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What Can Acupuncture Cure?

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

One brisk morning in Makawanpur, as our team was finishing breakfast and preparing to head over to the clinic, a man stopped by to ask us if we could have a look as his mother. The man is a carpenter who has been helping us with our new clinic building and the weary expression on his face speaks volumes as to what might be going on with his mother. I grab one of our mobile kits and ask one of the other practitioners and an interpreter to come with me up to the carpenter’s village. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

As part of my work in Nepal, I really enjoy visiting patients’ homes and doing house calls. Too often we don't have time or the resources to spend walking out to neighboring villages, but when we do, I always find the experience enriching and illuminating. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was returning from a house call when I was stopped in the street by another patient who asked if I could look at her mother. She told me that her mother had suffered a stroke more than a year ago. When I went to their home and saw her mother however, I quickly realized that her mom had not suffered a stroke, rather she was in the advanced stages of Huntington’s Disease. On my walks, I find many disabled, paralyzed and elderly people; I also get acquainted with the village drunks. Sometimes I discover a few cases of mental illness and birth defects lurking in the population. All of these conditions exist everywhere in the world, it’s just that we rarely get to see them all in one place. That is the beauty and nature of working in a village; our patients are everywhere. They vigorously greet us in the street, offering tea or food while giving us updates on their progress and interest in acupuncture. “Ma Dhukdhana! (I don’t have any pain)” an elderly Tamang man shouts while pointing to his knees and throwing his walking stick to the ground. “Deri Ramro! (Excellent!)” I reply while giving him a thumbs up sign. (I have no idea what that gesture might mean in Nepali but it usually makes people laugh.)

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

On this particular day, it takes us about 45 minutes to walk a few kilometers into the hills just to the west of our clinic. Small, two story, stone and mud houses are clustered tightly together along the hillside in this old Newari village. The Newar heritage can be seen in the intricate wood carvings around the windows and the sweeping uplifted corners of the rooflines. It looks like a 14th century movie set save for a few sad-looking satellite dishes and the modern water tanks. The road is so steep and rocky it’s only passable on foot, and yet, I see two decrepit motorbikes parked about midway up the hill. In most of these houses cows, water buffalo, goats and chickens are kept on the ground floor with the family living upstairs. The air is thick and stings my nostrils with the acrid wood smoke of cooking fires. Evidence of the recent earthquake can be seen everywhere with collapsed roofs, cracked walls and sometimes completely destroyed buildings. On the other hand, there are what appear to be centuries old buildings standing completely unaffected. Damage aside, there is no doubt that life goes on as the village is abuzz with everyday activities. A woman who looks to be at least 150 years old, offers for us to drink rakishi (local distilled alcohol) with her. We happily decline, as it is only 9:00 AM, and wish her a good day. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

In the villages of Nepal, people do not live inside their houses. The house is really just for storage and sleeping with very small living spaces and low ceilings. Creosote coats the walls and roof beams from years of cooking fires and the smell of livestock, mold and dust permeates the air. Most daily life takes place in the small courtyard in front of the house. This is where meals are prepared, laundry is washed, crops are dried and where neighbors gather to socialize while they work. Thusly it was no surprise that when we arrived at the carpenter’s house, his extended family (about 12 people) were all gathered in this outdoor space enjoying the morning warmth from the sun and busy with their daily chores. On a hand woven grass mat in the middle of all of this activity, two younger women support and offer a cup of water to a woman who appears close to death. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

I take a deep breath to calm my mind and offer a silent prayer. “Steady,” I think as I look to my assistants. Then we begin. Make contact, exam, vital signs- is the patient lucid? Barely. My interpreter and I listen to the family members tell their story and we ask many questions. Bit by bit we slowly begin to understand the situation. 

