Having lived with the lingering anguish that comes from experiencing trauma of one kind or another, Karen W. Henderson has a heart for anyone who dwells in that world of pain, particularly military veterans.
They may be restless, irritable or angry, Henderson said. Relationships can be difficult.
“Some might be depressed or not interacting in life at all,” she said. “Some might seem ready to explode and not understanding what’s happening to them.”
Henderson, 63, a veterinarian by training who served in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, did not begin to find peace in her life until she took a holistic approach — which included noninvasive therapies — to the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that plagued her. She is now trying to make those sorts of services available through the Veterans Resiliency Holistic Clinic, a monthly gathering of practitioners that she launched this year.
“PTSD can be so isolating,” she said. “Trying to find a community where you’re understood and don’t feel like an outcast is very difficult. We would like to build that community.”
The clinic is held on the fourth Wednesday of each month at Unity of Richmond Church, 800 Blanton Ave. Therapies offered include acupuncture, herbalism, mindfulness, reflexology and yoga, as well as craniosacral therapy, a gentle, hands-on treatment that works to alleviate restrictions impeding the proper function of the nervous system, and somatic experiencing, which aims to restore inner balance, resilience and vitality to the nervous system.
Henderson serves as project coordinator and craniosacral therapist. She and the other practitioners are all volunteers. There is no charge for the services, though a $25 donation is suggested. However, no one is turned away based on their ability to pay.
Jared Smyser, a Marine who served in Iraq, volunteers at the clinic as a certified wellness coach. He said Henderson’s drive to help veterans is “contagious and inspiring.”
“She seems to have a very good balance of conventional as well as holistic knowledge and experience,” said Smyser, who found alternative medicine to be helpful as he dealt with his own post-traumatic stress. “We’re seeing both kind of play off each other more and more.”
Henderson, who lives in Caroline County, does not like to speak in specifics about the trauma she experienced, other than to say it was many years ago and it led to a long period of not knowing what was troubling her.
“I did not understand the struggles I was going through and why I had changed so much as a person,” she said. “It robbed me of a piece of myself, and I did not understand what was happening to me after the trauma was over.”
Henderson described herself as “a very high-functioning trauma survivor” who immersed herself into work and career because that’s what she thought she was supposed to do.
“I knew something was wrong, but … that I needed to just be strong and press on,” she said.
She later worked for more than 20 years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But it wasn’t until she began treatments for what a rare progressive lung disease — pulmonary lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) — that she began to address other issues that had surfaced through the years, she said.
At one point, she became so ill that she had to retire from her job at the USDA. She later attended massage therapy school — in part, she said, because she didn’t want to “sit around doing nothing, waiting to die” — which launched her exploration of holistic modalities for her own condition. There is no known cure for the disease, and she believed conventional medicine had not been successful in slowing the progression of her disease, but she found the holistic approaches were “very helpful in my disease not progressing.”
“But that’s my opinion because the medical profession may find other explanations for that,” she said.
She also discovered the lung disease fed the symptoms of PTSD, and the PTSD fed the symptoms of the lung disease. She discovered the holistic approach was helpful in addressing both.
She went on to earn degrees in therapeutic herbalism and public health and become a craniosacral therapist and a certified massage therapist. She also became a firm believer in the importance of keeping the nervous system in balance and regulated.
She came up with the idea for a monthly clinic in which veterans or their family members can come and experience from among the offerings that they believe might be helpful. The clinic is under the wing of Herbalists Without Borders, an international nonprofit organization that is a global network of volunteers providing care to communities affected by trauma of all types.
Talia Moser, a certified reflexologist, is one of the volunteer practitioners. Reflexology is a natural healing art based on the principle that all parts of the body have a corresponding reflex point in the feet and hands, and Moser said she had been wanting to work with veterans willing to try a natural approach to their treatment when she learned Henderson was starting the clinic.
“She’s really down to earth and very fair, and she tries to think of all the different angles of people’s participation,” Moser said. “I just really like her manner.”
Henderson said that she and the others who volunteer at the clinic “treat people and not diseases” and that they “do not replace anybody in the medical field.”
“I want people to come and try us and see whether or not this is something that can support them in their journey,” she said. “I call it a journey to wholeness.”