Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Torture Survivors

Updated January 15, 2004





Healing with Needles: Acupuncture Aids Torture Survivors
By Carrie Elizabeth Sklar

Editor's Note: I'm happy to finally see an article on this topic. I had considered writing about my experience treating the first Survivors of Torture client to go to PCOM, but I felt that by revealing my patient's story, I might endanger him and his family. Regardless, it was a very rewarding experience to be able to help him with his health and emotions. I still count him as a friend, and occasionally see him around San Diego. Hope you enjoy the article! - Brian Carter, MS, LAc

Being a survivor of torture means a lot of different things. It means feeling scared and experiencing constant headaches, stress, lack of sleep, depression and more. To help victims of torture overcome these and other emotional and physical obstacles, Survivors of Torture International has added acupuncture as one step in a complex healing process.

There are approximately 10,000 people of different ages, race, gender and country of origin living in San Diego who have one thing in common: They have been tortured.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are 400,000 torture survivors in the United States. Amnesty International has documented 117 countries that practice torture.

Founded in 1997, Survivors of Torture is a nonprofit organization that seeks to care for these survivors of politically motivated torture and their families in San Diego.

“Our goal is to help people [who have been tortured] get into the mainstream by healing their injuries, recovering their strength, and rebuilding their lives” David Gangsei, clinical director of Survivors of Torture. “Acupuncture is one of the treatments we have as a holistic approach to helping torture survivors.”

At the end of 2001, Diane Powell, a psychiatrist working with Survivors of Torture, suggested acupuncture to a patient. At the recommendation of a licensed acupuncturist, the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine was contacted about providing these services. Survivors of Torture has been sending patients there ever since.

“Pacific College recognized a need that they wanted to respond to,” Gangsei said.

Pacific College President Jack Miller said he considers aiding torture survivors an important cause.

"There is, perhaps, no more heart-wrenching patient than one who has been subjected to the brutality of torture,” Miller said. “If our medicine can benefit these victims of inhumanity in any way, we must try. It seems clear that acupuncture and Oriental medicine have been effective in relieving some of these patients’ symptoms. I hope their experiences at Pacific College have helped alleviate their symptoms and regain trust in society."

Acupuncture consists of the gentle insertion and stimulation of thin, disposable sterile needles at strategic points near the surface of the body. Over 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body connect with 14 major pathways, called meridians. Chinese medicine practitioners believe that these meridians conduct qi, or energy, between the surface of the body and internal organs. It is qi that regulates spiritual, emotional, mental and physical balance. When the flow of qi is disrupted through poor health habits or other circumstances, pain and/or disease can result. Acupuncture helps to keep the normal flow of this energy unblocked.

When the partnership with Survivors of Torture and Pacific College first began, the college provided 10 free acupuncture treatments to patients referred by Survivors of Torture. However, that arrangement changed when Survivors of Torture received a grant from the Local Opportunities Fund of the California Endowment in August of 2002 and offered to pay Pacific College for its services. Despite this offer to offset its costs, Pacific College volunteered to continue providing Survivors of Torture patients four treatments free of charge. Beyond this, Pacific College bills Survivors of Torture for the treatments, with every fourth treatment free. Patients referred by Survivors of Torture also receive any herbs they need at a 35 percent discount, with the herbs billed to the program rather than the individual.

Gangsei said he is grateful that Pacific College did not accept payment for all of the services it provides.

“This was very generous on their part, and above and beyond the call of duty,” Gangsei said.

According to Gangsei, patients are referred to Pacific College by Sarak Suon, the Survivors of Torture medical coordinator, in consultation with the rest of the organization’s clinical team. These referrals are part of a growing national trend; a Kaiser study conducted in 1996 found that 57.2 percent of primary care physicians in Northern California used or recommended acupuncture in the previous year.

“Patients get referred for acupuncture for a whole variety of pain complaints and general health concerns and general stress,” Gangsei said.

The conditions that survivors of torture deal with are many: rape, mutilation, beatings, burns and blinding are only a few of the experiences many victims of torture are forced to endure. Even after fleeing to havens like San Diego, many survivors of torture remain stressed and fearful for their families, who may not have been able to escape.

Jodine Wamsley, a clinical intern at Pacific College, has been treating an Ethopian woman referred by Survivors of Torture for four months.

