Dr. Sara O’Byrne is a 2012 MAcOM and 2014 DAOM graduate. She serves as the Chinese Medicine Instructor for Naturopaths Without Borders (NWB), a group whose mission is to provide naturopathic health care to impoverished communities, while empowering those communities through education, supporting growth and cultivating sustainable resources.
How did you get involved with Naturopaths Without Borders (NWB)?
I went to a goat roast birthday party for a friend who works in the public health arena, where by chance I met Zeenia Junkeer, ND, one of the directors of NWB, and she invited me to Haiti. I accepted, and went in December to teach. Now I'm working with them regularly as an instructor of Chinese medicine.
How did your role as instructor come about?
I didn’t realize that I was being scoped out for a larger role. My teaching role during that first trip was fairly loose. I definitely showed everyone a lot of acupuncture and lectured patients and students. I’d do talks over dinner about how we treat different issues, and they’d often shadow me in the clinic. The ND students in the program are from around the country and for the most part have little if any experience with Chinese medicine. So, NWB asked me to continue working with them in the role of instructor. I never thought I’d want to be a teacher, but working with the faculty at OCOM, the teaching skills we gain in the DAOM program, and now this experience, have made me realize that I truly love it.
What is the work like that you do there?
We build longstanding clinics and resources for Haitians. Haitians know what Haitians need, they just need some help, so we’re trying to build a sustainable clinic. We’re primarily in Cap Haïtien in the north, and we’re trying to branch out outside the city.
We have a small compound with four walls that the little kids like to look over with our place to sleep and our kitchen. We don’t have running water, and only have electricity for a little while each day. You pump your water and shower in a bucket, which you get used to. We treat in mobile clinics at schools and churches. We also work with two MDs there, who love when we come add acupuncture to their services.
Can acupuncturists sign up to help?
Yes. NWB takes practitioners of all likes. It’s mostly ND students, but we’ve had medical assistants and LAcs. They usually take people for a week at a time, but you can do more, depending on your situation. There is an application that assesses your skills and they’ll place you based on that. We even do other things than clinic work, for example right now we’ve set up a self-sustaining garden project. We just got a goat, a pregnant goat actually. We’re trying to make our compound self sustainable and teach those skills to the Haitians and lead by example, so NWB is looking for people with many skill sets.
I’m in the process of making opportunities more available to OCOM students. One of my goals is to have trips offered specifically when OCOM has breaks. If people are thinking of other trips after graduation, this is a really great experience to test that out, making sure you can deal with heat, developing country conditions, cooking your coffee over the fire, showering in a bucket...which I’m getting good at.
How is the Chinese medicine you bring received?
Haitians are wonderful people who really like acupuncture and it fits well into their culture. Most haven’t experienced it before, but they’re all really interested. They aren’t like Americans where you have to really explain the details of how and why you’re doing things, they’re just extremely open to it all.
It’s now four years after the devastating earthquake, how does it continue to shape Haitian life and the work you do there?
Houses aren’t built yet, people don’t have toilets. While I was there I saw a woman gathering water ten feet from where a little boy was having a bowel movement. That’s why illness has progressed there. Having access to bathrooms and clean water is really what Haitians need. NWB is working with a group called Soil that is making compostable toilets and distributing them to help with that need. We try to educate about filtered water.
Everyone in Haiti knows someone who died or was severely wounded and there is still a lot of heart trauma associated with that. Haitians know that the rest of the world isn’t like Haiti. Many of them have Facebook. They know. That is tough to deal with. And it’s very hard for them to get out of the country if they want to. Their government makes it hard for them to leave, and the U.S. makes it hard for them to get in. There are a lot of emotional scars there.
What are some of your future goals for your work with NWB?
One of my big goals down there is to teach Haitian doctors about acupuncture so they can get the training to do things like NADA, because it’s so effective with the problems they deal with. There is so much stress and anxiety and heartbreak from the earthquake and just the way that Haitian life is that the NADA protocol, in particular, could be so helpful. Next time I go back I want to set up more group-style NADA treatments, which is easier to treat large groups of people.
I recently met with Acupuncturists Without Borders in San Diego, so this trip, the goal is to teach again and then I will going to go down to Port Au Prince and meet and work with them. I’m working on more collaboration with them, they have a lot of ties that will be helpful.
Do you have advice for practitioners planning to practice abroad?
Don’t assume other cultures know English. Having a translator or a handle on the language is crucial. Most Haitians don’t speak English, or even French, they speak Creole French. French will get you what time it is and left and right. Also doing what you need to do to be preventative, malaria, hep-A, typhoid, rabies, etc. Be well informed about the area you’re visiting, but don’t be overly afraid to set out in the world.