Naturopathic Outreach in Nicaragua
By Linda L. Brown, ND
I have just returned from a most remarkable volunteer experience with Natural Doctors International (NDI) in Ometepe, Nicaragua, where I learned a profound amount about myself and the world around me. Following a diagnosis of breast cancer, and two years of concentrated focus on my own healing and recovery, I had felt the pull to offer my skills to those for whom healthcare options are not available.
Our medical team consisted of 13 naturopathic students from the USA, 3 Naturopathic doctors, and 1 Medical doctor from Italy. We were accompanied by 2 non-medical participants, and were fortunate to have other members of the NDI coordinating team act as drivers and translators.
This unique program was founded in 2003 by three very passionate Naturopathic doctors from Oregon. Dr. Tabatha Parker has since moved to Ometepe, married and is expecting her second child. Although there are many medical teams and Christian missions doing outreach work in Central America, this was the first organization dedicated to spreading the work and philosophies of Naturopathic doctors and other natural healers. NDI is currently exploring future medical opportunities in other countries, such as Mexico and Zambia.
In full co-operation with the Nicaraguan government, this program exposes its participants to many aspects of rural life in a developing country. Nicaragua has been ravaged by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, political upheaval and war. The local people are poor farmers, living very basic lives, without the “necessities” that we have come to expect in North America (i.e. toilet paper and running water). Labourers earn the equivalent of $2.50 US/CDN per day, which must feed a family of six or more people and pay for other non-essentials and luxuries, like soap and toothpaste. Rarely is there anything left over to pay for medicines, which are largely unavailable anyway. Private hospitals are for the rich, while the general population makes do with substandard facilities and treatment at the free hospitals, to which transportation costs can be prohibitive. Crucial blood pressure and diabetic medications are frequently non-existent for this island population.
As part of our planning, brigade participants sought donations in cash or supplements, to support the work of the medical team. Our brigade collectively raised over $19,000 worth of medicine, which stocks the clinic dispensary for free distribution to our patients. Amongst these donations was a supply of acupuncture needles generously donated by Eastern Currents.
The NDI free clinic is a 3-room station, serving all of the farming communities on the island, where doctors and supervised students attend patients, doing physical exams, intake visits, gynecological exams, and devising and implementing treatment plans. We are limited to our donated supplements, in addition to herbal tinctures and remedies purchased from local sources. Acupuncture, manual therapies, homeopathy and anything else within our scope of practice are all invaluable in dealing with the multiple skin infections, parasites, urinary and respiratory infections, as well as back and joint pains commonly experienced. The array of ailments and pains is often so chronic, that patients fail to mention them unless specifically questioned. Our team collectively attended over 200 patients. This number would have been significantly higher, had the torrential rains not pulled the labourers away from the clinic waiting area and out into the fields to save the bean crops.
To enhance our understanding of rural life and the impact of globalization on countries such as Nicaragua, the experiential component was critical. Each participant was housed and fed by a local family, through a collective of women dedicated to the betterment of their standard of living. Room and board fees are used to improve their homes and feed their families. We were forced to adapt to our new surroundings, quickly deleting all expectation of North American “necessities”. Four cement walls, a tin roof, latrines, and bucket showers were the standard. In order for my roommate and I to share a room, the entire family of six squeezed into one tiny bedroom. We rose early (5am, with the roosters), were fed three meals per day, and endured very long hours in a swelteringly hot clinic. It was a challenge for me to adapt my style of treatment to accommodate the limited time, resources and medicines available to us, while faced with health conditions unfamiliar to me in Canada. Attending patients in Spanish, and translating back to English for the rest of the team also tested my skill and endurance.
We spent one sticky morning shift in the fields, helping the farmers to harvest sesame crops, and learning the many steps involved in that process. Despite good intentions, most of us only lasted a couple of hours under very intense heat and work conditions, thus explaining the chronic back pains experienced by the majority of our patients.
Our evenings were spent doing “check-ins”, sharing and processing our personal emotional experiences, and attending informative cultural classes. We learned about globalization and its impact on the lives and health of third world peoples, through many thought-provoking exercises. One such assignment was to “Feed a Family” with the total daily wage of $2.50, which had to be prioritized to purchase food, toiletries and the medical needs of an ailing family member (i.e. Grandma – who had come down with a severe sore throat). The required medicines would have cost the entire day’s wage, therefore, this was not an option. We had to decide whether to treat her, and/or buy other necessities for the family. This type of daily dilemma is part of life in this community. It was an eye-opening assignment - we made our purchases, explained our rationale, then donated the goods to several local families. Class was routinely followed by torrential downpours, through which we had to walk home, in the pitch dark, guided only by a headlamp, tip-toeing through and around the rivers that used to be roadways. The deluge was so powerful on the last night, that we missed our sendoff party due to the 1 ½ feet of tumultuous water forming a river just beyond our gate.
Finally, we had a day of down-time. Most of us chose to climb one of the 2 volcanoes on the island, for which I had to borrow a pair of shoes that were 3 sizes too big for me. With very little foot support, I was slipping and sliding the entire way, and when it started raining, I began to fall. When it became evident that we would not have enough time to summit the volcano, the group decided to enjoy lunch and turn back. Along the way, we learned about the local flora and fauna, including coffee, poisonous plants, and several interesting insects.
As we said our goodbyes to our host families and to each other, it was clear how much these ten life-changing days had impacted on all of us. I realized the great significance of the work we are doing, with a backdrop of the enormous impact of globalization on millions of people worldwide. NDI is one small organization which is making its mark, and will further its good work with the continued help of donors and supporters worldwide.