- 
Severe leg swelling after a few sessions

The other group that deeply concerned me was the young men in their late teens and 20’s. I only treated seven of them during this trip but I was told that the refugee camp is full of them. These young men, like most people I saw, are highly traumatised by what they have lived and seen in their countries of origin, by the fact that they had to leave everything they knew, by the dangerous and treacherous journeys through different countries, by their experience of being on a crowded dingy for hours not knowing if they would drown – most of the people I have met in Lesvos cannot swim-, and by the fact that no young men are offered asylum even when their families have been granted it. As a result, they feel imprisoned in the refugee camp, unable to return home to more violence and unable to make a life somewhere else without papers. Now, if you have a son, a nephew or have ever known any young men of this age group, I ask you to imagine them in this situation. I have a nephew of this age and I know he is full of dreams, of plans, and hopes for the future and he is eager to not waste any time and impatient to get where he wants to. Young refugees are just the same, only they have no opportunities to do anything with their lives. What they see is their lives is passing them by, their dreams shattered every day, the hopes of being someone and perhaps having a family one day becoming unreachable, they feel useless and futureless, they are depressed, outraged, angry. The young men I treated, were being consumed by all the trauma and the sense of overwhelm. This was burning them from within. All of them – and also some older men I treated- had been increasingly losing their appetite, losing their ability to digest, rapidly losing weight and, as a result, the strength of the bodies was decreasing every day. 


An extremely weak young man
having moxa treatment 
I felt particularly worried for a 22 year old Syrian who had been forced to flee his country after being persecuted by the people who assassinated his father. He had been in Lesvos for nearly two years, and for over a year had been continuously losing weight. He was so weak he didn’t even have the strength to sit up so when I first met him he would come into the clinic and lie down for hours with a blanket over his head. He couldn’t eat much because his stomach was constantly sore, so sore it was extremely painful to touch it. I treated him every day from day one. I could see his body was shutting down and felt sure that at some point in the near future there would be no return. I used very few needles on him: on his body only to encourage his digestive system to work again, and on the scalp for his trauma, depression, and the anger and frustration that were making him implode. I also did moxa on him every single day. After 4 treatments, he started to sit up more, and over the next weeks he gradually looked more present and had more energy to interact with others – which I didn’t see him do to begin with. He was also having a good meal every day offered to him at the Earth Medicine house. By the time I left, he was sitting up all day and said he had no discomfort in his stomach, he was feeling stronger and we both thought he had put on a little weight. He was also cooking evening meals in the camp as well as having lunch with us. Earth Medicine is giving him food vouchers so he can get himself ingredients for his evening meals as those who have been refused asylum cannot buy their own food. I just hope that he will continue to eat and get strong and find something to cling onto so that he has some desire to continue living. I also hope that his appeal will result in an offer of asylum so that he can rebuild his life and help his family.

I have found that a certain combination of scalp acupuncture lines can be highly effective to reduce several of the most common PTSD symptoms. I learned these lines from Dr Suzanne Rubidoux and are part of the system developed by Dr Lin Xue Jian for “Psychosomatic disorders”. Most of these are found on the area over the frontal cortex of the brain and have a strong calming and grounding effect that makes someone who is highly wired, unable to settle, very depressed, anxious or even very angry, feel more peaceful, relaxed, and even content. I used these lines on most of the people I treated and they invariable helped promote relaxation, peace, and good sleep. In several cases they also reduced anxiety and depression, reduced the frequency of panic attacks and of angry outbursts. This was of course no antidote to the harsh reality that people are living but I could see how the reduced stress response offers access to other levels of a person system so that we can promote more balance and wellness in the internal body.


Scalp acupuncture used alongside
body acupuncture




I was able to give 187 treatments to 30 people during my three weeks in Lesvos. This is thanks to a team effort of all those who were working with Earth Medicine while I was there- driving people, making appointments, cooking meals for all of us, interpreting for us, and finding out who had friends in the camp who could benefit from treatments-, as well as those who contributed with their donations.

I have had a lot of praise for doing this work, for which I am thankful. However, I feel I have gained a lot from this, maybe even more so than I have given. For a start, I have literally felt my heart expanding, and I have felt more alive and human since my first trip to Lesvos than I have ever felt. It is a wonderful thing to feel connected to other human beings to the point of realising we are all exactly the same, even if this connection is brought on by their deep suffering. Within this connection, every person I have met has transformed into a family member which means I now have a place that is full of my mothers and grandmothers, my brothers and sisters, my children, nephews, and nieces. The success of the Earth Medicine project, with which I am so proud to collaborate, lies in the understanding of our common humanity. Rather than “charity” it offers “community”. A place where we all belong and exchange what we have, where we are just humans interacting with other humans rather than white people with brown people, Christians with Muslims, rich with poor, therapists with sick people.



I have a friend who always says that if something amazing is happening where we are, chances are it is happening in many other places already. I know he is right and I hope that we will all see this grow during our lifetime. My wish is that one day we will all find each other in this new place, where we are all part of the great human family, where we look out for each other, where your pain becomes mine and so does your joy.

 

With gratitude and love,

Sandra


If you would like to donate to Earth Medicine to support their work in Lesvos, please click here