The woman is nearly 80 years old (in Nepal, elderly people do not know their exact age as they do not celebrate birthdays and they do not have any government issued birth documents.) She is as thin and frail as you can image a person to be. Her daughter-in-law claims she weighs less than a sack of rice (40kg or 80-90 lbs). When we try to take her blood pressure, her upper arm is less than one inch in diameter and even our smallest cuff will not fit her. Her vital signs are so weak they are almost imperceptible. Her abdomen is distended and tender. Every bone in her body is visible through her thin and dehydrated skin. Cancer? Internal bleeding? She is in some discomfort but not in agony and periodically she speaks a few words, usually asking to be moved to a different position. “Sit me up,” she says, then after a few minutes “Lay me down.”  She has been this way for 5 weeks, gradually declining. She has not eaten in three days and she is only drinking a few sips of water now and then. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

I look around and take in the scene. “How many people are here?” I think. 10? 20? 30? Family? Neighbors? Every one fascinated by the activity; all looking to us for answers. I look at the carpenter, his weathered face with deep crows feet accenting his high cheekbones. In his eyes I see the question, “What do I do?”

Who is my patient? The woman who is dying or carpenter or the whole family… maybe the whole village?

Of course if I was in the U.S., I would just dial 911 and, like magic, a team of paramedics would materialize within a few minutes, whisking her away to the lifesaving miracles of modern medicine. I wouldn’t even give the slightest thought to how much that might cost. But here… the nearest hospital is 4-5 hours away by kidney-busting roads. Even if she survived the ambulance ride (I use the term ambulance loosely because it is just a four wheel drive truck with a flashing light and lacks any medical equipment or trained personnel) what hospital would we send her to? What can the family afford? If the patient is put on a respirator she could easily drain the family’s resources beyond their basic survivability. 

What to do? How can I possibly answer this question for everyone.... Here is the reality. Like it or not, I am the senior trained medical provider in this village. This family is asking for my professional opinion, on which they will base their plan of action. “What is best?” I ponder. What advice will relieve the maximum suffering? What is ethical?

I begin by clearly stating what is happening. I look the carpenter in the eye, take a long pause, and say… “Your mother is dying.” I go on to explain that I do not believe there is any medicine that will prevent this from happening and that it will likely happen soon. I tell him that she is in some pain and that the hospital would be able to give her medicine to relieve that pain but it is unlikely they will prevent her from dying. It is my opinion that the ambulance transfer to the hospital will be very stressful and possibly fatal for her. It is my sincere feeling that she would be better off in the care and surroundings of her home and family. I empathize that it is a difficult but necessary choice he would have to make for himself, his mother and his family. Under the clear blue sky, surrounded by his extended family and neighbors, the carpenter received this news with stoic silence. He began to cry a little and then he said, “Thank you”.

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

What came next was an amazing sigh of relief. Everyone gathered there suddenly knew exactly what to do: make Ahma (grandmother) comfortable. They ask lots of questions. We show them how to keep her bedsores clean and advise them to change her clothing and bedding daily. We show them how to massage her dry skin with mustard oil and we explain that she needs to be out in the sunlight and with the family as much as possible. “Don’t leave her indoors, alone in the dark during the day. Hold her hand and speak with her even if she can not speak back to you.” 

We left them saying that if her condition changes or if they felt her pain was becoming intolerable, “Just call us and we will come.” 

The day after our visit the woman sat up on her own and asked to sit in the courtyard with the other women while they worked. She sat all day in the sun and sipped tea. This was the first time she had sat up under her own power for over a month. The women asked her what she was thinking about; sometimes she would reply and sometimes just sit quietly. That night she passed away in her sleep.  

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

With every decision I have to make there is a consequence. I don’t alway get it right. Many of you might think that I made a poor decision in this case. You may be right. As much as I try to understand what is “best” for a patient, I never really know the answer. What I do understand is that every day our practitioners go to the clinic and try to palliate life. With simple acupuncture and herbal medicine we reduce pain and alleviate many conditions, helping people return to work and to the care of their families. With our assessment and diagnostic skills we help people access and understand the care they need, often guiding the treatment of other physicians. All the while we are working on those aches, pains and injuries that rural living delivers to the body, we’re getting to know our community. We are diligently surveilling for tuberculosis, cancer, hypertension, respiratory dysfunctions and infectious diseases- constantly scanning for signs of mental illness, depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Maybe our treatment is just the context in which we relate to our patients and community. I can live with that. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andrew Schlabach

Patients often tell me, “I’m afraid to ask my doctor a question.” In Nepal especially, questioning a doctor will likely earn you a prompt scolding. This fact really breaks my heart. Doctors rarely, if ever, offer a diagnosis or explain the drugs or procedures they are giving to the patient- even to us- and we ask. Illiterate patients (most of our villagers who’re over 50 years old) are totally at the mercy of the medical institutions and they are often frivolously over-treated and overcharged. When I end a patient visit with the query, “Do you have any questions for me?” my patients are stunned. How can such a simple concept go overlooked? Just like the carpenter and his mother, when we take the time to explain what is going on and what can be expected it make all the difference because it enables patients to make their own choices. If nothing else, hopefully through our example here in Makawanpur and through the students that we train, we can begin to get this idea into practice.

