Something about community-style acupuncture really speaks to my soul. For those of you out there unfamiliar with our acu-lingo, community-style is designed so that a practitioner can treat multiple patients at once, thereby lowering the cost and making it affordable for a population who might not otherwise have access. My defining experience with community-style treatments was during a trip to the Dominican Republic a few years ago. We were treating in an AIDS clinic in La Romana, and it was heartbreaking. The people were so uneducated about the disease; the clinic was full of sweet-faced preteens who also happened to be prostitutes. Men would come in protesting that there was no way they could be HIV-positive because they only had sex with female prostitutes, not male. We were witnesses to the initial shock, the disbelief, when patients were informed of their HIV status.
On the first day there we thought our way through a brief but drenching tropical storm into a full waiting room. There was a television propped up in a corner for the patients to watch while waiting. For a moment things seemed familiar … the television bought me back to various waiting rooms in hospitals I had spent time in, back in the US. Then I noticed what was playing on the TV. Gunshot victims with half of their brains missing, up close and personal. A man sliced up with an ax, his flesh looking like cuts of beef in the harsh light of the television cameras. As I stared, a coroner wrestled a body into a bodybag, then wiped his bloody hand carelessly over the covered face of the corpse to clean it off. OK, this was definitely not US television.
That day was a blur of madness and confusion, and I loved every minute of it. Did I mention that I do not speak a word of Spanish, except for all the dirty words I've picked up in restaurant kitchens? I would hesitantly ask, after checking my Spanish translation book, what the problem was, and a torrent of words would stay. I understood not a word. What was I supposed to do? Then it came to me: Japanese style treatments! With this type of treatment, the body tells you what it needs. So I simply laid out my patients on tables and palpated their abdomens to figure out how to treat. Since I could not understand what they were saying, I had to go with the minority nuances of their expressions. I waited for a raised eyebrow, a flinch, or an occasional yip of pain. A quick check of the pulse and tongue, and I was in business.
I can not fully explain the endorphin rush that came with being in that atmosphere. I have a clear memory of one particular day, four patients upstairs, two downstairs, and more waiting. I had patients sprawled out on makeshift tables of every possible design-anything was fair game to use. Since we had so little to work with, we had to get creative. It was hot as hell, and so humid that the air felt like cotton working its way into my lungs. I was running up and down the stairs, from patient to patient, soaked through with sweat. And at that moment I felt more sublimely happy, more content, then I had ever felt before or since. For once in my life, I was simply doing, not thinking about doing. I was occupying on adrenaline and instinct, and it was divine.