Walking out of the parking lot adjacent to the Austin Convention Center with my wheelie bag in tow was an eye-opener. The sun was shining brightly for the first time in about a week and a tourist bus with an open-air top floor went by me as I stood on the corner and waited for the light to change. Just ahead, people with red and white Red Cross vests were walking towards a row of doors marked with paper signs that were taped on glass. I was the only one with a suitcase as far as the eye could see. I realized, suddenly, that people were looking at me with expressions of curiosity and compassion.
It occurred to me, following a brief moment of confusion, that I must have been perceived as a Hurricane Harvey evacuee. The day before, when I had gotten a call to come and volunteer at the Red Cross command center, there had been news that the Austin Convention Center was going to be turned into a mega-shelter. Eventually, that plan was altered but the day I went to offer traditional Chinese bodywork to tired Red Cross workers was before the change was announced.
People stared at me as I stood there on the corner. I felt ashamed, and surprised by my shame, when I realized that in their eyes I must be a refugee with no home and nowhere to go but a shelter. This realization of course made me think of the Italian poet, Dante, and his exile, and the famous and infinitely moving decree that he will “know the bitter taste of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know how hard a path it is for one who goes descending and ascending others’ stairs” (Par. 17.57-60). It was an ancient and deep sense of shame that I felt, I knew this. The expressions on the faces of people going by on the tourist bus were kind and caring, to be certain. Nobody looked at me with scornful pity. But this was a lesson for me, and a humbling one. I wished that the sidewalk would swallow me. I wished that I were invisible or that I could hide for a while and get my bearings. I wished that the sun didn’t sparkle so brightly and that things weren’t suddenly so noisy. I closed my eyes for a moment and I wished.
And then I squared my shoulders and I crossed the street and was allowed past the door attendant where I then proceeded to the upstairs command center of the Red Cross relief effort for hurricane Harvey.
That I was at the Convention Center and about to volunteer was a fluke. Texas practitioners of Chinese medicine have responded with volunteer support after events like the big fire in Wimberley a few years back but we’re still mobilizing and figuring out who goes where when it comes to large-scale trauma. The idea was to have acupuncturists (remember: I have two board exams left so I can’t place needles yet) working in shelters with evacuees. My role was supposed to be that of staff support via traditional Chinese bodywork (tui na, cupping, gua sha, and ear seeds) at the Convention Center alongside, ideally, a licensed acupuncturist for anyone who wanted needles. But I got called to come over by mistake and in the end, I was the sole volunteer providing traditional Chinese treatment to the Red Cross workers there.
At present, volunteer projects are taking shape in Austin and other areas, and it may well be that Chinese medicine will end up being part of the services offered in local shelters. As I wrote in my last blog post, here, there is a lot that Chinese medicine can do after a disaster. But the two days I was at the Convention Center reminded me of my second time providing field acupuncture at a Spartan Race and their mantra regarding what you learn by participating (“you’ll know at the finish line”). By the end of race day, I knew I was ready to graduate from my program. By the end of my two days at the Convention Center, it became clear to me that yes, I truly am an authority on the subject of tui na. I found that yes, indeed, I could easily work on twenty people in five hours and give them all really good treatments. These weren’t earth-shattering discoveries but, instead, confirmations of what I kind of already knew. Even so, this has changed me in ways I haven’t quite yet identified. We’ll see. Time will tell.
There at headquarters, though?
It seems like the Red Cross gets a bad rap lately. They’ve been criticized for the way they use their funds and for being a little behind the times with respect to computerization. I don’t know about that though. My experience with them? Well, for one thing, they do have and use computers. I also think that they have incredibly kind and helpful people who work very hard on behalf of the people who need them.
In the command center, from what I saw, there were rows and rows of long tables with row after row of laptops. There were paper maps on the walls but people were mainly using computers. As to finances, I do not know. What I do know is that people came from all over the country to help us. I treated volunteers from Washington, DC and directors from California. People who popped over for a treatment came from everywhere: Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Las Vegas, Utah, Connecticut, Oregon, and more. I heard that there were volunteers who came from Germany and Mexico, too.
People volunteer at the Red Cross for different reasons. Some people told me stories of tragedies that they had suffered and how the Red Cross saved them and helped them to put their broken lives back together. They wanted to provide the same support that once kept them going at their worst moments. Others were passionate about mental health and experienced in shelter work with traumatized refugees. Others were in charge of varying projects related to infrastructure. The logistics of getting a shelter together, in fact, is pretty amazing.
As I treated more and more volunteers, I heard more and more, “Oh, this [Chinese bodywork] needs to be offered at the shelters…do you have friends who would help you give tui na at the shelters?” When I said yes, I thought I could get friends, I then got asked all sorts of hard questions about how it would be arranged. I learned that it’s not as easy at it might seem. There are layers of bureaucracy that need to be in place when a large-scale disaster hits. There’s no way around it when the tragedy is large and complicated.
And so, I think: it is incredible, how people around the country have come here to help us here in Texas. If you’re on twitter, for instance, you maybe saw the unimaginably sweet post of the FDNY firefighter, Thomas Carrera, who tasted his first Whataburger while here on duty. Now he’s become an honorary Texan. (Take a look, here, and it will warm your heart, I promise!). He even answered people’s twitter thank-yous, mine included. This is someone who really cares about Texas and I’m sure he’ll never forget us. I don’t think anyone who saw the clip or read his tweets will forget him, either.
And people contributed from so many different sources. Lhasa OMS is a supply outlet for acupuncturists and I called them while standing outside of the Convention Center after my initial visit. I was afraid if I waited that they would be closed since they are on the East coast. When I told the person who helped me this, she said she would overnight a box of products to me so that I would have sufficient liniment, cups, and gua sha instruments for my endeavor. When I hung up the phone it was hard not to cry right there. How kind of this person, don’t you think? And my box of supplies showed up the very next morning and I brought them with me on Friday and Saturday.
Long story short? Here in Austin, the command center was incredibly busy and people were running from one end to the other, talking on phones, conferring with each other, and yes, gesturing towards maps and bulletin boards and paper piles. It’s a lot of work by a lot of people from a lot of places. It may seem to be a case of hurry up and wait, but especially on Friday, it was hurry and hurry some more.
Because of this fact, I quickly decided that I needed to make a set protocol. Everyone had aching shoulders. Many of them were staying in a volunteer shelter and sleeping on cots. They had travelled long and far to get here. There was physical labor involved. People were tired and busy. They didn’t have time for lengthy treatment and I couldn’t treat many if I gave lengthy treatment.
I had to keep it simple.
I took three people at a time and lined them up in chairs. I put ear seeds in a special point of the cartilage that helped to sooth the nervous system and placed three cups at the root of the back of the neck. Then I went down the line and gave each person some tui na and, after removing the cups, a gua sha treatment on the back of the neck (if you missed it, here’s my blog post about tui na and gua sha, linked). Then I’d clean up and start over again with a new group of three people seated in a row.
While I treated them, some rested for a minute and others chatted with me during the twenty minutes or so of treatment. I got lots of hugs at the end of session. At one point, a director introduced me via loudspeaker and everyone applauded. A couple times when I would tell someone how much it meant that they were here to help us in Texas I got a little bit teary. People understood. They have a lot of compassion and respect for the shock and confusion and grief we are experiencing here in Texas.
I’m not sure about the Red Cross as an entity. It may be that they deserve the criticism leveled at them. Maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that they are kind, hard-working, genuine souls over there at the Red Cross command center. They take their work seriously and are there because they genuinely care and want to help. They were so appreciative of the service I provided, too. I was very, very happy to be able to do something nice for them. As dedicated as they are and as much as they are giving to us now, they certainly deserved a thank-you in the form of traditional Chinese bodywork therapy.
At the end of the day, people were starting to ask me if I had eaten anything and if I would like some food. As much as they enjoyed me taking care of them, I realized, they were observant and ready to take a little care of me when my energy started to flag. By the time I treated twenty people, my poor hands were sore and my fingers were starting to swell. I promised to come back a second day (and I did), and then I packed up my stuff and left.
I didn’t look up at the tourist bus going by me as I shuffled away from the Convention Center. I was too tired to care if people stared at me. I was too busy marveling at my aching hands and at the magnitude of the disaster we have suffered here in Texas. What can one pair of hands do in response? Mine, yours, anyone’s? When I gave the parking attendant my Red Cross coupon and my time-stamped ticket, she said, “Oh, you look exhausted…get some rest, get some rest.” I promised that I would, and she responded by saying, “Thank you for being a volunteer” in the same tone of I-could-start-to-cry-right-now with which I thanked the people in the command center. We’re all feeling a little emotional at this point in time, aren’t we?
Yes, indeed, we are.
I will be updating as more information is available, but there are traditional Chinese community treatment options available for Harvey relief. Some are for shelter people only and others are for the larger community. There are private clinics (my own among them) too. I urge everyone who is feeling anxiety or grief to try Chinese medicine. As I discussed in my last post, we can do so much for you at this time.
One pair of hands, dear reader, and multiplied? There’s no stopping us in that case. Things will get better for us here in Texas. Step by step, and if we help each other, yes. It’s going to take time and the road ahead is long and littered with obstacles. We all know this. But if we are patient and steady and we help one another? Things are going to be alright.
Yes, indeed. It may not seem so right this minute, but things are going to be alright.
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog and/or my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.