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PSS Winter '12

Pain Relief

Alumna shares acupuncture techniques in Kenya

by Mary K. LeClair

Sarah Nargiso

Sarah Nargiso '07 with primary school children in Kenya, where she performed
acupuncture on patients experiencing physical pain.

With a suitcase filled with auricular needles, probes, latex gloves, alcohol swabs and hand sanitizer, Acupuncturist Sarah Nargiso ’07 stepped off a plane in Nairobi, Kenya, last June ready to treat those living in considerable physical pain. For the rest of that day, Nargiso and two fellow acupuncturists traveled the bumpy roads to reach the small town of Talek, Kenya, in the heart of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. There, they set up a clinic in an empty cement building where they would work for the next three weeks.

“We understood our purpose the minute we arrived. I immediately saw that the people of Talek had absolutely nothing,” says Nargiso. “Many were experiencing physical pain; they don’t have a hospital or access to any medicines; even Aspirin is unavailable. They just live in pain.”

Nargiso is a co-founder of One World Health Project, an organization that was established in 2009 by students in the master’s degree program of Traditional Oriental Medicine at Emperor’s College in Santa Monica, Calif. The concept of acupuncture outreach was inspired by a lunch break conversation and soon developed into a non-profit organization. The group’s mission is to promote wellness education and increase access to acupuncture in underserved communities locally and abroad. They have since created programs to both treat and raise awareness about acupuncture and Oriental medicine around Los Angeles.In the Fall of 2010, they were invited to Talek by a Kenyan Maasai warrior and nurse practitioner who wanted to bring treatment to his people.

While in Talek, Nargiso and her colleagues served nearly 400 people, who each morning were lined up seated on the ground outside the center and continuously streamed in throughout the day for what they called “magic” treatment for their pains. The three treated those suffering from severe headaches, neck and back pain and respiratory conditions. Nargiso discovered that the leading causes of these ailments are related to the harsh physical lifestyle of the Maasai people. They walk many miles just to graze their cattle, and collect water and firewood for their families. The women especially, must walk great lengths carrying large and extremely heavy jugs of water strapped to their heads just for their families to survive. They use a fireplace in their huts to cook, but ventilation is poor and leads to painful respiratory conditions and eye pain. All of this, in addition to the natural elements in rural Kenya, where Malaria and Typhoid are ever present, and whose symptoms linger a lifetime.

Sarah Nargiso

Sarah Nargiso '07 treats a patient while other community members look
on, learning how to perform therapies.

The One World Health Project’s wellness program was designed as a sustainable system. As Nargiso was seeing patients she also found time to train a few local healthcare workers in simple auricular acupuncture protocols to continue treatment. In March, Nargiso will return to check on the progress of her students and offer new clinics. She has received several invitations from other villages who have heard of their work and hopes to expand the project’s reach.

“In addition to treating the community, we also empowered them,” says Nargiso. “We taught them simple acupuncture and Oriental medicine practices so they can continue to heal their community. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Nargiso says she experienced true Kenyan culture when she had the opportunity to leave the clinic for a day and travel with local residents to the nearest “city” to pick up supplies. The trip took five hours one way and she boarded the hot, rundown, crowded public bus at 4 a.m. Due to heavy rains the night before, the roads were muddy and twice they slid off the road, requiring passengers to pull the bus back on the road. After shopping, the bus was packed to the brim with necessities and supplies that the passengers had purchased. Nargiso made the return trip sitting atop bags of potatoes and dodging produce hanging from the ceiling. She loved living the native life.

“Sitting with my legs clutched to my chest I learned so much about the culture and the people of Kenya. The bus ride was crazy and exhausting and unlike anything I have ever experienced but I loved every minute of it. I got a real feel for the culture that day,” Nargiso says. “The people of Kenya are among the warmest I have ever known. Patient and generous, they may not have much but they will give you all that they have.”

Each day, she was moved and humbled by the generosity and gratitude of the people she treated. She often received hugs from her patients as well as gifts of fine beadwork they had crafted for their livelihood.

Already graduated and nationally certified, Nargiso will soon take her California board exam, and intends to set up a practice in California as a licensed acupuncturist.

“Oriental medicine changes lives. That is why I love this work,” says Nargiso. “One of my instructors at Emperor’s College used to tell me that you have to approach every patient with genuine care and warmth–with an open heart. The ability to do that is rare and often under appreciated. I feel so privileged to have found that potential, and I cannot wait to continue to share it with the world.”