Della Estrada and four other bilingual acupuncturists are getting ready to bring their ancient healing art to some of the hemisphere's poorest and most desperate people. Acupuncture International Relief Workers will travel the week of Feb. 20 to a remote area in the Mexican state of Chiapas to conduct two weeks of free clinics and training in auricular acupuncture for local health-care workers. The region was ravaged in October by Hurricane Stan, which dropped 2 feet of rain in four days over much of Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras, causing widespread flooding and landslides. The storm washed out a quarter of Chiapas' roads, swept away houses, fields and whole towns, destroyed more than 100 schools and left thousands homeless. The AIRW trip is being arranged by the Sexto Sol Center for Community Action, a nonprofit community-development and relief organization with headquarters in Mesa (www.sextosol.org). Hurricane relief in the region is ongoing; tax-deductible contributions can be made to Sexto Sol or to AIRW, 322-6806.

How did you get the idea to do this?

Our founder, Mary Dolores Diaz, was born in Honduras. She's an acupuncturist who has lived in the U.S. for many years, but after Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, she wanted to help--the suffering was tremendous. She organized a group of practitioners to go down to treat people using auricular acupuncture (acupuncture of the ear) and train health-care workers there to do it. The group has gone back to Honduras every year, and the program has taken root there. I've been a couple of times, and it has been amazing.

Why Chiapas?

Last year, I happened to meet the people who run Sexto Sol. After Hurricane Stan hit, they begged us to come. They have a really sad situation there.

Why auricular acupuncture?

It's a simple, effective treatment for stress, and after a disaster like Hurricane Stan, you've got people walking around with every symptom of stress you can imagine: insomnia, headaches, stomachaches--just terrible discomfort. It's hard enough to get your life back together when you've lost everything; stress makes it that much harder. I think that we in this country understand that much better than we did a few years ago. There have been suicides in Chiapas because of the hurricane. Anything that relieves suffering is a help.

Why does putting needles in someone's ear help relieve stress?

Exactly why? I can't tell you. It releases endorphins in the brain--that's been proven--but the exact mechanism isn't totally understood, as far as I know. Of course this is very old Chinese medicine that's been tested on who knows how many million patients. This particular protocol, needling five specific points on the ear, is now a medically accepted treatment for addiction in the United States. We teach the auricular protocol because it works, and it is simple--there's no way we can teach all of Chinese medicine in a week. But basically, anyone who's had any type of acupuncture can tell you that it's soothing, that they felt better afterwards. All acupuncture relieves discomfort, normalizes blood pressure and calms the mind.

Are these poor, Latin-American people leery of the treatment?

They are incredibly trusting. The local health-care workers we train--doctors, nurses, health promoters, indigenous healers, even dentists--are enthusiastic, because it's affordable and fast, and even with just these five points, they can really help their patients. Someone's got a headache all the time, and you make that go away--you've improved that person's life. I remember one young mother in Honduras who was about the most stressed-out human being I've ever seen--she'd lost her family and her home in Mitch. Then her sister, the only person she had left, disowned her. Her eyes were nearly fixed, and she could barely breathe. While I worked on her, I coached her in deep breathing. The next day, she came in and she was so much better, so much more able to cope. I can't tell you how rewarding this work is. After Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, more of us are aware that the suffering of disaster survivors may last for years. Many acupuncturists volunteered to help the rescue workers at Ground Zero, and the media covered it, which really increased understanding of that in this country.