Karen Allen, CCH has been practicing homeopathy since 1993, with a focus on healthy endocrine and hormonal function, in support of conception and pregnancy, and to repair endocrine function that has been disturbed following pregnancy loss, birth, personal trauma, medical interventions or ill effects from contraceptives. Karen has authored two widely used homeopathic texts, The Repertory Workbook and the CHC Prep Guide. She is a past president of the Council for Homeopathic Certification, where she still serves as a board member. She is working closely with Homeopaths without Boarders – NA in the project to bring homeopathy to Haiti as a low cost, effective health care option for the people there. You can see more about her work and classes she teaches at her website: www.karenallenhomeopathy.com
Editor’s note: At the end of this interview are numerous pictures of homeopaths teaching in Haiti.
Vatsala: Natural disasters are as old as Nature itself. To keep the universe on a forward momentum, nature, with equal favor to all the three processes, is constantly engaged in creation, preservation and destruction. The hunger for 24/7 news is, however, a recent phenomenon. The news media have figured out that news, if not pure bad news, is not worth telling. So, you turn any news channel on, and all you hear about is a graphic description of everything that can ever go wrong with Nature and with human behavior. In this genre, the large scale natural disasters are broadcast with ferocious eagerness. A Tsunami strikes a coastal town, and within minutes you can see Anderson Cooper braving the 30foot tall waves in his khakis, standing inches away from the jaws of death, microphone in his hand, camera crew nearby, wind lashing at his rain parka and messing up his finely combed silvery mane … you get the idea.
What this pictorial feed of 24/7 bad news does to the viewers is that it prompts at least some of them to get moving and act. Governmental and public relief agencies rise to the occasion (not necessarily in that order). Donations in cash and kind start pouring in. Volunteers from all over the world stir out of their nests and descend upon the disaster zone, bringing with them the much needed help, support, and supplies. Red Cross medical and paramedical teams pitch tents, taking over the job of restoration of health and limbs to the injured. United Nations teams hover close by doing their bit. The armed forces come along and do a commendable job of restoring order and some normalcy to the disaster zone, while the politicians of every stripe go on helicopter tours viewing the disaster from a safe height.
A few days later another disaster strikes somewhere else. News teams and volunteer teams move on to the new site. And the cycle goes on. Six months, one year or a few years down the road, the collective attention has also moved on to the new disaster sites. The old ones are left to heal on their own and away from international headlines and spot lights. Some do. Some need ongoing help – and sometimes that is rather hard to come by.
Even before the news media took upon itself the job of informing the masses about natural disasters, epidemics and tragedies, homeopaths have been dealing with these issues. In the early 19th century, homeopathy, founded by Samuel Hahnemann (1765-1843), had secured good standing and position in almost all the countries in the western world, including the United States, where it was introduced in 1825 (1). Around then people knew the difference between ‘Apothecary medicine’ (lancet and calomel were the mainstay) and the medicinal uses of native plants. They preferred the natural medicine and regarded the apothecary medicine as ‘uniformly poisonous’. These choices made by the masses brought on the economic competition between conventional medicine and homeopathy, and by the 1840’s, this competition was turning quite hostile (2).
Then came the cholera epidemic of 1849, when William Holcombe used homeopathic remedies to successfully treat his cases, and had no deaths in his care, except that his best friend had taken conventional medicine for the same illness and died (3). For a similar cholera epidemic in London, the death rate in conventional medicine was 59.2 % as opposed to 9 % under homeopathic treatment (4). Homeopathy saw a further increase in use and popularity right around the Civil War (1861-65) even though homeopaths were totally excluded from the Union Army during the Civil War (5). Yellow fever was another epidemic in which homeopathy was found to be highly effective. Homeopaths had a number of remedies for each stage of the disease – fever, exhaustion and collapse – and the mortality rate in their care was just 5.6 – 7.7 % whereas, the conventionally treated population saw a steep mortality of 27 – 72% (6). Meanwhile during the 1813 epidemics of typhus fever, Hahnemann himself had treated 180 cases losing only two, and the death rate in conventional medicine was 30% (7). Similarly, for treatment of influenza during 1918 pandemic, homeopathy death rate was 1.05 % and the conventional medicine death rate was 28.2% (8).
