Martín Domenech

Ashoka Fellow
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Argentina
Fellow since 1997
This description of Martín Domenech's work was prepared when Martín Domenech was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.

Introduction

Martín "Sacha" Domenech is developing a new way of coping with mental and physical illness through his holistic treatment and recovery program for individuals suffering from drug addiction, HIV/AIDS, and grave psychological disorders, such as depression.

The New Idea

Dismayed by the inability of modern medicine to adequately deal with the emotional, spiritual, as well as physical needs of HIV patients and drug addicts, Sacha Domenech in 1990, started a program, the Hospital of Life, to provide sufferers with alternative therapeutic treatment. Since then, his Hospital of Life has evolved into a comprehensive treatment and recovery program that combines traditional and Western medicines and restores the mind, body, and spirit of its participants. Sacha is helping to rebuild patients' self-esteem, their connection between body and spirit, and most importantly, their hopes for the future, while working to broaden the Argentine medical community's concept of appropriate care for the type of patients he serves.

Sacha has complemented his Hospital of Life project with the School for Mental Health Professionals which trains former patients to provide therapeutic support, in times of crisis, for those suffering from drug addiction, AIDS, and mental disorders. This component of the program provides a vehicle for recovered patients to continue as productive members of society and provides a basis for ongoing support.

The Problem

Despite its many remarkable achievements over the years, modern medicine has drawn a blank when faced with one of the world's most recent, and most frightening, epidemics-- HIV/AIDS. On a global scale, over four million people have died of AIDS-related causes, with seventeen million more infected and an estimated daily infection rate of 8,500. In Argentina alone, some 130,000 individuals carry the HIV virus. Eighty percent of these individuals reside in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area.

Above and beyond the challenge of finding a cure for AIDS remains a more immediate and pressing need: finding a way to ease the pain, suffering and, in many cases, the alienation and confusion experienced on a daily basis by carriers of the virus. Many doctors and hospitals fail to address the psychological and emotional toll of AIDS.

Within this climate, AIDS patients often feel abandoned, ashamed, and depressed. The tendency of Western medicine to divorce care of the body from that of the spirit does little to resolve these issues.

A similar downward spiral occurs with drug addicts and persons suffering from psychological disorders. Feelings of vulnerability, fear, and mistrust often remain unresolved or trivialized within the prevailing doctor/patient treatment paradigm. Processes of physical decay are accompanied by periods of emotional struggle. Faced with the prospect of prolonged physical suffering and death, patients are often left alone to cope with the emotional and spiritual impact of their condition.

The Strategy

Through a unique combination of traditional plant remedies, meditation techniques, immersion in nature, and peer support, Sacha sets patients on a path of emotional, spiritual, and, in the case of drug addicts, physical recovery. First, he brings them to a site called Ayllu Tinkuy (roughly translated from Quechua to mean "Community Meeting"), located 500 kilometers north of Buenos Aires. All patients come voluntarily, often with the encouragement and financial support of their friends and family. Patient groups of fewer than ten people at a time stay for seven or fifteen days, depending on the gravity of the illness. At the Ayllu, patients embark upon a personal one to twelve month recovery process, together with others suffering from the same illness. The process begins with detoxification of the body through fasting, sweating, and herbal treatments. By altering the patient's metabolism, these treatments help to restore the body's chemical balance. Once purified, the patient begins to reclaim his or her sense of self. Through sports and exercise, the patient gets in touch with his or her physical side; through outdoors activities such as planting and wood-cutting, he or she connects with nature.

Also as part of the treatment cycle, patients may elect to spend five days in silence at a monastery in Buenos Aires. The patients are welcomed as guests by the monks and participate in the daily life of the monastery. Activities at the monastery consist of chanting, readings, lectures, meditation, and personal reflection. During their stay, patients are required to keep a vow of silence, with the exception of conversation with their assigned spiritual advisor. This opportunity to spend time in silence allows patients to process and strengthen the thoughts, feelings, and coping mechanisms which they developed at the Ayllu.

A third aspect of Sacha's Hospital of Life project is the School for Mental Health Professionals. This portion of the project consists of training former patients to provide therapeutic support, in times of crisis, for those suffering from drug addiction, AIDS, and mental disorders. This intensive training program lasts for four years and currently hosts some 80 students. The students attend clinical theory courses twice a week and then meet in small groups of ten to further discuss the material and training for crisis situations.

On a monthly basis, the Hospital of Life works with an average of 50 to 70 families and hopes to increase this number to 100. Also in the short term, Sacha plans to move the Hospital's treatment and recovery center closer to Buenos Aires, to extend his patient outreach efforts and to further build the clinical, pedagogical, and research capacities of his model. Over the long term, Sacha hopes to establish ties outside of Argentina, both with indigenous communities whose traditional medicine practices might enrich those of the Hospital of Life and with new potential patient groups among whom he might replicate his model.

The Person

Sacha, whose nickname means "mountain" in Quechua, is an introspective, gentle, and profoundly spiritual man. Over the past twenty years, Sacha has traveled extensively throughout Latin America, visiting indigenous and rural communities and learning about traditional ways of life. He travels out of curiosity, a passion for knowledge, and a desire to help others. Each of the fifteen trips he has taken lasts an average of two to three months. He took his first trip at age eighteen and has always traveled alone, believing that solitude enriches his experience of immersion in native cultures. Through his travels, Sacha has accumulated a vast pool of knowledge about traditional medicines and indigenous treatment techniques. He also learned a great deal about meditation and spiritual contemplation during his two-year stay at an Argentine monastery.

In the midst of these travels, Sacha returned to school and completed a degree in clinical psychology. Although this academic training provided him with a more traditional perspective through which to explore the minds and psyche of his patients, he failed to find an ultimate healing power in these methods. A year after receiving his degree, he started the Hospital of Life.