Lessons from working in Nicaragua

As a naturopathic doctor, I have the great privilege of hearing people’s stories. How they live, what they worry about, what challenges they’re facing, their fears, what they hope to achieve or how they want to feel.

Over the past 5 years, I’ve heard a lot of stories, not only in Canada, but in Colombia and rural Nicaragua as well. In these five years, I’ve sat down with people from all kinds of backgrounds, from those who work in the corporate sector, to entrepreneurs, government workers, stay-at-home moms, students, subsistence farmers, and so many others. Although every single conversation I’ve had with people when working as a Naturopathic Doctor started with a health concern, there is common thread that links them all, and that is the desire to be heard, the desire to be truly heard without any judgment.

During my last trip to Nicaragua with a group of students, we attended over 100 patients in less than a week. This is a lot considering Naturopathic Medicine visits can be quite lengthy. As the week progressed, I started to understand something I had never really taken into consideration before. Maybe it was the number of individuals we saw over the week, or maybe it was the fact that we had a very limited of medicines to choose from and had to be a bit more creative in determining the best treatment plans. What we did have to offer to every single patient was the time to listen and ask questions, genuine care (we did also have some really great healing modalities like acupuncture, massage therapy, and chiropractic adjustments). What I started to realize is that creating a sophisticated treatment plan isn’t the only way naturopathic medicine heals. As I saw people smile and express their gratitude, I realized that an important part of healing is through connection and storytelling, not only pills and restricted diets. We all have a story, and telling that story to a compassionate listener can bring tremendous healing, and it can also inspire healing in others.

When I thought I would be offering basic medical treatments for things like ear infections, parasites, muscle and joint pain, and urinary tract infections, I learned that being heard and connecting with others are actually an essential part of healing. My experience really made me understand that as humans we are wired for connection. It doesn’t matter if we come from one of the world’s most affluent countries, or a rural area living in poverty, we all want to be heard and feel connection with other human beings. This creates a sense of belonging, it takes away some of the isolation that can be experienced from disease. When I look around me and I see a society hungry for material goods and productivity, I see an underlying hunger for connection that is even greater. Is this maybe one of the reasons we are so unhappy as a society?

One of the greatest lessons I learned from my experience in Nicaragua, and one I struggle to maintain under the pressure of North American standards, is the need for connection, for slowing down and listening, for kindness and compassion toward myself and other, and for solidarity. It’s something I need to remind myself of daily when I face the stressors of deadlines, strict schedules and continuous need to 'do', rather than taking the time to just 'be'. I will forever be grateful to those patients in Nicaragua for teaching me this great lesson.