When most of us are feeling ill, it’s a simple matter of calling our health care provider and scheduling an appointment. But there are people in other areas of the world who have never even stepped foot into a doctor’s office or had a routine dental appointment.
That’s where the Acupuncture Relief Project comes in. Started in 2008, it is free clinic that treats up to 120 patients a day in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.
In addition to acupuncture, providers look for other health problems and refer patients to a physician or dentist if at all possible.
Acupuncturist Diane Wintzer, who works at Fearn Natural Health Clinic in Camas, recently returned from a five-week stint as a volunteer project coordinator in Nepal.
“We provide health care to people in extremely distressed communities,” Wintzer said. “We also try to do a little education to teach people how to take better care of themselves.”
Wintzer first became involved with the project after it was co-founded by her boyfriend, Andrew Schlabach.
“It is hard to imagine what not having any health care looks like,” Schlabach said. “As acupuncturists and Oriental medicine practitioners we don’t always have all of the tools we need to treat every condition, but we can treat quite a lot. In addition, we have assessment and diagnostic skills that we use to help people make better decisions.”
After graduating from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in 2008, Wintzer left to study in Nanjing, China, with Schlabach and a few others. It was there that the idea for community acupuncture was first born.
“Andrew hit up his contacts in Nepal, and found out a health care provider had newly completed clinic but no practitioners to work there,” Wintzer said. “We were willing to volunteer, so it was a good combination.”
She traveled to a small village just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal for the first time in 2009 as a volunteer practitioner.
“It worked out very well that first year,” she said. “Sometimes, you just show up and hope for the best, and people come.”
Added Schlabach, “We also provide an amazing opportunity for alternative health practitioners to learn and grow. In Nepal, a practitioner will see a spectrum and volume of conditions that they will never see in a developed country. This helps them improve their diagnostic and treatment skills immensely.”
This year, Wintzer went as one of two project leaders, supervising a team of practitioners. Total, there were nine acupuncturists treating upwards of 20 patients a day. Wintzer said she’s received valuable, hands-on training that helps her in the Camas clinic.
“In a week here, I might treat 30 people, but there you treat more than 100 working six days a week,” she said. “It’s really unique and a really great experience.”
Common health problems in Nepal include muscle pain, digestive issues, hypertension, diabetes, stroke rehabilitation, asthma, cysts, boils, typhoid fever, upper respiratory issues and tuberculosis.
The clinic typically runs from September through March or April, and so far, 15,000 treatments have been given. Project members are also trying to train a local acupuncturist. In addition, they employ interpreters on a regular basis in order to develop a rapport with patients and the community.
“We want this to be something that is ongoing and sustainable,” Wintzer said. “There are people who are in their 60s and 70s who have never been to a doctor. We try to keep our eyes on things when people don’t know if they should go to a doctor or dentist.”
She gave an example of several women who came to the clinic complaining of face pain, and Wintzer decided to look in their mouths to get a better idea of what was going on. She said several had an entire mouthful of abscessed teeth, but going to the dentist wasn’t something they’d thought of doing.
“I really want to work with them on preventative care, like brushing and flossing their teeth,” she said.
Despite working 10-plus hour days six days a week, Wintzer can’t think of anything negative about either of her experiences in Nepal.
“I just loved it so much there,” she said. “It’s a simple city and routine, working with people and seeing that despite your differences, you can find a way to connect. It’s great to be able to offer options to people. I really feel that they do me a huge favor by allowing me to treat them.”
To learn more, visit www.acupuncturereliefproject.org.