Volunteering with Acupuncturists Without Borders

by Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM

Volunteering with Acupuncturists Without Borders, Johanna Utter, L.Ac., FABORM in Davis, CAIn October, I volunteered with Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB) in Houston and Santa Rosa. AWB provides free, community-style trauma relief acupuncture to people in areas that have been hit by disasters.

Acupuncturists Without Borders was founded in 2005 by acupuncturist Diana Fried, following Hurricane Katrina. Knowing that acupuncture could help with trauma recovery, she ended up organizing 25 teams of acupuncturists to travel to New Orleans. There they provided free community acupuncture treatments to 8,000 in Louisiana, including evacuees, residents, first responders, emergency personnel, volunteers, and other care providers.

Since then, AWB-trained volunteers have offered trauma recovery services in the aftermath of many emergencies including: wildfires, floods, shootings, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, the Boston Marathon bombing, mudslides, and even a lava flow in Hawaii.

Acupuncturists Without Borders has also expanded its outreach to veterans, active military, and their families via the Military Stress Recovery Project.  AWB’s Community Service Clinic Program provides treatment for other trauma-impacted populations, such as refugees, survivors of sexual and domestic violence and first responders. There are now more than 30 AWB-affiliated community service clinics across the United States. AWB also does work internationally in Greece, Nepal, Mongolia, Haiti, Israel, and Mexico.

AWB uses a simple treatment technique, developed in New York in the 1970’s to treat the symptoms of drug detox, that has since been modified to provide stress reduction. For most people, five small needles are inserted into each ear, in points chosen to help people relax, reduce pain, improve sleep, calm the nervous system, and assist in the repair of organs most taxed by drugs, alcohol, and stress: the lungs, kidneys, and liver.

The two locations where I volunteered, Houston and Santa Rosa, had different set-ups, but the treatment was the same. Participants sat on chairs arranged in a circle and a practitioner inserted small needles in each ear to help with stress, anxiety, difficulty sleeping and pain. In Houston, the clinic had been taking place for several weeks by the time I arrived, so many of the recipients were regulars. One of the women was very eager to be there. She told us that she had suffered from depression for several years and that her mother had really noticed a difference in her energy following the first treatment. "I came for the acupuncture session not knowing what to expect. Within 5 minutes I could feel my self relaxing. The next day I had so much energy- more than I have had in two years. My mother cried tears of joy." Some people chose to have ear seeds taped to their ears after the treatment so that they could press them and do ear acupressure at home until the next clinic.

Disaster relief work is often a moving target. On the day that I volunteered in Santa Rosa, I got a call several hours beforehand letting me know that the location where we would be had changed. We then planned to set up in a tent behind the shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Upon arriving, we learned from the Red Cross that we were not permitted on site. This was disappointing since we had all driven a long way to be there. Fortunately, we were able to set up   chairs in a parking lot, near a tent where other practitioners were offering massage, physical therapy, and Reiki to first responders. There had been a few chiropractors there the day before.

Most of the acupuncture recipients in Santa Rosa were firefighters. The ones we treated were from Tulare County, Riverside, and Oregon. We learned that firefighters had come from all over the U.S., Canada, and even from as far away as Australia and New Zealand to help out. My co-volunteer, Barbara Seymour from Solana Beach (near San Diego), came up north to volunteer because her parents live in Sonoma.

She shares:
“We did a lot of treatments with first responders, and right before the end of our shift, these 4 firefighters from Riverside walked in to get their first ever acu treatments. They had been on the fire lines for 14 days straight risking their lives, inhaling smoke and getting little to no rest, and yet somehow, they managed to give each other such a hard time about getting needles in their ears! Once the points were in they took selfies and sent them to their wives. I don't know who said what, but all the sudden all four of them were laughing really hard and couldn't stop... then I started, then Johanna as well. What is it about laughing firemen?

One said, 'Hey, I can feel tingling down my left arm', another said, 'My neck feels looser.' When we took the points out, they let us know that they felt much better and thanked us, then we thanked them for their amazing service to the community. As they were leaving we got hugs from heroes.”

Being able to help during times of disaster is rewarding. In an instant, lives have been turned upside-down, and while acupuncture doesn’t provide food or shelter, it does help bring mental and emotional peace to its recipients as they put their lives back together. There is such a need for this work and I hope to be able to volunteer internationally in the future.

Short video from AWB California relief effort: https://youtu.be/CFT5GK4im3E

Huffington Post article about AWB: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59d74274e4b0cf2548b33614

If you would like to help support the work of Acupuncturists Without Borders, you can make a donation here.