Community Healthcare in “Little Tibet”

Dear CAN friends,

I have been in Dharamsala, aka “Little Tibet”, in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains of Northern India for the past 6 days. 

Getting here is quite a process – two 8 hour flights from Seattle and all that entails, a 12 hour train ride from Delhi, followed by a 3 hour taxi. Throw in some jet lag and road side food, and perhaps a little too much chai topped off with heaps of white sugar….all of which gave me a headache, stomach upset, and general immune system crash.

I admit to being a bit weird about this, but a part of me enjoys being sick…I mean, if you are going to be sick, the suffering part is totally optional, and as a Buddhist, it’s good practice for death, and contemplating karmic purification. Furthermore, it gave me an excuse to check out the local medical scene. Our guest house is a two minute walk from Dr. Yeshi Dhonden’s clinic.

I had heard about Dr. Dhonden for many years – he is a monk and former personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His clinic is reached via a dark alley into which one enters a waiting room about 10 by 15 feet square, which on this paraticular day had  about 20 people sitting on 4 benches against each wall. You take a number and wait your turn. I had number 42, and it was only 10 a.m.

All kinds of conversations were going on in various languages – Hindi, Tibetan, various Western languages, and one Tibetan woman seemed to be directing traffic, checking your number, cracking jokes, smiling at the babies, etc.  After a while, I realized my number wasn’t coming soon and upon checking, was told I could come back in an hour.

When eventually I was beckoned into Dr. Dhonden’s office, I saw a man who looked like he could be 80 or 90 years old. When he walked, he barely picked up his feet, if at all…shuffling slowly out to check someone’s urine, back to his interview room. He looked at my face, checked my pulses, all without a word, but nonetheless, maintaining a powerful focus. Then, another person asked me what my problem was, and a few minutes later, I had a 3 day supply of Tibetan herbal pills….all for 90 rupees, or about $1.80.

I was told to come back with a urine sample at 8 a.m. 3 days later. I decided to come at 745am to beat the crowd, but about 50 people had the same idea. Furthermore, the power had gone out that night and there no light in the clinic. Only a man handing out numbers from behind a locked  metal gate. There were no more numbers when I reached the front of the line. I was feeling better anyways, so there seemed no reason to register any complaint, especially as a person of white privilege who obviously had access to resources most of the patients in this system did not.

I had also promised Dr. Namgyal Qusar that I would show up at 10 a.m. at his clinic, about 12 kilometers down the mountain and one valley over. So I hopped into a jeep packed with 12 people, which bumped and swerved down the mountain, and then transferred to a bus which drove up impossibly narrow and windy lanes, until I luckily remembered which stop was mine.

It was good to see Dr. Qusar again, and after being formally welcomed with a polite cup of chai on his rooftop terrace, I followed him down and he opened up his office to the first patient.

Dr. Qusar’s three year old son played in the midst of interviewing the patient, while I, and a Thai apprentice observed. Dr. Qusar mainly gives Tibetan herbal medicine, but also utilizes acupuncture and we had lively conversations about simple acupuncture techniques to benefit common conditions – lots of Stomach and Lung ailments, and lots of arthritis pains.

Over lunch, I commented about one big difference I observed between his clinic (and Dr. Dhonden’s), versus western medicine clinics and facilities in general. American’s seem obsessed with privacy, and the effect seems detremental to feeling a sense of community. In both brief encounters I had in India with community medicine, there was a sense of warmth and openness in the community healing space which is largely absent from medical encounters I’ve experienced in the West – with the notable exception of CAN style clinics.

After lunch, we made a housecall to a a 91 year old nun with a recent stroke and subsequent speech loss. Then it was time for me to make my journey back to Dharamsala. It was a short reunion after 6 years, and a part of me wishes that I could stay on and practice acupuncture here, and maybe learn a little Tibetan medicine.

