Don Peters was inflicted with a spinal cord injury while serving our country. In 1996, while in Columbia, South America, Peters herniated a disc stemming from an injury that happened while on service-connected duty with the Army. During subsequent surgery, his spinal cord was lacerated three times.
He was prescribed Gabapentin — a prescription drug, also marketed as Neurontin and Horizant — that's used to treat epilepsy, restless leg syndrome, numbness and tingling related to diabetes, to prevent hot flashes and to relieve pain that can accompany shingles. The drug caused a quickly developing cataract in his left eye. After the cataract was removed, Peters was declared legally blind. Seeking pain relief from sources other than more medication, he started receiving acupuncture treatments five months after surgery.
"Oh yes, acupuncture has helped," Peters said. "It took away a lot of spinal pain. I'm able to stretch properly again. That facilitated massage work."
But to get those treatments paid for, his request for them couldn't be submitted to the Veteran's Administration (VA) until after his first physical therapy session. And because of the proverbial "red tape," it often takes many weeks for the VA to approve treatment(s). When in chronic pain, weeks can feel like years.
On March 18, the Not Forgotten Outreach (NFO) Military Family Respite Center at 428 Theodora Lane in Taos — next to CFT Décor and Gifts (formerly Country Furnishings of Taos) — opened its doors offering free massage, acupuncture, and meditation and yoga classes to vets and their families.
“This service cuts out the VA — the middleman,” said Peters, NFO executive director, adding that the idea for the center had been in the works for 2 1/2 years. A private donation helped speed up the center’s grand opening.
“Through the unbelievable donation from Libby Johnson of her parent’s law office building, which Howard and Helen Emily Brandenburg built in 1961, this donation allowed a back-burner program of NFO’s five-year plan to move ahead of schedule,” said Peters.
The center accepts walk-ins and appointments Monday through Friday. The general public is also welcome. There is a charge (determined by each practitioner) to non-veterans, but that money benefits the vets and their families by offsetting the costs.
Three treatment rooms are available at the center at a discounted rate allowing for massage, acupuncture, cranial sacral therapy and myofascial therapy providers to give treatments to paying customers, and to vets and their families for free. In addition, there is yoga space and a designated area for mindfulness and relaxation/meditation training. Each practitioner will offer a minimum of one free treatment to military families once a month. And each family member is entitled to three, one-hour sessions at no cost.
The sessions may be used whenever they choose and for any services offered. Additional sessions are available at a subsidized rate.
An added benefit is the Dept. of Veteran’s Affairs Mobile Vet Center, which utilizes the new center’s high visibility location to provide group post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling and veteran’s benefit resources once a month. The primary goal of the Mobile Vet Center is to assist veterans in making the difficult transition between military and civilian life.
“We’re trying to find that balance where everybody’s winning,” Peters said.
Many veterans express interest in becoming complementary and alternative medicine providers, according to Peters. Because of that, he said many of the practitioners at the Military Family Respite Center will indeed be former military and family members.
“This will provide both augmented care to military families and economic development opportunities to military families in the wellness field,” said Peters.
Local, licensed massage therapist Sheila Shortell previously volunteered at NFO’s Valverde Commons building in Taos. She has seen over and over again how complimentary, alternative treatments such as massage therapy can help someone physically and mentally.
“They walk up to me looking downtrodden, aching,” Shortell described. “By the time I was done, they were walking away with a lighter step and better skin color. When you loosen up the muscles’ grip on the bones, you stand taller and you sit up taller. Massage benefits circulation, posture and your attitude. If you’re hurting, your attitude is better after a massage.”
Acupuncture is a centurie-sold form of traditional Chinese medicine. It’s based on the theory that energy, called chi (pronounced “chee”), flows through and around your body along pathways called meridians. Acupuncturists believe that illness occurs when something blocks or unbalances your chi. Acupuncture is a way to unblock or influence chi and help it flow back into balance. This treatment has been effectively used for the relief of back pain, headache, migraine and even sports injuries.
Moreover, acupuncture provides more than pain relief. It is said to be helpful in treating anxiety, insomnia, digestive problems, menstrual problems, weight control and infertility to name a few.
Free acupuncture services to vets and their families are offered on the second Friday of each month by volunteer Dr. Dominic Villanueva from Albuquerque who specializes in pain management.
It has long been known that yoga can aid mental well-being. It can further help soldiers suffering from PTSD, according to research completed in 2014.
Some of the most damaging consequences of combat duty happens in the mind. Data indicates that up to 20 percent of the 2.3 million American veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are afflicted with PTSD at some point. A Department of Veterans Affairs report indicates that at least 22 vets take their lives every day.
Researchers of traumatic stress report that yoga is helpful in bringing about improved mental balance. Yoga has also been shown to reduce stress, depression, anxiety and alcoholism.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress provides scientific support for the benefits of yoga’s breathing techniques on PTSD patients in a controlled and randomized long-term study, which monitored the effects of yoga over a year’s time. Through NFO’s partnership with Connected Warrior, Sally Boyd teaches free yoga classes at the center every Tuesday at 10 a.m.
At its most basic, meditation is a mental exercise that helps a person achieve deep relaxation of mind and body. It involves deep breathing and purposeful physical relaxation, one body part at a time. Its benefits range from simple and obvious to subtle and less known. Its goals are increased energy and overall improved health, especially when it comes to the mind.
Studies have shown that regular meditation reduces PTSD symptoms. A 2014 Stanford Report indicates that breathing techniques used in meditation also lessen anxiety and respiration.
Each Wednesday at 3 p.m., the center offers classes in “Trance Missions: Relaxation and Pain Management Techniques.” This class — led by Samuel Burke-Favero, a medical assistant at Mogul Medical, a certified hypnotherapist and wilderness EMT — explores hypnosis, neurolinguistics programming, guided imagery, conscious auto-suggestion, breath work, progressive relaxation techniques, moving meditation and visual trance induction techniques (Girih Geometric tiles, Kolam design and labyrinths).