We’ve all heard of professional organizations that team up and head out on foreign “Without Borders” missions, generally to the ‘third world’. But what about Naturopaths Without Borders – ever heard of ‘em?
As of 2004, this group of highly respected healers also broke free of their geographical bounds, seeking communities in need of naturopathic medicine and other community health solutions.
Dr. Sean Hesler has been involved with the organization since 2006, helping to expand the organization from its smaller roots into the international non-profit it is today. He took some time to give us a glimpse into the good work he and his groups are doing around the world and how they’re having a greater impact than ever before.
What is the experience like for volunteers with NWBs?
A lot of volunteers come in with the mindset of wanting to help patients but in reality you get more out of the experience than you impart. A lot come back changed more than they imagined. Sometimes people do come back with culture shock but definitely with a greater appreciation for what they have and how far their country has come.
Do you have to be a Naturopathic doctor or student to volunteer with the organization?
You don’t have to be medically trained to volunteer with us. Some volunteers are teachers and other types of practitioners who train patients in something – they give them a new skill. Some of our best volunteers have been general workers.
What’s a common health problem your team encounters in the field?
We work with a lot of children with malnutrition – many of them are severely and acutely malnourished – they have big bellies and swollen limbs with sores on them, puffy cheeks – not because they’re healthy but because they’re full of fluid. They come in crying and their moms are kind of at a loss for what to do. They can’t afford the proper food; they’re not necessarily educated about how to make healthy choices. So we do the education, we help them to get access to clean water; we treat their medical conditions, and literally turn them around in a matter of weeks.
What’s the biggest challenge you face with this work?
One is having limits. The ability to appreciate what we cannot do and to learn to say ‘no’ than to try and do everything. We’re not there to save the country, we’re not there in a colonialistic or paternalistic manner – coming in and telling people how to live. We’re there to listen and help to facilitate solutions so that they can solve these problems on their own. As a smaller organization we’ve had to choose what it is we’re good at and learn to say no to the other things that can get us off track. That has been a great challenge to us.
What’s the best thing about your work with NWB?
The best part of my work is when we’re doing something, it’s chaotic, and then it turns around. That moment when things start working – like when a patient that we saw comes back the next week and they’re better. Those times that surprise me are the most rewarding times and remind me, ‘this is what I love to do and why I do it’.
What does it take to do what you do and continue to persevere?
A great deal of patience, and the context for that patience is that you must seek to understand. When you come in with too much of your own chatter or preconceived ideas. Even if you’ve done research on the country – going in with a completely open mind not trying to force your own way is very important. You also need to be really flexible – you need to be like water – like Bruce Lee says. To be able to go with the flow and keep that long view that this is a roller coaster and not a pit that you’re going to get stuck in – it will get better.
What’s the big vision for the NWB organization? Or, the end goal?
You need to treat the branch of what’s going on and the root of what’s going on. If we can do that through partnerships – getting people to grow more of their own food, use their local plants etc. – and treat themselves for minor things before they turn into major things – then we’re not needed anymore. And that’s the ultimate goal.
“Be like water” sounds like good advice no matter where you live or what your level of health. And if you’re considering a new shift – maybe it’s giving back through volunteer work – being flexible just might result in a fresh new perspective.
Want to know what volunteering with Naturopaths Without Borders is like? Our Toronto tuji and Naturopath in training, Bri, undertook a two-week NWB stint in Haiti. Read about her experience here.