Helping
 and healing in Bhopal

A group of health care students witness firsthand how western medicine and eastern therapies are combatting the world’s worst industrial disaster.

By Adam Million

Publish Date: November 11, 2016

Imagine a noxious cloud snaking through Denver, sweeping south out of downtown through neighborhoods, past businesses and parks, all the way to Highlands Ranch. In its wake, people gasp for air, and their eyes and lungs burn. They run, seeking fresh air. Thousands succumb on roadsides; others choke to death in their homes. Everything is poisoned: the air, the land, the water, the people.

Photo by Connie DinesIn the early morning hours of Dec. 2, 1984, deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant in the middle of Bhopal, a city in central India. Thousands never saw the sunrise that day, and the final death toll from the disaster is estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000. Another 500,000 people were sickened.

More than three decades later, the impact of that disaster still lingers. And for 14 MSU Denver students and two of their professors, a January 2016 trip to Bhopal was inspiring, perhaps even life-changing.

The students, from MSU Denver’s Integrative Health Care Program, spent 10 days at Bhopal’s Sambhavna Clinic as part of a service-learning study abroad project.

The clinic’s guiding principles are “first, do no harm” to the patients, and that “therapies do not contribute to the toxic load of the body.”

Sambhavna pairs traditional western medicine with yoga therapy and Ayurvedic medicine, one of the world’s oldest holistic (whole-body) healing systems.

Each day, the students attended lectures, observed the clinic staff working together and engaged in various hands-on service learning projects – some helped in the garden with the herbs, some worked to create medicines from the herbs and some worked in the clinic’s library where documents on the history of the disaster and research conducted at the clinic are stored.

“We got amazing lectures by the medical staff who also showed us how they work with patients,” said Emily Matuszewicz, assistant professor of integrative health care. “In our world, conventional medicine and what we would call alternative medicine exist pretty separately.

“[At the clinic] it was truly integrated, using their indigenous Aryuvedic medicine. It’s such a different view of the human being.”

POISONED WATER, 30 YEARS ON

Today, children are still being born with mental and physical problems due to a poisoned water supply and illegal dumping. In some cases, children developed the disorders after drinking contaminated breast milk or water. Visiting the Chingari Rehabilitation Centre, which collaborates with the Sambhavna Clinic, was a profound experience for the students.

The clinic includes a multisensory room, filled with lights, colored objects and textures, as well as physical rehabilitation and special education space. The students interacted with some of the children and took pictures with them, bringing joy to a difficult situation.

Mariah Master (B.S. integrative health care ’17) recalled a young girl sitting on the floor in the sensory room, who reached up and grabbed each of the students, one-by-one, to give them a huge hug, pulling them close to her.

The whole experience brought about a rush of different emotions for the students. For Master, she was overcome with inspiration and a strong sense of activism.

TWO YEARS IN THE MAKING

The Bhopal project was the brainchild of Carol Jensen, professor of integrative health care, who in the fall of 2014 began researching the possibility of taking students to Bhopal and the Sambhavna Clinic.

That led to development of a yearlong curriculum to address the impact of the disaster, participate in the ongoing integrative care of those affected and explore opportunities for social change.

The preparatory class in fall 2015 – Integrative Health Care: India – covered the disaster’s background and directed students to create the health education materials that Sambhavna Clinic volunteers could use in the community.

The students created or purchased both written and visual materials, including posters that show yoga postures, a model breast to help women check for breast cancer and mannequins and models with removable organs. One student even created 3D-printed models depicting stages of fetal development.

“The health educators were so happy about the materials we brought,” said Master. “I know they will continue using them to better educate the community.”

The students held fundraisers to offset their travel expenses and the cost of the educational materials. With help from their professors and the community, they raised more than $25,000 through private donations. They made a presentation about the disaster at Ignite Denver and organized the Illuminate Bhopal Gala, which attracted 100 people.

“Fundraising was rewarding because I gained great skills along the way,” said Mallory O’Connell (B.S. integrative health care ’16). “But most importantly, it brought me closer to many of the other students, all of whom I consider family now.”

The group returned to the United States two days before the 2016 spring semester started. Many of the students participated in a follow-up course called Creating Change in Integrative Health.

Locally, many students have started working with the Rocky Flats Downwinders community organization, which is studying the health implications of the now-closed plant, which manufactured nuclear triggers, on those who lived downwind of the area.

Master now says she plans to join the Peace Corps after graduation and would like to travel back to Bhopal either during her breaks or after her service.

“I hadn’t even thought about [Peace Corps] before India,” she said. “Afterward, though, it just made sense. This experience opened my eyes. I was on a path to become a naturopathic doctor.

“But after this experience, I decided that if I want that, it would be there later. I want to volunteer, serve and travel right now.”