With such a stellar record of successful treatments during epidemics, it is only natural for the homeopaths to feel confident of their system of medicine and trust its efficacy and usefulness in the handling of natural disasters and emergencies (epidemics and pandemics being a part of the same process). They know that they can deal with these critical situations and that their system of understanding of the disease conditions and the arsenal of remedies at their disposal make them a formidable force for tackling natural disasters, epidemics, accidents and so on.
A quick review of application of homeopathy in emergencies and natural disasters in recent times shows that homeopathy has been used well during the man-made disaster of 9/11/2001 in the US (9), the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan (10), Hurricane Katrina (11) and so on. This list would not be complete if the work done by Homeopaths without Borders (HWB) after the January 2010 earth quake in Haiti is not included. Being a homeopath myself, I have been following the work of HWB with much pride. When Sally Tamplin, a US based classical homeopath with links to my dear teacher Misha Norland’s School of Homeopathy, Devon, UK, shared a hair-raising slide show of her and HWB’s work in Haiti, I made a pledge to keep an eye on this project and if possible meet with or talk to someone who has worked in Haiti to get a firsthand idea of what HWB (12) was up to in that country.
In a chance meeting with Karen Allen during the NCH 2012 conference, I learned that she had visited Haiti in connection with HWB’s ongoing work and it was only natural that I would ask her questions … why, when, what, who, where and how… Just imagine my excitement when I found that in the backwaters of earthquake ravaged Haiti, HWB has become the “little engine that chugs along and says it can”. This is the very reason I must share with you what I heard from Karen Allen.
Vatsala: Way back in January 2010, Haiti was struck by an earthquake that measured 7.2 on the Richter scale, took 316,000 lives, injured 300,000, made 1,000,000 homeless and destroyed 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings. It is 2012 now, two years later and Haiti is not in the headlines anymore. You are still visiting Haiti. What makes you want to go there now? What inspires you?
Karen: About eight to ten years ago, I was at a NCH conference and a few of us were sitting around speaking with each other. Carole Boyce, a British homeopath whom I admire, was talking about all the countries she had visited and worked in. That was very inspiring to me, but at that time my kids were little, I was raising them and growing my practice. Even though I considered Carole’s work very valuable, I could not do what she was doing. The time was not right for me. Presently, my kids have grown and left home. I have eased back from the leadership role of running a homeopathy school. So, when Holly Moonigian, the executive director of Homeopaths without borders, (HWB), suggested that I could work in Haiti, I said, “YES”. It is the right time for me now.
I am inspired by the project itself. About half of the population in Haiti has no access to basic health care. HWB asked us homeopaths if we could provide community service in the area of acute diseases, trauma, basic lesional complaints like acid stomach, vaginitis, sore back from over work, injuries, flu, dengue, and so on, and help the country with basic health education, and we were very willing.
As volunteer members of HWB, what we are trying to do in Haiti is to create a group of local Haitians who would be trained to provide basic homeopathic care. These people, with the training we would give them, would go back to their communities and give basic homeopathic care to the members of their community. What HWB has in mind is what we had way back in the 1880’s when the great American West was being formed. People from the East were traveling Westward with all their family and meager belongings piled into covered wagons. There were no roads, trains, buses or hospitals back then. But people carried a kit of a few homeopathic remedies and Boeninghausen’s pocket materia medica and repertory. If they or their animals fell sick or got wounded, as they invariably did, they knew how to read the repertory, find a remedy suitable to a condition and initiate a treatment. The situation in present day Haiti, especially after the January 2010 earthquake that turned the country into a pile of rubble, is no different than the situations that existed way back in the 1880’s… no running water, no electricity, no money, no availability of medicines, doctors and hospitals, no sanitation, not even proper housing and food for the masses that are still living a life that is totally shattered from the earthquake.
