This June, my life lesson was flexibility.  No, I did not go on a yoga retreat in Bali, and I did not spend hours a day CIMG0337stretching my gastrocnemius (bonus points if you know what that is).  Instead, I spent 12 hours a day perspiring in tropical heat, doing my best to “go with the flow”.


Some of you know that my father is a medical doctor who spends his time directing medical missions.  Typically, he will go on 3-4 per year, usually in pretty exotic locations (think Myanmar, South Sudan, etc).  This year I was fortunate to be able to go with him to El Salvador.  We had a team of around 20, including pediatricians, research doctors, pharmacologists, nurses, and one chiropractor (that’s me!).  We hosted a free clinic in a city not far from the capital of San Salvador.


A typical day involved a quick run at 5:30, breakfast, and 30 minute bus ride to the clinic- doors open at 7:30.  By the time we arrived, people would be lined up around the block.  Whadya know?  People in a third world country hurt their backs too!  I was VERY busy, seeing between 40-50 patients a day.


IMG_2532 (1)The first day of clinic I found myself stumped.  I had multiple patients present with achiness in all of their joints, some for over a year.  Further questioning revealed a time of low fever and in most a red, bumpy rash.  This did not fit anything I had seen before so I conferred with the other docs.  They had several patients with this too, and no answers.  I erred on the side of caution (as I always do- mountain biking excluded), and sent the patients away without treatment.  That evening, courtesy of the free wifi at the hotel I was able to make my diagnosis- Chikungunyan disease.  This is a mosquito born disease, which came to El Salvador around a year ago.  According to the CDC, there were over 30,000 cases reported in the last month alone.  It is fortunately not contagious, but there is no treatment or vaccine.   We all wore plenty of bug spray for the remainder of the trip!


Most of what I treated was what I would see here at home- back, neck and extremity pain.  Over time, I began to truly appreciate the luxury of our health care system.  While it has many faults, we have access to all sorts of care El Salvadoran’s do not.  For example, I saw several rotator cuff tears.  In the US, I would get an MRI, and refer for surgery.  In El Salvador, I gave ibuprofen- woefully inadequate for a condition requiring surgery.


Conditions at our clinic were HOT.  The building we were in would quickly get into the upper 90’s, and be very humid.  As you know, chiropractic is physical work and it was difficult in the heat.  Fortunately, we had a good staff assembled that was quick to bring bottled water and, dare I say it- real Mexican coca-cola.  That hit the spot!


IMG_0203 (1)Despite my preconceived notions, chiropractic is fairly well known there.  They have their own “bone crackers”, the knowledge of which is passed down from father to son.  I figured that could be easier or harder than my eight years of education- depending on your father!


My oldest patient was 97, and still carrying a machete to cut cocoa pods off trees to sell.  My youngest patient was only a few days old, and suffering from torticollis.  I think the best treatment I delivered was that of teaching people how to move and perform their jobs in an ergonomical manner.  While my adjustments provide temporary relief, I wanted to help keep them out of pain and prevent future injury.  That’s just what I do for my patients at home as well.


By far, the biggest lesson I walked away with was the reminder that we in the U.S are very fortunate.  Food, clean water, clothing and shelter are considered our rights, and not privilege.  I am thankful for the blessings I have, and for the opportunity to bring some relief to the people of El Salvador.  Thanks to you, my patients for helping make this happen.


As always, I’ve got your back!


Dr. Drew Illman