Dr. Donna Chacko lived in Kairos and worked as a family doctor at Christ House as part of the residential community from 2003-2010. She continued working at Columbia Road Health Services until 2013, when she retired from clinical medicine. Now she promotes health of body, mind, and spirit through her website (serenityandhealth.com), blog, and various programs at her church. She lives with her husband, Wilbur Turner, Sr. in University Park, Maryland.
I am thrilled to write this blog post for the Christ House family. During my forty years of doctoring, first as a radiation oncologist, and later as a family medicine doctor, I learned much about health and about people. I learned that patients and their families are unbelievably resilient as they deal with illness and suffering. In Washington, I learned how stress can devastate health.
In trying to understand my patients, their stress, and their suffering, I came to learn about the interactions between mind, body, and spirit—how sometimes these interactions can create a painful tangle that is hard to unravel. It was after I left Christ House that I learned something that helped me better understand these tangles—it was Adverse Child Events, known as ACEs.
I remember when I first learned about ACEs. I sat bolt upright, stunned. “So, that’s what was going on in Washington!” While working at Columbia Road Health Services and at Christ House, I saw patients with so many problems that it was hard to keep track of them all. Like Sra. Guiterrez*, a middle aged lady who cleaned houses. She had high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, severe liver disease, chronic arm pain, and then she got cancer. Or, Joe. He used to have a decent job in construction. But then he had an accident and couldn’t work. He lost his apartment, became homeless and started drinking. He had chronic bronchitis, high blood pressure, peripheral vascular disease, a chronic skin condition, thyroid disease, prostatitis, and depression. Why so many diseases? Lifestyle choices, stress, poverty, or access to healthcare? Yes, these were big factors. But I remember thinking there must be something more. The answer came from the large research project (1995-1997) that first described ACEs**. The results showed that childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma are common and that these experiences predict a higher risk of problems for these children as they grow up. The higher the ACE score, the greater the risk of negative outcomes, such as mental and physical illnesses, addictions, obesity, higher accident rates, and shorter lives. High ACE scores also correlate with less healthy decision making, more risky behaviors, and epigenetic changes*** which can even be passed to the next generation.
Do not be dejected about these findings. Instead rejoice that now we have research findings and facts that can help us recognize and understand ACEs. With this information we can better prevent ACEs from occurring and promote healing for those suffering the adverse effects of childhood trauma, abuse and neglect. Even though the origins of ACEs are sometimes rooted in a multigenerational pattern of violence, poverty, addiction, or discrimination, they can be prevented. A plethora of new programs work to increase awareness of the problem. If families in crisis or children at-risk can be identified, they can be helped by educational programs, referrals for counseling, or social service interventions. Trauma awareness is being taught to educators, church staff, social workers, case managers, and health-care personnel. The research findings will hopefully facilitate appropriate funding for these programs.
Most importantly, the adverse effects created by ACEs can be healed. Many of you have already seen or experienced this healing at Christ House. Think of the love, respect, and caring touch of caregivers; the counseling and educational programs; the activities and creative outlets; the church and prayer services; the balm of community and friendship; and, the 12-step meetings. The book Childhood Disrupted, by Donna Jackson Nakazawa, reviews how practices like these can heal in ways medicines never can.
There is a powerful tool we all have that can help heal the damage created by ACEs. If we find ourselves feeling judgmental about someone’s behaviors, attitudes, addictions, language, obesity, or habits, we need to remember ACEs. We have not walked in that person’s shoes, and we do not know the terrible places he or she may have walked. If we treat everyone with love and respect the way Jesus did, we will get this right. We will make a difference.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had to be a part of the Christ House community. I learned so much. Not just from the patients— but also from the staff, some who have devoted years of loving service to this ministry. They wouldn’t like it if I named them, but you know who they are.
May God bless all of you.
P.S. I write about subjects like this on my blog at serenityandhealth.com and last year I wrote about Christ House at https://www.serenityandhealth.com/blog-post/slow-medicine-at-christ-house. I invite you to check it out and let me know what you think. Also, please enjoy the random assortment of old photos that I found which are featured below.
* The patients described are fictional composites of Dr. Chacko’s actual patients.
See more on ACEs from Donna’s blog: https://www.serenityandhealth.com/blog-post/2rdjdkozt4r1jrtjfa836jf6niqg7k-3e7kt