The Doctor Inside the Patient: Mind-Body Medicine in Ecuador

May 1, 2012

By John Patterson MD MSPH

Maria and her children waited in line with 400 others for our clinic gate to open at 8 AM. Our 5 doctors and 2 nurses were each waiting with their interpreter at 7 little tables in the one room church.

Maria was quiet and looked very sad. Her unhappy marriage was causing serious sleep problems. Medication made her feel bad and didn’t help. Her 7-year old daughter had warts on her hands and her 4-year old son was grinding his teeth during sleep.

This was my first mission trip. I had been told that our main service would be touching and loving our patients since our medication supply was insufficient to meet the needs of the people in this impoverished community. Stress-related conditions are common among these farm workers raising bananas, cocoa and other tropical foods. Maria and her children had symptoms often associated with stress.

I encouraged Maria to return to her beloved jogging for exercise and explained that her sleep might improve. But I also offered her another form of movement to help manage stress. To the amazement of my team members and the other patients, Maria and I stood up and practiced ‘shaking meditation’ together. “Relaxing the jaw, relaxing the shoulders, feeling the sensations in the body from head to toe”. Maria smiled. Her children smiled. Everyone smiled.

Maria agreed she could find 15 minutes of personal time each day to do 3 things- 1) ‘shake’ for 5 minutes (longer if she had time), 2) simply sit and watch her breathing for 5 minutes, and 3) write down her feelings and emotions for 5 minutes. I also suggested she ‘shake’ every day with her children, but not as a substitute for her own shaking for herself.

Then using the power of suggestion, and with my most skillful and professional demeanor, I applied hand sanitizer to her daughter’s warts with a Q tip, covered them with a bandaid and advised her to repeat this procedure each day for 2 weeks.

A health professional’s portable toolkit of mind-body skills is important for our own personal self care as well as our work with patients and clients, at home and abroad.

I will call soon to assess the impact of touching, loving and shaking in Ecuador.