In the end, I’m not all that interested in what acupuncture (or any other medicine) can cure. For me it is enough to just struggle with the question, “What is best for this patient?” and to give my utmost effort to provide practical solutions and compassionate care.

Author: Andrew Schlabach, MAcOM EAMP
Director, Acupuncture Relief Project
Bhimphedi, Makawanpur, Nepal

The Connection We Share

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andre Capiez

Today I treated 17 patients. It is my first treatment day in the village of Bajrabarahi, in Nepal, working side by side with fellow acupuncturists from around the globe, brought together by the Acupuncture Relief Project.

I knew that the local villagers would be lovely and friendly people; I was told that they have a hard life and do not complain, but are grateful for the treatment and care. I also knew that I would treat a variety of health issues beyond the usual scope of an acupuncturist trained in New Zealand. But what I did not expect was to see an eleven year old boy come with his mum, and to feel helpless to do something for him.

He has, what appears to be a large lipoma on the inner thigh of one of his legs. It is hard and heavy, and it weighs down his leg and affects his walking. I am told that he has seen a doctor who advised surgery. I am also told that the family cannot afford to pay for the surgery. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Andre Capiez

Even worse, I do not think that the surgery would solve his problem. The growth appears to have taken over the muscles and is probably intertwined with veins and nerves. I have seen a similar case before in an elderly relative at home;  a surgeon operated but it grew again, as not everything could be removed. Worse, it turned cancerous and the only further advice was amputation, as the growth increasingly cut off the blood supply to the lower leg. 

But this is an eleven year old boy and he has walked to the clinic to see me, hoping that I can do something for him. And I feel so helpless. I do some acupuncture points for pain and one of my colleagues gives him some Chinese herbs to take. 

I thank him for coming and tell him to come back in three days. As he leaves, he looks at me with a beaming smile on his face, happy with the care, and maybe relieved that the needles are out. And his shy smile makes me realise that the most important thing I did for him today was that I cared for him and that I showed him that I cared. But what he gave me in return was far more important; it was his trust in sharing his burden with me and in allowing me to treat him and to do the best I could for him. This little boy taught me not to feel sad for him, but to accept my own limitations, and to appreciate the connection that we all share as human beings. --- Andre Capiez

The Gift of More Than Just a Quilt

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Sheri Barrows

In Camas, Washington there is a very special woman named Kathryn Oftedahl who creates the most beautiful quilts.  They are not just creations of beauty they are creations of love.

Recently, Kathryn graciously asked us to gift one of her quilts to a patient of our choice at our Bajrabarahi clinic and after much consideration we chose Laxmi Buddha Shrestha and her husband Ram Krishna Shrestha. Laxmi and Ram have lived in the village of Bajrabarahi their entire lives and they are farmers who grow rice, millet, potatoes, corn and more.  

About 8 years ago, Laxmi began presenting symptoms of personality changes and uncontrollable muscle spasms. When Andrew was introduced to Laxmi a year ago, her family claimed that she had suffered a stroke, however, he immediately recognized it as Huntington’s Disease.  Huntington’s is a progressive neurological and psychological disease that is due to a genetic defect. It typically appears in mid-life and starts with a slight tremor similar to Parkinson’s Disease.  The tremors get progressively worse until every joint in a person’s body twitches violently in puppet-like movements. The tremors are relentless and even when Laxmi is sleeping her body doesn’t rest. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Sheri Barrows

Laxmi is very fortunate to have a loving and compassionate husband whose humor brings a smile to her quivering face and extended family that help provide for her. She is especially appreciative of visitors as they bring a bit of joy and entertainment into her isolated world.  A few of our ARP team visit and have tea with her at her home twice a week and Jamil, her doctor, treats her with acupuncture.  While nothing can be done to cure or even slow the progression of Huntington’s, Laxmi says the acupuncture helps her feel “lighter” and sleep better. 

