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

Tuesday 26 January 2016

An acupuncture journey: volunteering as acupuncturist in rural India

This December just  gone, I spent two busy weeks in Chaparda, a tiny rural place in the Indian Western province of Gujarat, with a team of volunteer acupuncturists from the UK. We went as part of a project run by UK-based charity World Medicine which organises projects such as this in different parts of the world. Our aim was to offer free acupuncture to the nearby villagers, mostly poor farmers unable to access healthcare,  and also to give basic ear acupuncture training to members of the local charitable hospital set up to serve the community.

Our team of UK acupuncturist at Jay Ambe Hospital
The most exciting thing about this project was not that I’m totally in love with India and its people and I’m always up to visiting the country, it was the fact that the project didn’t only consist of giving treatments but it contained that magic element of teaching simple techniques that would allow the local hospital to continue offering some kind of treatment after we left. “Teaching the man to fish” is definitely the only way in which we can truly help anybody.

It took me a few days to grasp the extent of the work of our host organisation which not only comprised the charitable hospital we were to give treatments from – the Jay Ambe hospital-  but also several schools and homes for disadvantaged children and adults in need. Our accommodation was next door to the homes for elderly men and women who were often happily sitting in the sun to get the early morning chill out of their bones and would greet us as we walked past to get our breakfast. Every morning when I saw them, I thought to myself that if it weren't for this local charity, they would all have been living in the streets without any shelter or food. 

The work in the hospital started the day after our arrival.  The project consisted of two body acupuncture multi-bed clinics – one for men and one for women - , an ear clinic which would provide pain relief ear acupuncture in group sessions that run throughout the day (up to 6 per day) and, during the first few days, the ear acupuncture teaching clinic in which 4 or 5 members of the hospital staff would be taught the 5 point protocol that was being used in the ear clinic.

After some unsurprising hiccoughs that made us start relatively slowly, by the fourth day we were up and running at full capacity at the body and ear acupuncture clinics. Several ear acupuncture sessions were offered through the day, each time treating over 20 people, while the body clinics had queues outside their door at all times. The final countdown of treatments came up to over 700 given in the body clinics. By the time of writing we were waiting for the Ear clinic numbers

People awaiting treatment outside our treatment rooms
Ear acupuncture group session

We mostly treated farmers from the nearby villages that had been summoned by people sent out by our host organisation to give the news of our arrival. Quite a lot of them were visibly in pain and discomfort. The men tended to be very skinny and sinewy while the women were larger but could hardly walk from the stiffness in their backs and legs.  I was mostly at the ladies clinic but also spent some time at the male and ear acupuncture clinics and saw that, on the whole, the bulk of the people we treated was made up of over 50’s with quite severe joint and lower back pain resulting from working hard in the fields, crouching over the fire to cook, and generally a life full of hardships.

What struck me the most was to see so many people well under 60 not only toothless but also with signs of aging that made them look closer to 80 than 50. I spent the first day or two convinced that the people at the reception desk who were filling in the forms were mistaking people’s age, but then I realised that, in fact, most people I treated looked at least 20 years older than they actually were. I suppose this is a result not just of a lifetime of hard work but also of lack of nourishment and, most probably, of having being conceived by parents who were themselves undernourished.  On the other hand, these people living in obvious poverty and suffering from - sometimes quite extreme- physical discomfort would most of the time come in with a smile on their faces even when they reported no improvement in their symptoms. This is the beauty of Indian people, what makes their eyes so alive and their smiles so bright, they can see joy and a reason to be grateful where most people I know in the West could not.

Giving a treatment for knee pain at the ladies clinic

Giving free acupuncture to people who can’t afford it has always been something that appeals to me. I did it for many years in Bristol, where I gave weekly acupuncture treatments at a drugs project down the road from where I live. This was one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had, not because of what I did but because of what I received from the people I came across who lavished me with gratitude and taught my na├»ve self so much about life, about being human, and about acupuncture itself!  Doing this in a faraway country is a completely different thing though, I wondered for some time if offering free treatments for a limited period of time was not going to be even worse for the people we were trying to help. What if soon after we left their symptoms came back and then they could find no relief in anything else? I realised I was wrong when a few of the people we treated in India, some of whom had arrived in severe pain which they had had for anything up to 20 years, after the 4th or 5th daily treatment came in all relaxed and smiling saying that they were pain free. I could see then how selfish my thinking had been, if even one person could get this much benefit then we were definitely doing the right thing for them.

I have rarely felt as exhausted as I did at the end of this trip, but it felt great that we had made a difference –even if small- to the lives of some of these villagers not only because our treatments brought relief to some of their symptoms, but because we left everything in place for our work to continue in the ear acupuncture group clinic now run by the people trained during our stay.  The latest news we received from them was that the ear clinic was up and running again after receiving new needle supplies from Delhi – they had gone through the incredible amount of needles we took we us and run out on our very last day in India! – and hundreds of villagers are still turning up for treatment.

Most of our hard-working hospital team
There is of course much to be learnt from this project to improve on future ones that any of us may be taking part of but, on the whole, we can say it is mission accomplished and everyone who got involved and gave their good will, time, money, and work, should feel proud of their contribution. Above all, this work is testimony that we can create a global family of people who care about each other... where there is a will there is definitely a way!!

Deep gratitude to each of those who made this experience possible: to those who donated money to help me get there, to the project organisers, my colleagues and fellow travellers, our lovely committed interpreters and helpers, the members of staff at the hospital who worked extremely hard, the staff in our host organisation who fed us and put up with our requests, and of course to all those who used our services in Chaparda for it could not have happened without them!