FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hope, Solidarity and Acupuncture

by MARK T. HARRIS

Treating illness involves getting to the root of a health condition. Or, ideally at least, it should. In the real world much medical practice is geared toward ameliorating symptoms, without necessarily curing the underlying condition. Certainly the modern pharmaceutical industry is to a large extent based on treating symptoms.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong per se with treating symptoms. After all, relief from pain or discomfort is just that—relief. But how much better when treatment also addresses the cause of the pain or discomfort, the roots of the illness.

Similarly, the “disease” of violence and injustice in society should also ask us to look for solutions that go beyond palliatives—to address the social roots of violence and oppression. For cynics who think violence is just human nature, the latter has always been a quick way to earn the moniker of hopeless idealist. But isn’t it the idealists who always end up changing the world? The latter idea shouldn’t be too difficult a concept to grasp, in this “year of the protestor” as Time magazine calls 2011. It all begins with not accepting things as they are, and, believing far-reaching change is possible.

Such a perspective informs Mateo Bernal’s new book, Healing in Community: Finding Health and Freedom in a Palestinian Refugee Camp (CreateSpace, 2011). Bernal is a Kentucky native trained as an acupuncturist at Portland’s Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. He’s also a political activist with a history of involvement in international solidarity efforts on behalf of Palestinian communities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza strip.

Natural Health Care for a Neglected Community

Healing in Community is written as a diary of the months Bernal recently spent at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. There he established a community acupuncture clinic to provide health care to the local population. It’s a community not only underserved in terms of health care generally, but also often experiencing medical issues directly related to the hardships of camp life.

Currently, more than 12,000 Palestinians live in the densely populated Shatila camp, which was established in 1949 under United Nations auspices. Shatila is one of a dozen such camps in Lebanon for approximately 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Life is difficult in the impoverished camps. Nearly half of adults in the camps under the age of 40 are unemployed. Despite their long presence in the country, Lebanon also denies most Palestinian refugees citizenship opportunities.

Worse, the population over the years has been caught in the crosshairs of much violence, most recently during the 2006 Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah. In a region notorious for human rights atrocities, the Shatila and Sabra camps suffered one of the worst in 1982. That’s when right-wing Lebanese Christian Phalangists, in collusion with Israeli military forces, carried out a massacre of hundreds of men, women, and children. In the mid-1980s, internecine violence in Lebanon exacted a further toll on the people, as the Shi’ite Amal militia launched an assault on the PLO leadership based in Shatila and other camps.

As Bernal’s diary reveals, many of the Shatila population present with health problems tied to their unique history as a persecuted and stateless people. In one case, a woman about 40 asks Bernal if he can help with her hearing loss in one ear. He asks her whether there was a loud explosion that caused the hearing loss, or some other physical trauma. In Shatila, such simple questions have a way of cascading into dramatic, awful revelations.

Bernal’s patient nervously explains that she was injured in 2006 when the Israeli military bombed Beirut. She was hiding under a concrete bridge when it was hit and destroyed. Trapped in the rubble, barely conscious and in pain from an open abdominal wound, the woman lay there for two days before rescue workers found her. Her ordeal was compounded by news that three other family members had died in the bombing campaign. Now she just wonders if acupuncture can help her with the hearing loss she’s experiencing.

Others bring similarly difficult health stories to the clinic. Often they have sought help elsewhere, to little avail. One of the virtues of Bernal’s account is the way he brings to light the lives and personalities of those he encounters. As a health care provider, he is a sensitive observer of people.

Individuals with a history of acute trauma may be more inclined to experience “needle shock” during acupuncture, we learn, making it necessary to tread slowly as their health issues are addressed. One patient complains of a skin condition, headaches, and dizziness. He has high blood pressure. The dermatitis reportedly started during one of the military sieges of the camp. There was disease and infection everywhere, the man explains. With him is another man, also with a history of war trauma. Both are treated, but after only a few minutes the men become dizzy. For now the needles are too much for them, Bernal concludes. The men promise to return.

A Place to Be Ourselves
In a sense, the clinic functions as a kind of safe space within the camp. While patients seek treatment for specific complaints, for many the clinic becomes a place to let down their guard a little, to just be themselves. There they might cry or laugh, drift off in relaxation or express bottled-up anxiety. If they’re too afraid of needles, then needles are replaced by acupressure, massage, and a few kind words. Some patients wonder if Bernal is a psychologist.

Some of those he meets want to learn more about traditional Oriental medicine. To the small group of clinic volunteers, Bernal exposits the patient-centered philosophy that guides his medicine. “It is our responsibility as healers to be able to expand to meet the needs of our patients,” he explains. “They have already gone to enough people who have told them that what they feel shouldn’t happen, what they know in their bodies to be true ‘should be different,’ and that is a completely disempowering and dissociating process for people. When we allow the person to feel whatever they feel, and create a universe of explanation around it, they feel validation.”

It’s a particularly empowering approach to health care, and especially poignant perhaps in a community long struggling for recognition of their legitimate rights.

For Bernal, his time in Shatila evokes an array of feelings; not least of which is the almost overwhelming sense of the challenge it will be to find justice in this long-neglected community. The Shatila camp is “like a person on life-support,” he notes toward the end of his journey. “With the UN providing support for basic necessities and most people unable to work, the situation remains almost in permanent standstill. They are just maintaining life, just being kept alive, but not really living. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what to do. It’s such a serious problem.”

Introducing us to his Palestinian friends, Healing in Community reads less like a polished treatise on issues in health and society than what it is—one healthcare practitioner’s personal observations on the experience of living and working in a culture and community with a particularly complex and painful history. What Mateo Bernal has done is to remind us of the humanitarian spirit, of the solidarity and compassion, that remains alive and well in this otherwise troubled world. There’s hope in that.

Mark T. Harris is a former Chicago-area writer who now lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a featured contributor to “The Flexible Writer,” fourth edition, by Susanna Rich (Allyn & Bacon/Longman, 2003). Website: www.Mark-T-Harris.com. Email: Mark@Mark-T-Harris.com.

 

Mark T. Harris is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He grew up a few blocks from the site of the old Lindlahr Sanitarium frequented by Eugene Debs in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. However, none of the teachers in the local schools ever spoke a word about Debs or the clinic. He does remember Carl Sandburg’s Elmhurst home, which was torn down in the 1960s to build a parking lot. Email: Harris@writersvoice.org

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Julian Vigo
The Government and Your i-Phone: the Latest Threat to Privacy
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Rev. William Alberts
The United Methodist Church Up to Its Old Trick: Kicking the Can of Real Inclusion Down the Road
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Lorenzo Raymond
Why Nonviolent Civil Resistance Doesn’t Work (Unless You Have Lots of Bombs)
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Ed Meek
The Republic of Fear
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
David Yearsley
Elgar’s Hegemony: the Pomp of Empire
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail