Hope, Healing in Haiti

How locals are rebuilding a nation

By Lisa Cleary
|  Tuesday, Mar 1, 2011  |  Updated 12:49 PM EDT
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Dr. Gordon works with a therapeutic small group of Haitian caregivers at CMBM's training. Caregivers learn mind-body techniques such as guided imagery, biofeedback and different meditations in small group settings.

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After the tragic earthquake in Haiti, James S. Gordon, M.D., founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), knew that he and his team of specialists had to act quickly to lessen the suffering of the country’s people, to help them regain their footing, to help them heal.

One year later, Dr. Gordon and the Center are still overseas, working hand-in-hand with the people of Haiti.  After all, the team of experts advocates that to give is not only to give money but also to lend a shoulder to cry on and a literal helping hand. 

“These are my brothers and sisters.  How could I not go?” asked Dr. Gordon.

The mission of the Center is one of both mental and physical health, which is “to help health professionals heal themselves, their patients and clients, and their communities.”

Over the next four years, the CMBM will train 1,500 Haitian medical professionals, educators, religious leaders and community leaders to help them first heal themselves and then to teach others how to regain their mental and physical footing.

Dr. Gordon, the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression, explains that even though the emphasis of the workshops is on mental healing, the mind is intimately involved with all aspects of physical health.

“There’s no separation between physical and mental health.  Everything affects us physically, psychologically.  We can help people use tools and techniques that will help them deal with psychological symptoms, like overwhelming anxiety, depression and nightmares," he said. "These same techniques can also be used to help them lower their blood pressure and blood sugar, to relieve the pain of the headaches and stomachaches that affect up to 90 percent of the people who are still living in tents."

During the training workshops, staff teach a variety of different techniques, including deep breathing, several forms of meditation, self-expression in words, drawings as well as movement and dance.

“We use guided mental imagery to help them find a safe place, so that they can feel, in their minds, relaxed.  We give people an opportunity to express themselves, help them find strengths in their own lives and their own families, and help provide them with the ongoing support of a community of healers,” stated Dr. Gordon.  “People don’t want to talk about what’s happened.  They feel isolated, alone, don’t want to burden other people and are afraid if they begin to cry, they'll never stop.  When they are ready, in the safety of our 'small groups,' they will 'partager' -- share -- the pain, the trauma, the loss and the sadness -- and they will feel some relief." 

Oftentimes, though, mental health in the aftermath of a tragedy isn’t spotlighted. 

But, as Dr. Gordon emphasizes, one’s mental state has the power to affect all functions of the body, like blood pressure and heart rate, and improvements in mental state can give people the strength and hope they need to tackle the practical tasks of living. 

In an effort to show how deep breathing can produce relaxation, the team uses temperature-sensitive Biodots to show individuals how they can increase the circulation in their hands.  The dots change color as the hands warm, proving to the trainees that the mind is a powerful tool in positively influencing physical health.

“We use autogenic phrases, like ‘my arms are warm and heavy,’ to help mobilize the relaxation response and show people that they can control temperature and stress,” he stated.

In this respect, the CMBM explains that the physical well-being of an individual begins with the core of oneself. 

Moreover, he points out that one’s healthy mental state, when combined with the collective power of community members, has the ultimate power to rebuild a country.

The CMBM specifically focuses on training leaders within Haiti, so that these Haitians can use what they’ve learned with the population as a whole.  Right now, staff are focused on training 120 individuals to form the core of what they hope to be a health care organization of more than 2,000 primary health caregivers.

“The thirst for what we have to teach is so enormous...on the very first night of the training, people went home and taught their families the deep-breathing technique and the shaking and dancing that we taught them, to help them relax," said Dr. Gordon.

He further details that, after learning therapy techniques, Haitians were telling him, “For the first time since the earthquake, we slept through the night," "I didn’t have a headache, my headache went away," or "We were laughing in the house for the first time since January 12, 2010."

At the end of the day, Dr. Gordon finds his work fulfilling and that the ideal of hope breathes life into his work, day after day.

“It’s quite an amazing thing,” he summed up, “to see what’s going on.”

For more information on how to help those in Haiti, visit The Center for Mind-Body Medicine at http://www.cmbm.org/index.php.

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