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Cultivating Gratitude

Andrew Schlabach | Acupuncture Nepal

Living and working in Nepal is a very difficult experience to summarize. It involves an elaborate collage of sensory, emotional and spiritual aspects that can be observed but which somehow defy categorization. Only after many months of treating patients, training interpreters and helping facilitate our practitioner teams does a theme slowly emerge as a seed on the very borders of my consciousness. A message from the universe answering the very question that is always on our minds. "What is this experience about?" I'm certain that this question gets processed a little differently by every volunteer, however, for me clarity is born of what to others might seem like a completely ordinary moment.

Champi Clinic | Acupuncture Nepal

In November of this year we began a new outreach clinic in a small village called Champi. I personally love doing outreach clinics as it gives us the opportunity to expand the scope of the Vajra Varahi clinic in Chapagaon by providing support to communities that have very little access to care. Champi is a village that can not be reached by motorbike so twice a week one or two practitioners take a backpack of supplies and an interpreter, embarking on a beautiful walk across the valley. Descending a steep ravine to cross the river on a narrow iron bridge only to then make a breathless climb back up the other side. Crossing the terraced fields of mustard, winter wheat and potatoes we make our way to a small heath post where we set up a modest but very busy clinic.

Andrew Schlabach | Acupuncture Nepal

Our first few trips to Champi were exciting forays as people crushed into our limited room. One particular day volunteer Jennifer Walker and I worked feverishly side by side. Our little room had 20 patients, the two of us and our extremely overworked interpreter, Sushila, all trying to hear and be heard. In the havoc of this Nepali reality we interviewed, assessed and treated as rapidly and effectively as we could. I clearly remember a moment in the early afternoon when I felt an overwhelming joy fill me. Something about the complete absurdity of the scene collided head-on with the sublime perfection of what everyone was doing there. People with pain, paralysis, digestive disorders and bodies just plainly punished by years of manual labor all reaching out for someone to care. Someone to take the time to connect with them and explain why their arm no longer functioned or to offer some relief to their pain that was keeping them awake at night. And from our side, our desire to be of service and grow as physicians. Everyone's needs being met in one collective heap of chaos. And then came the seizure...

Jennifer Rankin | Champi Clinic | Acupuncture Nepal

Paralysis Stroke Champi Nepal AcupunctureOut of the corner of my eye I saw a man suddenly stiffen. His leg was rigid at an unnatural angle shaking like a power pole in a hurricane. His head arched ominously to one side. I had not noticed this man before as he patiently waited for his turn to be seen but now he had my full attention. In fact, he had the whole room's attention. Drool poured from the man's mouth as the seizure persisted for... how long? Time has a funny way of bending around these events in a way that no one can really recall the facts clearly. My 19 year old interpreter had never seen a seizure before and was certainly shaken but she very professionally stood by me as I simultaneously tried to reorient the man and interview his wife. Like a thousand patients before him, the story I was getting out of his wife made little to no sense at all. The best I could understand was that the man was 40 years old and he had been having seizures with increasing frequency for about one year. This was not a good sign as seizures rarely develop in adulthood unless there are pathological changes in the brain (like cancer). As the seizure abated and the man began to regain his orientation I noticed that his right hand became contracted and was pulled tightly to his chest. The lightbulb in my head first flickered and then illuminated the fact that the man had suffered a stroke. As soon as I was asking the right questions, the story flowed from the man's wife easily and, well... mostly clearly. Jennifer administered a gentle acupuncture treatment while I encouraged the man and his wife to bring all of his medical records to Chapagaon so that we could review his case and give him a better understanding of what had happened and what could be done about it, if anything.

Jennifer Walker | Acupuncture Nepal

After reviewing his records I found that the man had suffered a full occlusion of the left common carotid artery. In layman's terms he had a clot block the blood flow to the entire left side of his brain resulting in severe brain damage. I was impressed by the extensiveness of the MRI visualization he had received as well as the life saving stints that had restored the flow of blood to the brain. I knew that this type of medicine in Nepal had probably cost his family their land. And now here he was. He could not speak, walk or move anything on his right side. He could only communicate with his wife though eye movements and small head gestures. Worst of all in my opinion is that no one had bothered to explain to them what had happened. They saved his life and then sent him home without any further support.

Brad Carrol | Acupuncture NepalBy now you are probably wondering, how on earth do you find gratitude in that? You would be right... It's difficult. This kind of heartbreaking story is an everyday occurrence here, however, I found gratitude in all that happened next. In the weeks that followed I did not see any miracles but I did see a compassionate, competent team of volunteer physicians and an extremely inspired group of interpreters go to work to restore hope. Together they educated the family and set out a plan of action prioritizing the recovery of his speech. In addition to providing acupuncture treatment they spent time working on vocal exercises. They trained his wife on how to continue these exercises on the days he did not come to the clinic. It was not long before he was making basic sounds and mouth shapes, the building blocks of speech. Back in Champi, he paraded around our small treatment room showing the patients how much better he could walk. To be honest, it didn't look all that good and it took a lot of assistance, but it was a start. The more important part was the fact that he wanted to share his progress with his fellow patients; his new found community of support and cheerleaders. His eyes were now bright with a desire to begin a new journey.

