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Journey to healing

In memoriam: Christopher Terrence O'Connor passed away suddenly on March 27, 2018. Massage Therapy Canada was fortunate enough to work with Chris over the years and share in mourning with his friends, family and the rest of the profession.

June 30, 2015  By Chris O'Connor

Last spring, I travelled to Guatemala with the Global Healthworks Foundation and its founder, Dan Wunderlich. It was my third annual Jornada. A Jornada Medica is a health outreach directed toward underserviced populations. I met Dan while teaching acupuncture at McMaster University in 2008, and we quickly recognized in each other a commitment to betterment of ourselves and others.


In spite of recent improvements in Guatemalan health care, the country still struggles with communicable and non-communicable diseases, chronic malnutrition, maternal mortality, and a recent increase in injuries due to road traffic and violence. Mortality in children under five years old is still high, and chronic diseases are the main cause of death in the general population. Health-care challenges are far greater among the indigenous, rural, poor populations. There is a significant need for outreach and organized funding for health care in Guatemala, as a great deal of funding is private, which leads to compartmentalized care that neglects the rural poor.

The Centro de Paz Bárbara Ford, which hosts the outreach program, has three main buildings: the residence and offices, the kitchen and dining room, and a pavilion style building used for treating. The pavilion accommodates twenty-five treatment tables, a group table for back, neck and shoulder treatments, and the triage area.

Greeted at the clinic door by employees of the centre and fresh fruit, patients are carefully registered using their name, date of birth, and address. The vast majority of patients are of Mayan descent and speak the local K’iche’ language, while the remainder speaks Spanish. Having records enables the Global Healthworks Foundation, as well as the Barbara Ford Peace Centre to offer proof of the effectiveness of treatment when liaising with government officials in Guatemala. Education and outreach at the centre includes ongoing efforts to improve health care for all Guatemalans.


After registration, all patients are ushered toward an outdoor yoga class. The men, while a little reticent, succumb to the yoga experience alongside their wives and children. It was wonderful to see joyful smiles erupt on the faces of those gathered as they began to feel comfortable enough at the centre to ‘let go’ just a little.

Every participant received auricular acupuncture on the points from the NADA (National Acupuncture Detoxification Association) protocol. For most of the patients, this is the first time they have ever received acupuncture treatment. And for many of these people, this is the first medical attention of any kind they ever received.

Patients move from registration and yoga through triage. Individualized assessment is made from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, using pulse and tongue diagnosis and a short review of systems. Common complaints heard at triage are headache, gastrointestinal distress, joint pain, skin rashes, and conjunctivitis. Assessment and treatment is agreed upon, and herbal prescriptions are given before folks are colour-coded into groups of thirty or thirty-five with whom they will move through the stations.

Twenty minute condition-specific acupuncture treatments are given. Often, Reiki energy healing sessions are given simultaneously as the patients receive acupuncture treatment, and then a complaint-focused massage treatment is provided to all patients.

Having to use two translators – English to Spanish to K’iche’ – makes for some interesting and fun conversations. Treating entire families: mom, dad and four children, all at once was enlightening and a little chaotic at times.

Once treatment is done, the day of care is over and patients make their way home by bus or on foot.

The motto “go with the flow” became like a mantra for the week. The scene in the treatment room could change as quickly as the weather with the number and type of patients coming through, and the moods of other practitioners (this is an intense demographic). The main goal was to remain focused on the patients. An epileptic seizure in the treatment room, for instance, proved how important it was to keep a cool head while dealing with the unexpected. Remove the needles, place patient on their side, wait for resolution of the seizure – all while maintaining calm to avoid disrupting the other patients.

Compassion fatigue becomes more than just a theory while working with such an incredible volume of patients. The centre can see as many as 1,800 patients over the six-day free clinic. A single practitioner may see 50 to 60 patients per day. More than the volume of people moving through, the clear signs and symptoms of very difficult living conditions weighed on hearts and minds. There was no time to be cleaning feet (many of the quichée people come barefoot) before treatments, and there were wounds and swellings that usually had to be ignored. Once exhausted, it was difficult to not let some cynicism creep in. It was important to be aware of the slips and step away for breaks.

All volunteers who come to work at the clinics have an incredible skill set and a desire and willingness to share their abilities in a heartfelt way. Practitioners drawn to the programs are lifelong learners looking to enhance their skills for ongoing outreach.

Fulfilling journey
Every year the Global Healthworks Foundation holds the Jornada the quality of care improves. Continued improvements will ensure that the centre is seen as a trusted facility welcoming all patients, regardless of gender, age or socio-economic background. Progress is immensely fulfilling for those willing to go out of their way to make a difference – and what a difference it makes in the lives of everyone involved.

Many of the patients who come to the centre are suffering the destructive effects of alcoholism, physical and sexual abuse. Volunteers find themselves giving massage to people who are in dire need of respect and positive touch, not just medical care. Working with the women in Quichée – many of whom suffer from PTSD (drawn faces, easily startled, stiff on the treatment tables, trouble sleeping) – is a demonstration of the importance of compassionate care. These lessons will not be found in textbooks.

North American volunteer practitioners are sure to refine their skills at the Jornada. Given the opportunity to work on so many in such a short time increases palpation and assessment skills, hones treatment focus, and amplifies awareness. Working on so many, and teaching while treating, spreads the message that the power of positive touch is formidable. This is a place to use and improve all kinds of life skills.

A great sense of appreciation is the profound lesson learned during the Jornada.

For more information about the Global Healthworks Foundation, visit

Chris O’Connor is a RMT, speaker, osteopathic practitioner and instructor of contemporary medical acupuncture. Visit

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