As the woman dumped a brown bag full of orange prescription bottles onto the floor, there was an audible gasp from the onlookers, all family medicine doctors in their residency at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) who were gathered for the real-life case study. The patient was a 50-something immigrant from Central America who spoke tearfully of “enemies” – physical pains that had sent her to various doctors in Minnesota over the years.
Speaking in Spanish, she shared her story – which included a history of past physical and emotional abuse from her husband as well as her mother – to a traditional healer whose first language also is Spanish. Despite the sterile classroom setting, the emotional exchange went on for 45 minutes, with tears and hugs interspersed throughout.
The healer quizzed the woman about her sadness, stress and past trauma, before urging her to release them from her body. Accordingly, the woman flailed her arms and shoulders, letting out several sobbing, cathartic bursts.
It was the culmination of a full morning of lessons from the traditional healer, Rita Navarrete Perez. The takeaway message was that prescription medication alone could not fully address the physical, emotional and other dimensions of the woman’s health.
“These illnesses…started with the emotions that changed [her] balance,” Perez told the resident doctors. “Even if you gave her a pill, it will come back again until we treat the emotions.”
“We are wanting to promote this traditional healing, which is very, very important for many people and can solve problems that a pill or some other kind of treatment would not be able to solve,” said Roxana Linares of Centro Tyrone Guzman, a Latino social service agency in south Minneapolis.
This traditional healing exchange in September 2015 was part of a community project (called “Traditional Healing of the Americas”) funded by the Catalyst Initiative of the George Family Foundation. The Catalyst Initiative is working to build integrative healing practices that are culturally grounded throughout Minnesota. This project’s multiple components included education of the HCMC family medicine residents as well as of other students in traditional healing, outreach to Latino community members, and exchange with other indigenous healers in Minnesota.
“The word curar means to heal,” said Tonita Gonzales, in explaining the traditional healing concept of curanderismo. “It’s a holistic approach for mind, body and spirit…It’s about learning from each other, not separating cultures and separating medicine.”
A centerpiece of the project was the visit by Gonzales, a New Mexico-based healer, and her partner, Perez, of Mexico City. This was their third visit to Minnesota, at the invitation of Selma Sroka, M.D. and her colleague Kim Hart, who first met the traditional healers due to their personal interests in healing and self-care. Gonzales also is an instructor in a long-standing course on curanderismo offered at the University of New Mexico.
“We can carry the lamp but the fire needs to be lit by someone who carries the medicine who is traditional,” said Hart, who both teaches and does therapy at Adagio Holistic Therapies, LLC. “And that’s what we see every time they come, the fire is lit stronger.”
In September, “Rita and Tonita” spent five straight days with a cohort of 10 therapists (specializing in massage, shiatsu, reiki and other treatments) who came together for monthly learning in fundamentals of traditional healing. Cohort member Susan Langston called Gonzales and Perez’s visit “intense and powerful.”
“I do psychotherapy and incorporate spiritual healing work into it whenever possible,” said Langston. “When I am able to incorporate this [spiritual element], the client moves through his or her issues in a way they can’t with just talk therapy.”
All female, the student therapists were diverse, including two Latinas, an African American and an out-of-state participant. They sought out Hart and Sroka entirely by word of mouth. Another cohort is planned for 2016.
On one Saturday, the therapists joined the traditional healers at Centro Tyrone Guzman to offer free sessions in traditional healing and massage.
“We were successful in breaking down barriers, from their sentiments and their souls, and being very connected,” said Linares. “Many more people were able to have a treatment, including some who had never had a treatment before. So this first experience was excellent for them.”
“Collaborating with Centro is a way to give back to the community here, making available some of the healing ways from the Latino roots,” said Sroka, who is working with elders to develop a new course at the University of Minnesota called Cultural Based, Traditional Healing Ways of the Americas. “My plan so far is…for the weaving together of some traditional elders from different tribes and traditions, to come and share what they wish about their philosophy about health and healing, and to provide an [intensive, hands-on] experience.”
Sroka serves as faculty for the HCMC family medicine residency program. She laments that there was no concept of physician wellness when she herself studied medicine.
“Doctors themselves need to heal,” said Gonzales. “But the reality is that it’s all the doctors in the medical community who are sick as well…because there’s way too much stress…like a roller coaster, you find the emotions are going up and down, so you find imbalance in the people who are actually providing care.”
In addition to sharing some medicinal plants and demonstrating healing touch for the medical residents, the traditional healers used a number of exercises involving hugging and making eye contact. Gonzales noted the doctors’ discomfort with the intimate interactions with each other and said, “When you look into the eyes of your patients, they need to see that compassion. Until we capture that and look at every patient in that way, no one will heal.”
The suggestion is that a hug, a connection, can supplement or even replace prescribing a pill. People are the medicine.
Content provided courtesy of the Catalyst Initiative of the George Family Foundation.