Healing with Needles: Acupuncture Aids
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
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
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 organizations 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,
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
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 couldnt 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
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
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 thats the only real challenge. Its
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
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 theyve gone, they dont
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
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 its important that we provide [acupuncture] to them so
theyll feel better and be able to function in their daily
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.