The herbal connection

A six-month pilot project on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) demonstrates the need for complementary medicine practices in our healthcare system.

The idea is to look at healthcare outside of the current system, so we don’t have to rely on one system to address all our needs,” says Rachel Eni, a registered traditional medicine practitioner and acupuncturist based in Victoria, B.C., and a visiting professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), as researcher on the pilot project.

With support from First Nation Nanaimo, Eni opened a clinic to explore the benefits of acupuncture as a complementary treatment to support doctors and nurses, providing an integrative approach to healthcare not typically seen in the mainstream health system. Eni works at the First Nation Nanaimo (Snuneymuxw) Health Centre to provide acupuncture twice a week.

“Traditional Chinese medicine, similar to traditional Indigenous medicine, uses unusual types of herbs, so when acupuncture was introduced at the clinic there was more acceptance,” says Eni.

Eni often provides acupuncture to elders waiting for surgery. Recently, she learned from a patient about Elm lotion, a traditional Indigenous medicine used to alleviate pain recommended by healer within First Nation Nanaimo.

“The elder was seeing results,” says Eni. “He was having less pain by combining acupuncture and the Elm lotion.”

Traditional healing practices remind us of our similarities

The pilot project was a partnership between the Faculty of Health Sciences at SFU, First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) and the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation. Over a six-month period, ending in November 2017, researchers investigated how alternative medicine could revitalize traditional Indigenous ways of healing. In an article published by SFU, John O’Neil, a professor with the Faculty of Health Sciences, states that “synergies between First Nation traditional healing and other traditional approaches to wellness, such as TCM, is at the core of this project.”

Rachel Eni, registered
traditional medicine practitioner
and acupuncturist. | Photo courtesey of Coastal Roots Health

Eni recalls how excited First Nation Nanaimo was to explore traditional Indigenous practices from around the world. However, she and her team quickly learned it would be difficult to access traditional Indigenous practices as many of these remedies were only used as part of private ceremonies within that Nation. By establishing TCM and acupuncture at the clinic, researchers were able to connect with patients who already had an appreciation for alternative healing practices.

“The ongoing research and support for this pilot project hinges on trust and openness between the partners to share their medical knowledge and traditional practices,” says Eni.

Eni explains that there’s also an historical connection between Chinese settlers and First Nation groups in B.C. who forged relationships after facing discrimination by white colonists in the 1800s. The Chinese railway workers depended on the traditional healing practices of Indigenous groups for their own survival.

“There has never been a negative relationship between the Chinese and First Nations, says Eni. “It has always been a relationship of mutual support.”

Maintaining momentum

Now that the pilot project has finished, the researchers are interested in designing a model for complementary medical practices that is accessible to all British Columbians. So, there’s an immediate need for more project funding to branch out into other communities. This also means building partnerships with organizations like the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, Canada First Nations Health Authority, and mainstream health authorities, to generate awareness on how complementary healing practices can enhance health and wellness. Signs of progress include the announcement of a new multi-million dollar health centre funded by First Nation Nanaimo. When this health facility opens its doors in December 2018, citizens of Nanaimo will have access to support services in mental health, Indigenous healing practices, mainstream healthcare and TCM.

“It’s a big deal to see different health practices working together,” say Eni.

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