Dr. Khamis and his needles

I met Dr. Khamis El Essi in November 2008, after arriving in Gaza on Free Gaza’s 3rd voyage to Gaza on the Karama, the Dignity. The Wafa hospital and rehabilitation centre (for people with neurological and spinal ailments, including victims of Israeli attacks, stroke patients and others) is in eastern Gaza, roughly 1 km from the Green-Line border with Israel, and has been attacked many times during Israel’s many invasions. [Wafa was seriously attacked during the last Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009, during which time the roof of the main hospital was shelled and set afire and shot at, the old folks home was shelled, and many white phosphorous rounds were fired at the hospital complex. I saw clumps of still-burning white phosphorous a week after the hospital was shelled.]

Recently, I wanted to find out more about alternative medicine in Gaza.  It turns out that Dr. Khamis, although medically trained and specializing in spinal and neurological rehabilitation, also does acupuncture, Chinese massage, and cupping. But he corrected me, saying these aren’t “alternative” therapies but “complementary” ones, as some ailments, he says, cannot be solved by alternative means alone.

Some types of cancer, he says, can be treated by complementary medicine, as in using herbal medicine to increase the presence of white blood cells which are “natural killer cells” which defeat viral infections and cancerous cells.

Studying at one of Asia’s top universities, the Far Eastern university in the Philippines, Dr. Khamis was in a good place to take some training in Chinese medicine, amounting to about 2 years worth of various courses in addition to his regular medical training.

In his hospitable, unhurried manner, Dr. Khamis laid out for me not just the basics of acupuncture in Gaza, but his recollection of the history of acupuncture from thousands of years back in China.

Over 3000 years ago, some books say as far back as 7000 years ago, the Chinese used arrows during battles. One warrior had severe pain in his shoulder for a very long time, but during a battle he was hit in the shoulder with an arrow.  Suddenly, after the injury, the pain disappeared. So people started puncturing those with ailments in different areas until the original pain stopped. Then they labeled the area. Over time, they found thousands of points (and of course made many mistakes). Every so-called master claimed he knew the best points.  These were also taught in martial arts, the pressure points you could use to defeat your opponent. This is the original of modern day acupuncture

Nowadays, Dr. Khamis told me, the World Health Organization has given proper international names for each point, and under international consensus there are about 760 pressure points used in acupuncture. They are located along lines called meridians, of which there are twelve. (the heart meridian, lung meridian, spleen meridian…)

The main concept in Chinese medicine is the Chi, the life energy.  The chi passes along these meridians.  If you have too much chi inside these meridians, you have too much movement, are spastic. Your heart beats too quickly, you are angry… If you have too little chi, you have weakness, paralysis and feel lonely.

The chi should be balanced, like the concept of yin and yang, in order to have a happy, healthy life.

Dr. Khamis is an interesting mix of devout Muslim, western-taught (the Far East University is an American university), but holding many Chinese health and medical beliefs.  Why, I asked, did he get into Chinese medicine?

According to many textbooks, many diseases have no cure nor treatment, the patient just has to wait and die.  Or for those in pain, we prescribe different kinds of pain medications to stop pain…stop it temporarily, but not cure the problem. I thought, there must be other interventions to treat human ailments.

Allah said in the Quran that God has put on earth many things that can cure you.

So I studied from Chinese professors and became knowledgeable in acupuncture and Chinese massage. When I explain the concept of chi to patients, I explain it in a scientific ways, speaking of neurons instead of life energy; I try to find something they can understand and accept with their religious beliefs and upbringing.

And nowadays there is a scientific explanation for things like acupuncture, in that the acupoints are located over the nerve. Acupuncture stimulates the nerves and then the nervous system, which in turn causes various effects, depending on the stimulus point. One example is causing the brain to send the signal to release endorphins, which are much stronger than morphine (a painkiller)…so the endorphins cause the body to relax and can diminish the effects of the original problem, like a heart attack.

The patient will be less anxious, the heartbeat lower, and will need less oxygen… The acupuncture hasn’t dissolved the thrombus, it has relaxed the patient.

Based on my medical specialty, people come to me for acupuncture for neurological disorders: paralysis, headache, back and shoulder pain, knee and arm pain, paralysis of the face…

I also learned more about natural plant remedies. Like bitter gourd, it’s a wonderful plant for patients with diabetes, as it can regulate blood sugar.  Garlic is a very useful plant all around, it’s very good for blood pressure, for preventing strokes, preventing dementia, and for the immune system in general.

According to the Chinese books, acupuncture has a cure for everything, from intestinal problems to coronary heart disease to breech birth…

For paralysis or pain, we can use electro acupuncture: needles attached to wires whose vibration stimulates the nerve actively.

Heat or thermal acupuncture, also stimulates the nerve. We use a leaf like tobacco whose burning transmits heat down to the nerve.

Tuina (Chinese massage) is helpful for people with back, leg pain and for babies with colic.

Since Dr. Khamis was so generous with his time and knowledge, and I actually had to leave before he could impart all of his complementary learning on me, I felt his words should be shared. These are practises used world-wide, but Dr. Khamis’ story of how he learned and how he practises in Gaza, where acupuncture still isn’t widely known or understood, adds a unique touch to the subject.