In these circumstances, we, the members of HWB, want to create an educational curriculum to teach the Haitians the art of self-care when the hospital and drug based conventional therapeutic and emergency care is not accessible to them.
Haiti has so little in terms of money and resources. Haiti needs our ongoing help. That is what inspired me to go to Haiti now, even though the disaster occurred two years ago.
Vatsala: I understand about your inspiration for trying to work with HWB to provide basic health care to Haitians who have essentially nothing and who live on very little. This is a formidable goal indeed. My question in this regard is, how is HWB received in Haiti? What is the response of the community that HWB is serving?
Karen: From the very beginning, since HWB volunteers first arrived in Haiti way back in February 2010, we have been received in a very positive manner (reference 12, 2nd link). In the very beginning, we were mainly concerning ourselves with running free clinics and providing homeopathic care to the sick and injured. Now, we have changed our focus. Now we are trying to educate Haitians in self care and community service using homeopathy. We have been teaching groups of interested students. These students in our main group in Port Au Prince are very passionate about their desire to serve their community. Some of them travel a long distance to come for our classes. Many of them work in areas where there is no other form of health care available. When HWB interviewed these students individually, they expressed how grateful they were to receive the basic tools of homeopathy so that they could take care of themselves and their community. They told stories about the people who have been helped. A man who was injured and could not stand on his feet for the past two years, was given a dose of Rhus tox and he was now able to walk. The students are very excited when they see the possibility that they can relieve suffering. Besides this, the regular people are happy to come to our clinics.
We see 75-100 patients during the clinic days. The students are learning while we do the case taking and treatment. Mothers of small kids are very happy to have us there. There are some other places they can go, but there are rules. Some clinics and hospitals will see them only if they are actively bleeding. Others will see them only if they have money – no money no care. But in HWB clinics we see them whether they have money or not, whether their injuries are new or old. We see them because they need health care, irrespective of whether they can afford to pay or not.
One fortuitous development is that a group of Haitians working in the south east part of Belle Anse have approached us about partnering with them to help create a sustainable and inexpensive health care place. Some members of this group live in the US and are helping their community in Haiti now. Belle Anse is an extremely poor area, not easily connected to the rest of the country and the local education level is second or third grade. Very few high schools or universities exist there. These folks are asking if HWB would come to their communities and partner with them to teach homeopathy to the community service volunteers from their area. HWB has agreed to provide this help.
This group of forward thinking Haitians has put out a call to the people who are interested in this educational program. We are getting students from villages who want to train with us as community service homeopaths. There is a lot of interest on the part of people in clinical and other philanthropic organizations who want to create sustainable, effective, and affordable health care options for Haitians, so that when conventional medicine is out of reach – as it is mostly, due to the lack of hospitals, doctors and medicine, as well as due to their utter poverty – they can take care of their own and their community’s health using the basic tools of homeopathy.
Amongst the students that we have trained so far, some of them are nurses, one is a medical student, and they are very excited about talking to others about homeopathy and teaching them the basic tools that they are learning from us. To help them in this regard, NCH is building a curriculum similar to that which is followed by the US based study groups. Our Haitian students can follow this curriculum to expand their own knowledge as well as disseminate the knowledge to other interested people in their community. These students are eager to learn from the visiting homeopaths as well as from books. They come up with creative ideas about how to make the training more familiar to Haitian students. They want us to teach all over their country. They want to distribute this health care and education option all across their country. Their enthusiasm is infectious.
Vatsala: Haiti is a French / Creole speaking country. In what language do HWB volunteers give instructions? Do you need and use any translators?
Karen: There is no free education in Haiti. You have to pay to go to school. Schools teach in French. People speak in Creole, but books are not available in this language. We teach and give educational handouts in French. The classroom conversation is in Creole. Some students do not read or write French because they never went to any school. We are teaching them in Creole and giving handouts in Creole.
