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Suffolk doctor trains Guatemalan refugees in ancient art

Earlier this fall, a

local doctor used her years of experience in holistic health care to help treat the various ailments of Guatemalan refugees, as well as instruct some of them in ways to help each other.

Dr. Susan Zimmer, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, participated in the Guatemala Acupuncture Medical Aid Project. In October, she and four other acupuncturists spent 10 days in the Central American country to instruct 30 local villagers in the ways of acupuncture, training them to be “health promoters” who could go back to their respective villages and care for their members.

The Guatemala Acupuncture Medical Aid Project began in 1994 when Guatemalan refugees returned to a newly developed community and needed access to reliable, inexpensive and sustainable health care. Acupuncture fit the bill.

The refugees requested training in basic techniques to help alleviate acute and chronic health conditions, such as malaria, migraines and skeleto-muscular pain.

Former refugee aid workers in Tucson, Arizona, responded by forming the Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project or GUAMAP.

According to the National Institute of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, acupuncture describes a family of procedures involving stimulating points on the body through various techniques. Traditional Chinese medicine theorizes that there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the body that stimulate pathways that conduct energy or qi (pronounced “chee”).

Acupuncture is used to help balance qi, which regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance, thereby restoring health to body and mind.

For more than 2,000 years, traditional Chinese practitioners have used acupuncture and medicinal herbs to treat people. According to GUAMAP officials, the practice is a sensible form of treatment for Guatemalans for a number of reasons:

n Hands-on observation is the primary teaching technique, so language barriers pose less of a problem;

n It employs little technology: small, sterile, disposable needles, cotton, alcohol and herbal medicine is all that is needed;

n It is a low-cost option. Just $450 covers one-week training for 12 health promoters, as they are called, through GUAMAP.

Zimmer said the primary focus of instruction on this trip was women’s health.

“We treated several women who suffered with chronic cough and respiratory illness, lung deficiency, due to pesticide exposure, after working in the fields.”

Others had problems caused by multiple, close pregnancies and subsequent lactations, with insufficient nutrition and rest.

Their days were filled; they were up with the roosters and worked until dark.

Team members spent much of the day observing and assisting students in treating more than 150 patients of all ages, she said. Most of the students and patients traveled many miles by foot, only to catch a bus to ride for another hour or more, just to reach the clinic.

Zimmer saw a variety of afflictions, including ovarian cysts, headaches, diabetes, arthritis, asthma and more. While directing students in the acupuncture techniques, she also tried to educate them, as well as patients, on other holistic approaches, such as nutrition and exercise.

“All the patients were extremely appreciative of the treatments they received in the clinic,” she said. “Many stayed overnight with their family to also get a treatment the next day.”

As a holistic practitioner, Zimmer said it was gratifying to be able to teach patients natural health ways to regain and maintain their health.

“I am proud to have been able to participate in this acupuncture training program, probably the only one of this kind in the world,” Zimmer said.

“It is very rewarding to promote acupuncture around the world, especially when there is a teaching program to enable them to continue on and help their villages with acupuncture n a real example of sustainable health care.”

This was not Zimmer’s first trip in the name of acupuncture. Last year she volunteered with Acupuncturists Without Borders, providing treatment to Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans. She also has traveled to China to study traditional Chinese medicine.