In late October I had the opportunity to meet Laxmi and she had a ready smile as Tsering, Andrew and I walked into her room. Nothing that I had been told about her case had prepared me to see her twisted and constantly tremoring body on her sleeping pad. Amazingly to me, her eyes immediately went to the bright quilt Andrew was carrying and she was delighted when we covered her with all of the colorful flowers.  

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Sheri Barrows

I cannot describe how very blessed I feel to have had the opportunity to be part of sharing Kathryn’s gift and seeing the joy it brought to Laxmi.  

I would like to offer my heartfelt Thanks to Kathryn and everyone who makes this project possible.  I wish you could all be here to witness the effect of your support. --Sheri Barrows, Secretary/Treasurer, Acupuncture Relief Project 

Directors Note: A few weeks after Sheri's visit to Bajra Barahi, Laxmi quietly passed away in the arms of her husband. We were all honored to be able to work with Laxmi and her family and while we are deeply saddened by her passing we also recognize the relief in the end of her suffering. We continue to see Laxmi's husband, Ram Krishna, in our clinic and he is a cheerful reminder of the small role we play in this village in Nepal.

Bajra Barahi

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Alyssa Baser

At our clinic in Bajra Barahi, Nepal each practitioner sees up to 20 patients a day. At the beginning of my stay there I was meeting all new patients. I knew some cases would be challenging and others would be a bit more familiar. I know right now, that some will need long term treatment and have slow progress, whereas some find relief in only a few treatments.  I do hope however, to have as many successes as I can in the short amount of time that I am here. And it's the successes, little or big that keep me inspired to moving forward to help people.

The first time I met this patient he presented with low back pain, painful urination and red coloured urine. He complained that he experienced the back pain when bending over and had some frequency of urination. I thought he may have been experiencing a kidney infection but he did not have a fever nor was his pain severe. 

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Alyssa Baser

I consulted with a colleague and he clarified that this was not a kidney infection but more likely kidney stones. After doing a kidney punch test confirming the presence of stones and taking his temperature (which was normal), my recommendations were to drink five to six liters of water, quit drinking alcohol, chewing tobacco, and come for acupuncture to move the stones. Expecting him to argue with me, he surprisingly agreed saying if that is what it took to pass the stones, that is what he would do. 

Within a week he visited the clinic every day and every time I saw him he looked better and better. The pain kept decreasing as he held his side of the agreement to drink six liters of water! I enjoyed his energy a lot, he was a very positive man and grateful for the work I did on him. I especially appreciated that he wanted to get better as much as I wanted him to!

Acupuncture Relief Project  | Good Health Nepal | Alyssa Baser

I predicted it would take about 6 appointments of checking in and doing acupuncture to resolve the stones. When appointment 6 approached, he came back saying he was having frequent urination but no red urine, urgency, or back pain. How could he be urinating ten times a day after all the work we had done? It was because he was still continuing to drink 6 liters of water per day because I had advised him to when he had the stones! Laughing at the very uncomplicated explanation, I told him he could now return to half that amount since the stones had finally passed. What else was there to do for him now? I could not think of anything to say but that he did not have to come to the clinic anymore unless something else came up. It does not seem like a big deal but for me, it was the first time I told a patient that our work here was done and I did not require him to come back again! It felt rewarding to know that this case was for now closed successfully. It enforced a reminder to me that it is great thing to give a patient the help they need with the intention of eventually seeing them less and less because they are improving. On the other hand, if we are constantly seeing a patient for several months/weeks without seeing any changes in their condition, what good are we doing? 

I do believe that this patient did more than half of the work because he truly wanted to get better and was willing to put in the effort for that to happen. Patients and us practitioners have to work together as a team! I am hopeful for more experiences like this in the future. Specifically, I am looking forward to more successes as well as overcoming challenging cases. Even more so, having the right to say, "Great work! You don't have to come anymore unless something else happens!" and send them on their way. -- Alyssa Baser

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