Under a bridge near the Tijuana River, Carlos lay in a puddle of his own piss and shit. He was emaciated, too weak to sit up, and his friends said he'd been severely jaundiced in the days prior. Carlos was young, maybe in his mid-20s. As with many of the men living under the bridges and ramps near the river, he'd likely been deported from the U.S., and, lacking money or the proper Mexican paperwork, couldn't find a doctor who would treat him. He was a man adrift, a man without a country, lying in his own filth.
Carlos' prognosis was anyone's guess. Many of the men in the river camp near Tijuana's Plaza Rio are addicts, some with failing livers from alcoholism, others suffering from the needle and the damage done—hepatitis, maybe even full-blown AIDS.
But what if a needle—another kind of needle—could provide some small measure of relief?
Drew Pollack had, after all, seen it work for cancer patients. Pollack, 30, had spent the prior several months treating patients at the San Diego Cancer Research Institute (SDCRI) in Encinitas, as part of the final semester of his four-year acupuncture training at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (Full disclosure: this reporter was one of those patients).
Rigorous clinical studies have shown that acupuncture can relieve nausea, chronic pain and other maladies, and physicians are increasingly recommending needling not just for cancer but for everything from arthritis to migraines.
Pollack had been fascinated by acupuncture since his mother, a librarian, had brought a book on Chinese medicine to their New Jersey home when he was 13 years old. A devotee of the Self Realization Fellowship since the age of 17 (he was the cook in the SRF kitchen in Encinitas for 10 years prior to his acupuncture training), Pollack says he's also drawn to the "spiritual element" of acupuncture.
"I really feel so fulfilled when I'm working on someone," says Pollack, a North Park resident who also treats patients at a clinic in the Otay Centenario neighborhood of Tijuana. "To give someone that feeling of peace and bliss, that's the greatest form of service. It puts me in a very devotional state to know I can make somebody feel more peaceful inside somehow, just by the application of some needles."
It turns out that a few needles were all it took to make Carlos, the man under the bridge, feel well enough to sit up "for the first time in days," his friends told Pollack (who is conversant in Spanish). Carlos is one of about 30 men that Pollack has voluntarily treated over the past few months, asking them to lie down on a blanket right on the dirt and needling them to relieve complaints that range from shoulder aches to abdominal pain so severe, Pollack suspected in one case, that it might have been esophageal cancer.
Pollack says there is little risk he could be infected with blood-borne illness despite the presence of needles; still, he protects himself by sanitizing his hands with alcohol and oregano essential oil, which has antimicrobial properties. Typically he begins the treatment by asking each man if he's in pain, how old he is, what kinds of drugs he's using, if he tends to feel hot or cold.
"I don't know if it's denial, but I really have to dig to get at what they're experiencing sometimes," he says.
Other times, not so much. "One guy said, 'I have this thing on my penis, can I show you?' It looked like he had syphilis," says Pollack. "He said his girlfriend also has it all over her legs, and asked if I could treat him. I told him I couldn't and that he needed to see a doctor."
Another man, Miguel, had already been to see a doctor. He was lying under the bridge with the hospital tag still around his wrist, his legs wrapped in bandages. Miguel, who looked to be in his 30s or 40s, had been struck by several cars and was badly injured, but the hospital wouldn't treat him any further since he had no insurance and no money.
"He was in agony and incoherent," says Pollack. "His eyes were swollen, he had dried blood in his ears, he said it hurt everywhere. Any time I touched him anywhere he would moan." Pollack says that despite the fact that acupuncture needles typically cause very little pain, "every time I'd put in a needle he'd scream. I finally found a few spots on his feet where I could put in needles.
"While I was treating him everyone surrounded him and they were all crying and praying. I told them, 'This is more serious than what I'm used to seeing. He really needs to be in the hospital." I sat with them and prayed with them and told them to keep him clean and do what they could, and when I removed needles, he fell asleep. Everyone was relieved he was able to relax. They said, 'Thank you for taking care of our people. Thank you for helping the Mexicans.'"
The following week, Drew went back to the river to check on Carlos and Miguel and offer treatment to others, some of whom had gotten over their initial skepticism or nervousness about acupuncture after witnessing how effective it was for their friends. But when Pollack arrived, "it was like a ghost town," he says. "Everybody was gone. I finally found a guy and asked him where everyone was and he said the police had come through and kicked everybody out and taken them to 'rehabilitation centers.' He said the rehabilitation centers were really places where they force them to work without pay. Who knows what really happened."
Pollack continues to treat the homeless at a park near Tijuana's City Hall, sometimes needling patients right on the curb. Lately, the park has grown more crowded with people protesting the city's plans to bulldoze the park and make room for a shopping mall. Pollack says he doesn't get involved with the protests, and tries to not to absorb the emotional suffering of his patients.
He also has a firm policy that he never gives money, only service.
"I don't have the means to give money at this point," says Pollack, who just graduated from the expensive PCOM Masters program (which costs upwards of $60,000) and drives a Honda Civic that has seen better days. Despite not having the means to provide charity, however, Pollack uses his own funds to buy the needles and other supplies he uses to perform treatments (although he has created a GoFundMe campaign for those who would like to donate money toward supplies).
To hear him describe it, it sounds like Pollack is the one who benefits most from his curbside encounters with the homeless men of Tijuana.
"I think people are fascinating and I like that my profession allows me to listen to people and hear their stories," he says. "Some of them are heart-wrenching and some are inspiring. I think just by being with them and listening to them and caring for them, that really does more than the needles ever could."