A casual chat, some serendipity and new adventures

Apropos of a brief light-hearted conversation two months ago this particular Stoke Newington Osteopath is not currently in chilly N16. He is on the island of Tobago in the Caribbean. This is a spit from Trinidad, which in itself is a spit from Venezuela on the mainland of South America. 

It went something like this. Paraphrasing only very slightly. 
First patient of the year on January 3. English lady, over for a family funeral, based in Trinidad. 
“I’m very much looking forward to getting back to Trinidad tomorrow as this is the beginning of the dry season and the weather will be gorgeous.”
Stoke Newington Osteopath (whilst looking mournfully out at skies the colour of cigarette ash): “Can I come with you?”

Patient, “Yes if you carry on treating me and treat my family you can have my spare apartment with its balcony, hammock, and Wi-Fi. I will also send you plenty of interesting patients who really need your help will be very appreciative.”

Stoke Newington Osteopath: “Ok”

This lady knew me well from previous visits and treatments. Also from the fact that I had treated her sisters’ family for years. She knew I was a serious customer and I had enough context from her, to know that she was not joking around either. She also understood the cranial work sufficiently, to say (what were for me) very enticing things such as, “I can send you a bunch of tricky teenagers”. 

I did some research. There were jungles, outdoorsy stuff galore, good food and surf.  A bit of a no-brainer. 

People in my position cannot just cut and run. Patients in pain and difficulty do not appreciate it when they can’t see you. Particularly if they think you are working on your suntan and sipping Piña Coladas. However patients do not get good value out of practitioners who neglect their own selves. A balance has to be struck. I made sure that continuity of care was not a problem. This with the help of my locum Adam Boucher (old friend and excellent structural osteopath) and by connecting to members of our excellent osteopathic team at Shine, primarily Rehana Kapadia (excellent and very experienced cranial osteopath). I felt a cheeky month was doable. Less would be a shame, more would be taking the Mickey. Tickets were duly booked.

Walking out of Port of Spain airport after a long haul, it became imperative to get into shorts and a T-shirt as quickly as possible. The climate is a constant 25 to 29°. While you acclimatise, sweating a lot is the order of the day. The place is super green with lots of lush foliage. Both unsurprising given how far from the equator it is. 

I found the demographic of the human population that had ended up in this part of the world fascinating and appealing. This of course has a large chunk of black African descent from sugar plantation slavery. However, there is an equally large chunk of Indian blood. These guys’ ancestors came over as indentured workers after slavery was abolished. Funny thing is though, there are plenty of Asians and plenty of people as white as this pasty Englishman here. What is remarkable is that to my ear they all sound exactly the same. The accent is a proper almost incomprehensibly thick Caribbean patois. Hearing it flowing naturally and fluently out of the mouth of somebody with my skintone, whilst talking in a friendly way with someone whose genetic heritage obviously came from Equatorial Africa, is quite something. It’s charming and I think sometimes bloody hilarious. I’m sure tensions are still present, however looking from the outside, I thought this is one good template for humanity to aim for. 

My first experience doing osteopathic treatment was special.

My treatment table was set up on a large balcony, near the head of a valley, in the foothills of Trinidad’s northern mountainous range. This range actually is the fag end of the Andes. Look at google maps with the terrain showing if youA casual chat, some serendipity and new adventures don’t believe me. A continuous ridge right from Tierra Del Fuego. We were looking down the hill and into the valley floor. You couldn’t see the valley much however as it was full of jungle. Proper Mowgli and Bagheera Jungle Book jungle. No exaggeration. The frogs were loudly performing in the unseen stream below. Also there was a large, densely knitted, linear spiders’ nest, a foot long on the wall next to where I was working. Not just a bit of old cobweb either. At the bottom end was an opening from which its resident, a medium sized tarantula in rude health, was poking its head and a few hairy legs. I had arrived.

As was suggested from N16, I was attended by some lovely and interesting people. First up was a priest of an old African faith. His system, whilst in difficulty with various historical injuries, had a lovely smooth feel to its deeper operation. He felt well nourished on all sorts of levels. By this I don’t just mean enough fruit and veg. It is a quality I have recognised with previous patients. Rarer in the UK, more common in other parts of the world, where people come out of their little bubbles more and nature is more rampant. It comes from knowing your place in the world, having good social infrastructure and connections, a good climate and wonderful environment to live in.

This makes my life much easier. I can step in and make minimal adjustments. This kind of body is gasping to make corrections. There is often rapidly profound change of which the patient is sometimes clearly aware of in the moment. It can get quite spooky sometimes. With this particular gentleman there was plenty going on. All the lights in the house fused while I was treating him. It was suggested by his friend that this was unsurprising. She knew him and how well plugged in he was to various spiritual realms. Coincidence, whatever, who knows? I liked the idea of it though.