We could not function without a multi-lingual translator. Actually Holly Moonigian is excellent in hiring translators. We contribute to the local economy by hiring them. We have been giving the translator a lot of books to read so that he can get a better understanding of homeopathy and its philosophy and thus do a better job of translating. We use a translator in our clinics as well. The supervising homeopath speaks English-and French.
Vatsala: Regarding contributions to the economy in Haiti, what I am wondering is whether the students whom you train in the basics of homeopathic care, intend to go out into their community, help people with homeopathy and make a living for themselves, by charging a fee for their services.
Karen: I believe these students have this on their minds. Remember, the unemployment rate in Haiti is over 50%. Prior to the quake it was 80%. Most adults are jobless.
Holly and I have talked about raising funds for the strongest of our students to receive pay from us for the first couple of years while they establish a practice or are working in the existing clinics that HWB has put in place. This would come to perhaps 200-300 dollars per month to fund them as a full time homeopath. This is our next project and we are seeking to establish six of our students as full time, paid practitioners and for this we are raising money.
Look at the potential good. One of the students going to a community where there is zero health care, sets up a homeopathy practice and holds clinic – three or four days per week – treating people and discussing cases with HWB homeopaths. They will see over 30-40 patients per day, 120 patients per week, 500-600 patients per month, 6000 and more patients per year. Now, that is a huge community service and for their first two years, HWB will send them a pay check every month. That means, for very little cost, and with just some basic training, a Haitian homeopath will be able to help and provide basic health care using homeopathy in his or her community where hospitals, doctors, pharmaceutical drugs and other forms of health care are not available.
I do not think that students who sign up with us are primarily coming because they think they will get a job. We have not said that we will employ them. But this idea has come to us as an option for making homeopathy available as a sustainable option. These students, with a little support from us, could charge as little as ten cents and provide care where there are no other options.
Vatsala: HWB program and plans will help students stand on their own feet while they reach out and help their community.
Karen: Yes, it will be a very self-sustaining mechanism of health-care in Haiti. HWB is not about getting people from the US, fly them to Haiti, have them do a clinic week and leave. HWB is about creating competencies so that Haitians can learn basic homeopathy and use it to help themselves and their community. They will be able to treat and teach. HWB is facilitating that.
Vatsala: So, is this how HWB differs from all other “without borders” organizations? Many organizations plunge into a disaster zone, give emergency help and then leave. This is a great experience for a few individuals, and a few recipients receive short term, quick help of some kind. But mostly, it is like applying band-aid to a fourth degree burn. Maybe a few individuals receive great emergency care, but nothing concrete and long term comes out of this emergency relief activity. But HWB differs from all other ‘without border’ agencies in that it is creating a grass-roots level movement and awareness, and equipping regular people with basics so they can help themselves and their community before they can even find and go to an emergency room or a doctor.
Karen: You articulated that very well. A lot of organizations have come in and provided immense relief in the very beginning. HWB also provided that support during the crucial first weeks after the tragedy. Out of that emergency aid work program of HWB, it became very apparent to us that there is a need for this homeopathy training program with a view to community service.
Homeopathy is unique in that it lends itself beautifully to the community service model of primary health care, whereas conventional medicine does not. Homeopathic remedies are benign, and will not cause any adverse effects. Remedies are inexpensive and do not require cold storage and expensive tools for administering them. Very little is needed for making a big difference. HWB is smart in using this low-tech healing modality in a country that truly has nothing that is affordable for its people when they get sick or a natural disaster strikes them out of the blue. We believe that Haitians can help themselves using simple tools and remedies of homeopathy, till other forms of health care become available to them.
Emergency relief work is necessary and useful. But that is a specific intervention. The work that HWB is doing is like a five-ten-or-fifty year plan – to provide a sustainable support that would exist in an ongoing fashion and change the nature of the health care scene for the Haitians.