Stacey Kett | Acupuncture NepalWhen I look at these pictures I see all of the patients that benefit from our care. What I also see is the part that paints my heart with gratitude. It is not so much what you see as it is what is happening.... a doctor, a patient and an interpreter all coming together for one perfect moment in time. Sharing a presence and focus for the achievement of one goal. Connection.

Over this holiday season I hope that your lives will be as rich with gratitude as mine. Thank you so much for your interest and support of this project. --- Andrew Schlabach, President, Acupuncture Relief Project.

Nurturing Dignity

Acupuncture in Nepal | Himalayas

When you are living in the shadow of the Himal, it is difficult to find much that rivals it in beauty. There is this certain clarity that resonates in me when I can go to the rooftop of the clinic and see those enormous snow capped peaks in the distance. It’s like, just for a moment, everything else pales in comparison. That sight can jumpstart me at any point of the day or wipe things clean from my brain when I need a fresh canvas with which to reevaluate the moment. All my problems, the ailments of my patients and the realities of their situations and the challenges of my surrounds living in Nepal fall away, and I am left with simple natural beauty. It is there and available to anyone who cares to raise their head and look, no matter of their race, caste, or financial status. It is a transcendent type of beauty that can be shared by all.

Vajra Varahi Clinic is a platform of this caliber of beauty in the town of Chapagaon, Nepal. When people come here they not only receive health care, but also strengthen their own communities. It is not uncommon for one patient to overhear another patients inability to get to the clinic on a certain day and offer to make an appointment on the same day for which that patient needs to return in order to help them get back to the clinic for their next treatment. I am honored to be part of this clinic and this community, if only for a short time. Whenever someone here in Nepal asks where I am from, I always proudly say Chapagaon. It gives me the same feeling as when I talk about my own small town that I will be returning to after this experience. It instills a sense of solidarity in me towards this place and its people whom have taken me in as their own, taught me so much and kept me safe as I have explored what it has meant to live here and become a more experienced practitioner. As volunteers here, our fund raising provides supplies to help the clinic remain open. In this way, treatments are offered to the public at a nominal fee and access to primary health care is more widely available.

Jennifer Walker | Acupuncture Volunteer

Jennifer Walker | Acupuncture Volunteering Nepal

Of course, not all days are clear. Sometimes the sky is hazy for a stretch of several days and we must rely on what we have learned in the past and our intuition to guide us. It's during these periods that we are challenged the most and we truly get to explore how tensile our brains really are. Most days stretch the boundaries of our flexibility. It’s in these times, in between the clear skies, that we are cultivating the beauty that will arrive in us when the clouds part.

The experience of living in Chapagaon and treating more patients in a day than I ever imagined has been invigorating and exciting. I have had the opportunity here to explore my role as an acupuncture provider and practitioner of Chinese Medicine. Every single day, I am inspired by the hard work and dedication of the interpreters in which we work alongside. In such a short period of time, it has become difficult to imagine day to day life without them. Seeing their smiling faces each morning will be one of the things I miss the most. Their kindness and understanding has kept me going long into each afternoon. As the patients faces also become more familiar, their humor and guile remind me not to take myself so seriously. It is that connection with them and their right to health care that I recommit myself to each day.

Vajra Varahi Clinic | Nepal

The time here has allowed me to reconnect with my place as a member of this world community. To remember and re-experience the realities of how a majority of people on this planet live. In this way remembering the essence of my human existence, hardship, and pure joy. At the same time that I am Vajra Varahi Clinic | Jennifer Walker | Nepalgrateful for this awareness, I am sad that it is necessary or can be so easily forgotten by myself. My hope is that I have in some small way contributed a fraction of what has been blessed to me during my life thus far. I promise my patients that I will take back the lessons they have taught me and use them to treat many more people during my lifetime. The faith that they have had in me has been the most beautiful gift of all and has enabled me to transition with more confidence onto the next chapter of my life. It will always be with me, helping to guide me on my way when my vision is obstructed, until I can once again have clarity and glimpse beauty, like the mountains, once more. ---Jennifer Walker

The Sacred in Everything

Jennifer Rankin | Acupuncture Volunteer Nepal

As time passes here in Chapagaon, I have come to reflect many times on how the sacred seems to infuse every aspect of life here. The mundane and the spiritual seem to be woven together in such a way that on one hand it is a colorful dizzying display and on the other it is deeply rooted in a basic respect for something deeper. This has had a profound effect on my experience thus far.

Namaste Greeting NepalBeginning with the greeting my patients meet me with every morning - "Namaste". The simple moment when palms come together in a prayer like position at the front of the heart marks the beginning of almost every interaction I have had with a patient. This beautiful greeting is punctuated with intentional and sustained eye contact. This is often the instant I pause and collect myself to be fully available to the person sitting in front of me. The way my Nepali patients have taught me presence I will never forget.