Most are familiar with the feeling of being put in the right place at the right time. This was the case in my wee jungle clinic. More nice appreciative people. Next was a really severe scoliosis case, that clearly had not been usefully treated at all. The patient was in A casual chat, some serendipity and new adventuresall kinds of pain. She was also very worried as to how I would do my work, as she had been hurt by a chiropractor. Apart from all the dysfunctional lateral kinks there was a nasty compression within the sacrum, from a blow to the base of the spine a couple of years before. This had made things ten times worse. It was a simple thing to release, and didn’t hurt her at all. She was amazed at the improvement when I treated her again the next week. 

Not long after this I was contacted by a Swedish lady colleague Katinka Kundler who had heard I was here. We met, realised we had many teachers in common and got on well. She lived and worked in Tobago but came to Trinidad a couple of days a month to “work her ass off”. She could not keep up with the demand for her services. Within days I was chocka with her overflow and difficult second opinion cases. It was exactly what I wanted and most patients were appreciative and delightful. The same theme emerged that I had noticed before. Although some of the injuries and difficulties were quite severe, the patients were well nourished on that profound level I had previously spotted. They were somehow quite buoyant amongst their difficulties both within themselves and in how their tissues responded. I didn’t have to do much and there was usually a very good response. It made me look good and was good for my treatment confidence too. The work flowed wonderfully. I know from experience that when this flow happens, when I see people months or years afterwards, it is usually associated with very significant healing. Also it’s profoundly satisfying and enjoyable for me: a win-win situation. 

There was one other nice little nugget of serendipity worth mentioning. Katinka had mentioned a young lad who had been treated by her a lot whilst undergoing some orthopaedic dentistry for which he had to travel to West Virginia. She wanted my views as this is an area that I have been involved in for some time. The poor guy had been through the mill after a jaw injury at 16 with a jet ski. He was now near 30. Much severe facial pain had been associated that had blighted his formative years. Only now was he properly on the mend. Since I knew some of the characters in the field, I asked him and his mum who they were making such an effort to see. 

Only Dr. Brendan Stack. My hero in this field. That of many others too. 

Dr.Stack’s contribution would take too long to describe here. Basically he does very no-nonsense and highly precise work splinting and repositioning facial bones in order to correct severe problems with the TMJ. He helps people with many issues associated with this. Amongst the most severe are adolescent young men with awful problems associated with Tourette’s syndrome. Normalising the proprioceptive information emanating from the jaw joint, seems to have a profoundly calming effect on dysfunction within the brainstem. We are talking  issues like tics so severe they cause whiplash injuries. Google him under TMJ stack and have a look at the before and after videos. They are quite something. He was over for a conference I attended a couple years ago. See the picture with me grinning like an idiot. By the way one of the questions from the floor was me asking when he got his team of osteopaths involved during treatment. “Right at the start” was his instantaneous response. 

Anyway he had worked his usual wonders with this young lad. The jaw discs were recaptured and stable and the pain was practically gone. The next question was how on earth had they found him? His mum took up the story. She had gone through every available doctor and dentist in Trinidad. This was a process that had taken several years, cost a lot of money, and had got them nowhere. I have seen many people in the UK do exactly the same thing by the way; it wasn’t just because she was in a small island. TMJ problems are notoriously hard to diagnose and treat. There are plenty of “specialists” who will take your money though. Her young son was in a shocking state. She and the lad were in despair. So what did she do? She went to church. And prayed. 

It worked. 

A couple of days later her pastor came up to her. He had heard of this weird and irascible wizard dentist through someone else. She checked him out. The light at the end of the tunnel started to glimmer. They made the expensive trip and made the A casual chat, some serendipity and new adventurescommitment to the expensive treatment. Over two or three years, including much good Osteopathy with Katinka, it had worked. They had nothing but praise for his expertise. Me and the lad took a cheesy selfie to send to Dr.Stack. Him and his mum were super chuffed that I had formed this triangle of contact.

So there you go. I’m still here and the adventure continues. I have been sorting out Katinka who was gasping for a treatment too. She can’t treat herself and is the only osteopath like her in this part of the world. Well two including me. The beautiful eastern end of Tobago beckons over the next few days. Round here they say this bit is not just paradise but the capital of paradise. 

I hope to bring back some natural nourishment and some tropical serendipity to share with my patients in April! 

Chris Harris 

As well as being anonymised all involved in these stories were fully consulted and have given their blessing to this piece.