Vatsala: What comes to mind is when you give a fish to a person. He eats it up in one go and then there is nothing left to eat. But if you teach him how to fish, he learns a skill that would come handy for his entire life. He can feed himself and others.
Karen: Yes, that is the idea behind teaching them the basic tools of homeopathy. The best thing about homeopathy is that it can be used at various levels of sophistication. At the very bottom are the combination remedies. They bring a lot of people to homeopathy as they give enormous relief. However, combination remedies are unlikely to relieve a deep and chronic complaint. Then there are specifics for common acute conditions and lesional complaints. This is point and shoot homeopathy with known polychrests using reference charts. Beyond that as part of a five or fifty year plan, we can look at and concentrate on miasms, and constitutional treatment. These are complicated processes and can be introduced later as the skill level of our students increases. We have started at the level where there is a most deeply felt need for affordable health care for common people and their common complaints in the poor communities.
Vatsala: Is homeopathy new for Haiti? Did Haitians have a cultural understanding of its philosophy and are they open to the remedies, or are they a bit hesitant? Do they have a cultural perspective on homeopathy or did you just land there like aliens and began treating them?
Karen: Great question. I had a long conversation about this with Fransisco Yesgur. He was talking about how in Brazil, homeopathy is received very well because they have a cultural understanding of how plants, animals and rocks have spirits. Since they already have a foundation, introducing homeopathy is easy.
Haiti has voodoo tradition. The fundamental philosophy and practices of voodoo are very different from homeopathy. So, homeopathy is a very new concept in Haiti. It does not match with their traditional medical culture. It takes them a while to get how homeopathy differs from conventional medicine. They also have a hard time dealing with the concept that all health and diseases arise from the vital force. They have a bio-mechanical world view. Over the past months when we have been teaching, there has been a gradual increase in awareness about homeopathy and presently it is not alien to them, thanks due to the work done by the HWB volunteers.
However, because resources are so tight, people are pragmatic. They don’t really care about the philosophical underpinnings. They say, ‘If you can help and give me relief from my pain, whatever you do to help is ok – conventional medicine, homeopathy, or a chicken in a bag swung three times around my head, while you dance a hokey pokey and sing. If you can cure whatever is bothering me, I don’t care what type of healing practices you follow…’
Vatsala: Perhaps, all skepticism about homeopathy, all questions about if and whether it works, all mental macerations and bitter fights about it appear to be the result of having affluence and choices. It is easy to disregard something that is natural and comes without a heavy price tag and the glamor of conventional medicine. Haitians, living in dire circumstances and without the luxury of affluence and choices, are more welcoming of and open about homeopathy. Is this the case?
Karen: In the US, there is an archetypical role of a physician anchored in the minds of the public. This role is fostered and maintained by the health-care industry, big pharma, and the big establishment of conventional medicine with their high tech hospitals and fancy labs. As a society, we do want people to have choices and to get the best and the safest form of health care from the best trained doctors and nurses. Not long ago, when conventional medicine was still young, anybody with a plier and a scalpel could call himself a doctor. They did hurt a lot of people. So, now, there is this infrastructure and a typical, very rigorous training one must have before becoming a medical doctor. And people have been conditioned to believe that when they get sick, they go to see their doctor. Homeopathy really flies in the face of that. In my practice, people only come to see me if the hospitals and doctors have failed to help them, and the conventional medical approach is not accessible, not working or is too expensive. These are the people who look to homeopathy.
In Haiti, they do not have the affluence, and an easy access to conventional medicine. They are open to trying homeopathy.
Vatsala: So, when all the international aid agencies landed on the ground and brought help, how did HWB cope? As a community, we do not receive that kind of attention / welcome where we go. How did HWB respond? Did you just start your day and go about your work?
Karen: HWB was extremely well received. We had the leadership of Sushila Lalsingh. She is from the Carrribean and she grew up in Trinidad. She personally knew the hospital director in Port Au Prince. Haiti thrives on person to person, face to face contact. Emails and telephones do not do the job. Sushila was able to make initial positive connections for HWB and immediately we were welcomed into the Port Au Prince hospital scene. We began working. We had 600 pounds of supplies and remedies with us. Susihila laid an excellent ground work for us and without her it would have been quite difficult. The need for help was so extreme and urgent that whatever source it came from was acceptable.
