Lessons learned from Grand Isle gathering: Health care begins with self-care

Mary Margaret Thomas is an RN and health care specialist for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, currently researching access to health care for toxic exposure.

Two weekends ago, everything finally started to gel for me in terms of the vision I have for the battered, exhausted and marginalized Gulf Coast communities who have endured hurricane after hurricane, spill after spill, and social/political oppression (whether they’re aware of it or not). On July 23, LABB members Anne Rolfes, Schree Greene and I traveled with Josh Pelletier (of the Gulf Coast Fund) to Grand Isle for a Gulf Coast Community Day hosted by the Mind-Body Center of Louisiana. The health care conversations finally focused on community empowerment:  developing self-care and detoxification skills to treat and prevent illness and manage stress. Sessions included meditation, food as a medicine and nutritional detox, guided imagery, and activities for youth. Plus there was free massages and acupuncture (score!). Another theme of the day was passing the community torch: gaining personal education and training to share these skills with one another.

The event featured trainings by Dr. James Gordon, founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.. Dr. Gordon is a clinical professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School and was recently the chairman of the White House Commission on Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Policy. He also served on the Cancer Advisory Panel on CAM for the National Institute of Health. He has worked in global trauma, PTSD therapy, and hosted therapeutic sessions for 9-11 and Katrina victims. In a nutshell, he’s a personal hero.

Dr. Gordon suggests four tips for everyday de-stressing and system detoxification:

1. Relax & Breath: Create relaxation by breaking up fixed patterns of physical stress, and deep belly breathing. “Be at ease with the Big Easy!”

2. Move: Our bodies are made to move the whole day through. Leave your desk at least every 45 minutes.

3. Eat Well: Eat clean foods, mimicking the Paleo (hunter/gatherer) diet of our ancestors. This means lots of fruits and veggies, organic if possible. Avoid sugar and packaged foods. Eat meat/fish without hormones. Drink half your weight in water ounces everyday.

4.  Socialize: We need community and each other to reflect and heal.

In the case of large-scale disasters, Dr. Gordon also explained why group therapy was probably more beneficial than one-on-one counseling: We need each other to reflect and validate our feelings and to check in with one another. You don’t have to have experienced a disaster to benefit from these principles. They’re basic and innate in all of us, yet profoundly powerful when manifested in our daily lives. For example, studies show that 20 minutes of meditation or breathing a day can reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s by 40 percent. Dr. Gordon mentioned that the research only measured 20 minutes; in reality 3-5 minutes of meditation or breathing two or three times a day can have the same positive effects. We’re also talking about boosting the immune system — preventing disease and improving mental health and everything that goes along with it … (excuse me while I do some belly breathing).

Whew. I am a complete advocate for all this. Every provider you ever talk to will tell you that mental health always intertwines with physical health, and the power of the mind to heal is one of the oldest phenomena in medicine. I’ve seen patients with cancer, stage 3 pressure ulcers, and respiratory failure recover by incorporating daily meditation and breathing. If you’d like to read a great book on this, check out Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert. Dr. Gordon also has a book — Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven Stage Journey Out of Depression.

One of the opening exercises was to bust physical stress patterns — jaw clenching, slouching, stiffness, and everything else we subconsciously do when we’re under pressure. After deep belly breathing (5 seconds in, 5 seconds out) Dr. Gordon opened up the session by having everyone stand up, close their eyes, and do some all over “shaking” to Indonesian Ladaha music. Then the music changed into Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Within seconds, everyone was snapping and singing. It’s Louisiana; we don’t need instructions on how to have a good time!

We also did an exercise in biofeedback. Biofeedback basically refers a feedback loop between the brain and the body that informs action. You see a physical measure which informs the brain to either maintain or change your body’s response. To show this, we all got “bio dots” which are small stickers we put between our thumb and index finger. The dot measures body temperature, and to some degree physical signs of stress, while changing color. When you are under stress and in the fight-or-flight mode, blood is shunted from your peripheries (hands and feet) to the organs it needs most to escape the threat: your brain is alert, your heart is pumping, your eyes are dilated, and your lungs are inflated. If you were stressed, your hands would be cold. Anne’s dot immediately turned dark blue, meaning she was as relaxed as possible (no surprises there). Mine was half dark brown and yellow, somewhere in the top quarter of the stress barometer. Although sleep deprived, I felt completely at ease. But then again, my circulation has always been a little weak, and we were in some serious air conditioning!

We learn in Bikram yoga that the average person only uses 10 percent of their lungs on a regular basis. The whole goal of physiological homeostasis (read: health) is to decrease carbon dioxide, toxic load and physiological entropy (disordered systems) in the body while increasing oxygen and promoting balance and healing. Breathing and relaxation enhances this process and strengthens your immune system. Your body is constantly recruiting, trading, attacking, regenerating and disposing on a cellular level to keep you healthy. You’ve got a cellular symphony going on all day long! Click here for a YouTube video of the Natural Killer cells. But your body has a really hard time fighting this constant battle when it doesn’t have physical exercise, nutritious foods and plenty of water, and stable mental health (including support systems). I’d include sleep on this list — it affects mental health as well.

Dr. Gordon also described the physiological toll of acute and long-term chronic stress on the body, dysregulation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic (fight or flight) nervous systems, chronic inflammation, and implications for the endocrine (hormonal) systems. These are all things people affected by the BP Oil Spill may be feeling. A wonderful resource to learn more about environmental health for toxic exposures is Metametrix Clinical Laboratories — they have some great patient education tools on their website.

Here is a link from CMBM discussing food as a medicine and nutritional detoxification.

Throughout the day I had some really interesting conversations with community members and nurses from New Orleans and Grand Isle. A couple of nurses from East Jefferson said they are planning to open their own mind/body clinic and reiki studio in Metairie. I spoke with another woman who had been a nurse on Grand Isle for 35 years and had this to say:

“You can find more doctors on Grand Isle than any nearby city other than New Orleans every weekend in the summer.”

She was referring to the allure of the cozy fishing camps that line most of the town. She went on to explain that the closest doctor to Grand Isle is at least half an hour away in Golden Meadow. I think we all really enjoyed getting to know this community, hear their stories and witness their resilience. We may be powerless at this moment to remove the toxic chemicals seeping into our air, water and soil and life can be inherently stressful, natural disasters and oil spills aside. But at least we can be empowered to educate, protect and heal ourselves and our neighbors. And more importantly, we can all stop and shake it Ladaha-style! Life can be unpredictable. Live it well.

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