For any of you still reading this and having a yearning to visit this part of India, let me know if you’d like to volunteer with Dr. Qusar, and perhaps I can help arrange something. He clearly enjoys learning new skills, acupuncture is very much needed here, and the gift of being a part of a kind of global healing exchange – for me – was priceless. 

river Jordan
Author: river Jordan

After graduating from the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine in 1997, I had a hobby practice for a few years before moving to Northern India to study Buddhism. During this time, I volunteered in a local clinic, giving acupuncture to Tibetan refugees and Indian nationals. <p> Returning to the U.S. in 2002, I started a typical insurance based acupuncture practice catering to the upper middle class. In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, I volunteered with <a href="" target="_blank">Acupuncturists Without Borders</a>, using community style acupuncture to treat trauma victims in a natural disaster setting. </p> Inspired by the power and efficacy of acupuncture in a post-disaster setting, I began to contemplate issues of socioeconomic class. What could be done to make acupuncture accessible to everyone and still provider a livable wage for an acupuncturist? After attending WCA's first conference in October of 2006, I had found the answer to that question. In January 2007, together with my partner Serena Sundaram, we founded <a href="" target="_blank">Communichi</a>, Seattle's first dedicated community acupuncture clinic. <p> As a Buddhist, I believe that healing begins in the mind. As the positive qualities of wisdom and compassion are cultivated in the mind of a practitioner, this...

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  1. thanks Jordan for the shout

    thanks Jordan for the shout from the other side of the world, and adding a more global perspective – i hope to be still helping peeps out when i’m 80 or 90.  also, after reading yours and Deer’s blog, and having all of the beautiful and wacky experiences that the community model has to share so far with me in only 6 months, I’m never going back to providing private room treatments. only when someone’s the first or last of the day. 😉

  2. Inspiring

    Thanks for sharing the travelog Jordan.  What a fantastic experience.  I’m filing this away in my mind as I’m hoping to do something like this within a few years.  There’s also a community clinic very similar in Ananda Nagar India that I’ve considered going to.   I know one should think globally and act locally but sometimes the soul simply needs to go global and act accordingly.  Inspiring!


  3. Dear Jordan
    Have you

    Dear Jordan

    Have you actually practiced in Dr. Qusar’s clinic or elsewhere in Nepal? What was that like and how would one arrange oneself to offer this?

                                Turiya Hill

  4. Dr. Qusar’s clinic is in

    Dr. Qusar’s clinic is in Northern India. I have no experience doing acupuncture in Nepal, though I have heard vaguely about opportunities to practice there.

     Yesterday, I worked in Shakyamuni Buddha Health clinic which is in Bodhgaya, Bihar state – one of the poorest areas in all of India. 

    The experience was slightly different than working at Dr. Qusar’s clinic. I treated mostly women with arthritis type pains in their knees, hips, and low back.

    I was told by the Italian physiotherapist that I worked with that for the average Indian adult, you need to add 10 to 15 years to approximate that equivalent aging process in a  Westerner. Needless to say, it was a powerful experience offering acupuncture to local villagers. I plan to work in the clinic on Monday before leaving this area….will write more when I return.

    p.s. I don’t have Dr. Qusar’s contact info at the moment, but will post it below this comment when I return in a few weeks.


    All true religions seek to gain access to that level of consciousness which is not ego-bound.

  5. volunteer

    Hi Jordan, i’m an acupuncturist from canada currently travelling in china. i’m looking for volunteering opportunities in developing countries. Dr. Qusar’s clinic sounds interesting as well as any other clinics/relief projects you may know of.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated.
    Thank you

  6. Dr. Qusar

    Hi Christina,

    Dr. Namgyal Qusar’s clinic is located in Sidphur, which is a short bus ride from Dharamsala,…next to the Norbulinka temple. Telephone is …011-91-9816088732  – though not all of those numbers would be necessary if you are dialing locally.

    As for other opportunities, I’ve been telling people that volunteering your acupuncture skills in the 3rd world is often just a matter of finding someplace you would like to be and connecting with someone locally (e.g. usually a local medical professional) who can help you make it happen.

     I also volunteered in Bodhgaya  at the Root Institute (Shakyamuni Buddha clinic). There was another foreigner working there doing homeopathy.

    Check with any of the meditation centers of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). There is one near the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu (Kopan Monastery).

    Probably there are lots of opportunities offering acupuncture to westerners at places like yoga retreat centers, etc., but personally I found it more interesting working with local people.

     Email me directly through my contact form on this website if you have further questions.