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Acupuncturists Treat San Diego Fire Evacuees
By: Terri Miracle for Acufinder Magazine
Photo courtesy of
the Alternative Healing Network

Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego has been home to the National Football League's Chargers, Major League Baseball's Padres, concerts, car sales, and fireworks shows. But during the week of October 22, the stadium found a new purpose: It became temporary home to approximately 10,000 residents who were voluntary or mandatory evacuees of the eight wildfires in San Diego County. It also became home base of operations to volunteers, including local acupuncturists who donated their services to evacuees and rescue workers.

When Monday’s news reported that the stadium had been designated as the main station for fire evacuees, Lara Coljonen, a recent graduate of the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, phoned her former school and suggested that they set up free acupuncture services at the stadium.

“I’m all about infusing acupuncture into community-style health care,” Coljonen says. “It was obviously an unusual treatment setting, but going there was an amazing, positive experience.”

Coljonen joined approximately 50 acupuncturists and massage therapists who volunteered to work one or several four-hour shifts during a 12-hour day, starting Tuesday through Thursday evening, when evacuees either returned to their homes or were sent to smaller facilities. She said they needed to explain acupuncture to many people who weren’t familiar with it. “When everyone was getting acupuncture in a group setting, it was less intimidating for people.”

Those who had lost their homes and those who had evacuated voluntarily presented with symptoms ranging from neck and shoulder pain to stress and depression. Coljonen said that one evacuee told her, “Please do anything you can to help me; I’ve just lost everything.” In addition to helping mobilize volunteers from her college, Coljonen contacted Ryan Altman, L.Ac., HHP, and executive director of the Alternative Healing Network. The non-profit organization’s goal is integrative healing and promoting accessibility, so Altman went right to work. He had already been building up a network of practitioners to volunteer for integrative health nights in under-served regions of San Diego.

While Altman was mobilizing volunteers, Geoff Barrett, director of community outreach for the Alternative Healing Network, took over the operations, including getting permission for acupuncturists to be at the stadium. “Geoff spent a lot of time convincing people of the efficacy of acupuncture,” Altman said.

Carl Balingit, an acupuncturist with Holistic Health Specialists and his own practice, awoke to an early morning phone call on Monday from a patient asking if appointments were canceled. The fires had dramatically worsened overnight, and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders was requesting that non-essential personnel stay off the roads so that residents in threatened areas could evacuate.

A week later, Altman said that acupuncturists were still volunteering to treat evacuees, firefighters, and rescue workers at Gillespie Field in Santee, a community in East San Diego County. They were also working with Acupuncturists Without Borders in Ramona, one of the areas hit hardest by the fires. “As the disaster passes, people tend to forget about it,” Altman said. “But there are still firefighters in the field trying to contain these things.”

Joining the volunteer efforts in Ramona, Balingit said more of the people he treated in Ramona had lost their homes than those he had met at the stadium during the prior week.  “We’'re seeing a lot of anxiety, insomnia, and stress related to the fires,” he said. “I feel like we truly helped them, from what they told us and from what we could see in their eyes.”

For more information about the Alternative Healing Network, visit www.althealnet.org.