Near the beginning of my stay at the clinic the festival of Tihar started. Known as the festival of light it is a time when one decorates the home with elaborate and colorful flower mandalas and every entranceway and window is lit up with candles as a way to welcome in Laksmi the goddess of abundance. It was an incredible introduction to the way Nepali's celebrate through ritual.

Tihar Festival NepalIt seems my patients, and many Nepalis as a whole, celebrate their devotion on a daily basis and in very extroverted ways. Early in the morning women in the community can be seen doing their "puja" at the local temples; carrying with them their prayers, dishes of fruit, flowers and rice as offerings. Another such ritual is the "tika"; a form of decoration in which men and women paint their forehead with colored paste. It has many meanings but is often worn to represent the spiritual. I love seeing people walk into my treatment room adorned in this way. In fact it becomes so widespread I almost forget how different these customs are from Canada. These outward expressions of the inner spiritual life has allowed me to look more deeply at my own hopes and dreams and to truly contemplate my devotion and gratitude for the beauty in my life.

The other night some of the practitioners, interpreters and monks were having "chia" (milk tea) at the forest view, which is a small shop we tend to hang out in playing cards and enjoying each others company. The woman who owns the shop came over to share her offerings. She had just returned from an all day pilgrimage to a rural temple and had brought back with her gifts from that place to share. She walked around the table and placed in each of our hands an assortment of flowers, dry rice and fennel. She was happy to share her blessings from the temple with us. It was special yet commonplace. Some rested the flowers on their heads and others behind their ears. All those present responded with a bow as a heartfelt acknowledgment to the deeper meaning of this gesture.

Tihar Fextival Nepal

Patients regularly come in to see us bringing gifts -  bags of fruit or bunches of spinach as a way to say thank you. When in reality, I have come to realize I am the greatest beneficiary of this experience. The chance to be witness to so many healing journeys is a true gift. The spark of connection these patients ignite in me is significant. During those stories that are hard to hear and those cases that may not have the perfect happy ending I am especially struck by this realization. The other day a patient stopped me and told me (with the help of my amazing interpreter) that I would always be with them. She said that a piece of me would stay here and always be in the hearts of my patients. That she would not forget and that a part of Nepal would go home with me and live in my heart forever. And you know what? She was right. ---Jennifer Rankin

Jennifer Rankin | Volunteer Acupunturist Nepal

People, Patients and Moments Shared

Felicity Woebkenberg | Volunteer Acupuncturist Nepal

I knew that the time that I spent in Nepal with the Acupuncture Relief Project would be a personal conquest of service. However, when I walked through the doors of the Vajra Varahi Healthcare Clinic I had no idea of the transformative journey that would lie ahead of me. I did not grasp that I would soon need all of my inner strength and courage to face many new challenges strait on. As I reflect, I see that I have learned some valuable lessons along the way. More importantly I see the friendships and personal connections that will eternally impact my life.

Felicity Woebkenberg | Acupuncture VolunteerAs a practitioner, I have grown in ways that I never could have anticipated. As a human being I have been filled with gratitude and compassion for the world, and my soul has been inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of hardship, obstacles, and poverty.

As many of my patients have said, "Khe garne?" or “What is there to do?”  I am placed in a position where I can provide hope where this word has long been forgotten. For some this is done with the insertion of a needle, for others it is through creating a space in which they can speak their hearts and truth, and for others it is sharing a similar destination of healing.

I think of my patients and the therapeutic relationship that we have formed in a relatively short period of time. I think of the expressive glances and common understanding that we have formed together. Through this experience, there is an intuitive knowing which I have nurtured and come to trust within myself in a new way. Slight movements of the skin, a subtle change in the tone of a voice, the way that an individual carries his or her self, and the glimmer or dullness of the eyes are all pieces of the new language that I have learned.

Patients at the Vajra Varahi Clinic NepalI recall the woman with knee pain whose husband suffered from typhoid fever, the man with Parkinson’s disease with the sparkle in his eye, the man with depression who echo’s beautiful tones from his trumpet across the valley, the woman with stroke sequela who is escorted into the clinic on her husband’s arm, the two women who have been friends since childhood with loving affection for each other, and the woman with the laugh that is contagious that by the end of the day everyone’s belly aches.

I reflect on the people that I have met, the patients that I have treated, and the moments that we have shared. And as I leave this place, there are heartstrings which are tugged with ample force reminding me of the bonds which have been made, and the people who I must leave behind. This is the choice that I have made... I have chosen to dive in and truly experience this place deeply, which has made it all the harder to let it go.

I came here to be of service to a community that needed my help. Little did I know how quickly I would become a part of it... and know it as a place that accepted me as its own. --- Felicity Woebkenberg

Felicity Woebkenberg | Acupuncture Volunteer Nepal

Volunteer practitioner Felicity Woebkenberg and interpreter Tsering Sherpa head out to a remote treatment site by motorbike.

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