Vatsala: Were you able to – as a group- help people with non-homeopathic needs, for example, clean water and sanitation?
Karen: You bring up an interesting topic. Hahnemann describes these as maintaining causes in the Organon. In San Fransisco where I live, I chose organic food. In Haiti, all food is organic because they do not have the money to buy pesticides. We had to be quite careful about the suggestions we made. In the very first days of our clinic, I saw a woman with chronic vaginal complaint. I gave her a dose of the remedy and said to her, “Dissolve this in a bottle of water and take a capful three times a day.” Our translator flipped out, looked at me like I was crazy and said, “This woman cannot afford to buy bottled water.” I learned that in Haiti, water comes in a plastic a pouch. People tear a corner of this pouch with their teeth, and drink. Even middleclass Haitians live in buildings without running water. Kids walk to the local water source with big pails on their head and fetch water for their family.
This stark scenario was our eye-opener. We had to repeatedly look at what is our true mission. We had to ask ourselves what is the scope of what we can do. The need was and still is so vast. We could delude ourselves in a 1000 things that needed to be done.
Actually, in the guest house where all the aid workers are given a place to stay, we met people from various organizations. Someone is there to do a water purification engineering project, someone is there to build “bridges of prosperity” – literally building bridges where the communities get cut off due to floods. There are many groups helping with sustainable agriculture, re-forestation, and teaching Haitians to do Tilapia farming and raise goats so that their kids could have goat milk and meat for the school lunch program.
So, you see, a lot of different organizations are there to build the country back up and launch it onto a path of self-sufficiency. In this scene, our purpose is very clear. HWB has done the initial aid work. Now, on an ongoing basis, HWB is concerned with educating a core group of people who would go out and use homeopathy in their community. Nurses and medical students are coming to learn homeopathy. We are introducing homeopathy in continuing medical education programs and these professionals are going to use homeopathy in their practice. Haitians are learning to use homeopathy as a health care option.
Vatsala: How do you get volunteers?
Karen: People have a strong desire to help. There is philanthropic impetus in us to help those less fortunate than us. This sentiment dwells deep in the human spirit. I believe that when HWB shares this story with the HPATHY readers via your writing, it will touch people. When it is the right time for them, they will come forward to help. We have homeopaths who donate, spend on their travels to Haiti, take time off their practice and join HWB in our mission. When they meet our students and see the wonder in their eyes when homeopathy works, it inspires our volunteers.
HWB finds volunteers by word of mouth. Quite a few people came and spoke with me after I gave a brief presentation about HWB work in Haiti, during the NCH conference in 2012. Some of these people would be drawn to become a part of our mission.
Vatsala: So, HWB works well with other aid organizations and continues to get volunteers?
Karen: Yes, we are not loners, in the sense that HWB does not simply go into a country and try to do everything on its own. That is rather impossible. We are very aware that to make a sustainable impact, we have to partner with the local organizations. We partnered with groups in Port Au Prince and Belle Anse and we created the training session to be taught by our translator. We are moving into Haitians teaching Haitians. We are partnering with a midwifery school in the central province. I just had a meeting with the clinical director of this school about introducing homeopathy in the continuing education program for midwives and birth attendants. We keep finding yet another group with a need that homeopathy will be a good match for. It is about connecting with other groups and building bridges. This is the only way to create a sustainable homeopathy program in that country.
Our biggest challenge is how to keep our students in Haiti supplied with remedies. They do not have a homeopathy pharmacy. We bring with us donated remedies every time we go on a mission to Haiti. Students have dispensing kits, we refill their kits. Our next step is about establishing a homeopathy pharmacy in Haiti. Joe Lillard is thinking about setting up a pharmacy there. He is on the HWB board.