“She was in an Ethopian jail for a year,” Wamsley said. “She was sleeping naked on the freezing concrete, being tortured and all kinds of horrible things.”

Yet in the past months, Wamsley reports that there have been definite signs of improvement.

“She was in so much pain when she first came to see me, she couldn’t stand or cook in her own kitchen,” Wamsley said. “Now she can move around. She is so extremely grateful for her treatment … she gives me hugs to let me know she feels better.”

Wamsley said that though it is clear that some of the patients referred by Survivors of Torture have “a lot of psycho-emotional issues,” the main challenge as an acupuncturist is the language barrier.

“The interpreter only comes once a month, so we have to get by with her limited English, facial expressions, pointing – things like that,” Wamsley said.

“I would say that’s the only real challenge. It’s been an amazing experience for me.”

According to Gangsei, some patients have even requested acupuncture treatments on their own.

“When we do our intake, we describe our services to [the patients], and some people do request certain things,” Gangsei said.

According to Suon, some patients are hesitant about trying acupuncture because of the needles involved.

“Before they go, the needles are a big issue that makes them not want to try it, but after they’ve gone, they don’t even mention [the needles],” Suon said. “The patients tell me that they love the service.”

Suon added that not only do most of his patients love their acupuncture treatments, they also keep going back for more.

“We have a long continuation,” Suon said. “Some of our clients go [to Pacific College for acupuncture] forever.”

While Survivors of Torture does not extend this service to the families of torture victims, the organization does work with them in other aspects of the healing process.

“Torture is a pain that spreads to affect the people around the victim,” Gangsei said. “The health of the individual depends on the health of the family.”

Other services provided by Survivors of Torture include working with lawyers to gain patients the right to live and work in the United States. Doctors and therapists provided by the organization also help patients heal both physically and emotionally. Acupuncture is a helpful complement to these other therapies.

Acupuncture has been cited by the World Health Organization to treat over 43 conditions, many of which can affect torture survivors. These include constipation, headaches and migraines, swollen joints or muscles, tension, ulcers, circulatory problems, and chronic pain. Acupuncture has also been proven helpful when treating many nonphysical disorders, such as anxiety, depression, addictions, phobias, irrational or obsessive behavior, eating disorders, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, insomnia, depression, and stress. This is because acupuncture releases endorphins in the brain, which relieves tension and stress, thus allowing patients to cope with daily life.
In addition to relieving pain, boosting the immune system and helping with anxiety, acupuncture also benefits survivors of torture because of the human interaction it provides.

Acupuncture sessions can last between one and one and a half hours. During that time, a licensed acupuncturist focuses completely on the patient, providing both a valuable medical service and much-needed human contact. For patients who are still dealing with issues of trust and trying to overcome the fear of torture and human interaction, these sessions are doubly therapeutic.

Gangsei said that acupuncture treatments have undeniable benefits for torture survivors.

“Our experience has been that the clients referred to Pacific College have benefited enormously, both in terms of their symptoms and in terms of general moral,” Gangsei said.

One Survivors of Torture patient who has been receiving acupuncture treatments at Pacific College agreed.

"Since I have been coming to the [Pacific College] clinic, my appetite has returned,” the patient said. “I am now able to sleep in my own bed, when before I was not due to back pain. And the pain in my legs is almost gone. Pacific College is a nice place, and for my health, it is a great place to be."
Suon agreed, saying, “[Patients] feel better overall after [getting acupuncture].”

According to Suon, acupuncture is definitely a priority for Survivors of Torture, and that the organization hopes to continue its relationship with Pacific College.

“Our goal is to help [survivors of torture] relieve the pain that they have – either the psychological or the physical. So it’s important that we provide [acupuncture] to them so they’ll feel better and be able to function in their daily lives.”

Overcoming the pain and emotional stigma of torture may take a lifetime. Doctors, lawyers and therapists may work with patients for years, and results are never guaranteed. Hopefully, with the added aid of acupuncture, survivors of torture will overcome the horrors of their past. For more information on how acupuncture can help survivors of torture, please call (800) 729-0941.

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All information herein provided is for educational use only and not meant to substitute for the advice of appropriate local experts and authorities.

Copyright 1999-2074, Pulse Media International, Brian Carter, MSci, LAc, Editor