Tom Spicer stared at the 9-year-old boy lying on his table. It was his first patient at La Clinica de Mariposa in Costa Rica and the only thing he could think was, “Oh, no.”
Contorted with cerebral palsy and mentally retarded, Phillip was a far cry from the patients Dr. Spicer, a November 2004 chiropractic graduate from Northwestern Health Sciences University, had seen during his internships. Nothing in his training prepared him for the feeling of abject helplessness he felt as he looked at Phillip. There would be no gradual wading into chiropractic. No, Dr. Tom Spicer was thrust into his professional career — his doctorhood — by a boy who couldn’t even sit up.
Phillip’s retardation combined with the language barrier created a difficult situation that had to be overcome before Dr. Spicer could begin working on joints that hadn’t moved since Phillip’s birth. He began where he could. He gently stroked the boy’s hair. He looked in his eyes and smiled softly. He murmured reassurances. The boy moaned and looked away, his fear evident. Dr. Spicer felt helpless. In frustration he thought, “This is not what I signed up for… this helpless boy writhing on my table while I don’t have a clue how to help him.”
Eventually a trust was formed and Dr. Spicer was able to begin moving the boy’s thumb. Over two appointments spread out over two days, that was all he was able to accomplish — but for the first time in his life, Phillip could move his thumb.
It wasn’t the miracle Dr. Spicer was hoping for when he decided to go to Costa Rica. But what he didn’t know when he planned his journey was that the miracles would not happen to his patients, but to him.
From Intern to Doctor
It began in September. Tom Davis, DC, a lecturer at Northwestern, brought four chiropractic students and a massage therapy student to Costa Rica for a month-long experience treating the poor at La Clinica de Mariposa. Dr. Spicer — then a T10 student at Northwestern — was one of those students.
Before he left, Dr. Spicer imagined he would learn to be compassionate, to expect the unexpected, to broaden his diagnosis and treatment skills, and to learn to work in “less-than-perfect environmental conditions.” He journaled in the days before he left, pondering how he would be perceived and what he would encounter. But nothing prepared him for the reality of the La Clinica de Mariposa experience.
Several times a year, Dr. Davis brings a handful of students from Northwestern to La Clinica de Mariposa, a traveling clinic that is part of a missionary organization. Doctors from across the globe journey to Costa Rica to provide health care to those in desperate need. The doctors trek from town to town, setting up primitive clinics in churches and schools. Although the doctors are housed in apartments in San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city, the working conditions are rough. The weather is a study in extremes as temperatures reach the upper 90s and stunning downpours rattle the roofs. Biting insects — including tarantulas and ants — are a constant torment. And equipment is limited to adjusting tables and the doctors’ hands, making diagnosis reliant on touch alone.
Dr. Spicer was prepared for the adversity — he knew the trip would be an adventure — but he wasn’t ready for the trusting gazes of his patients; gazes that told him they considered Tom Spicer an experienced doctor.
Although he felt fairly confident in his skills, Dr. Spicer hit sharp reality when his first two patients were plopped on his table, their limbs twisted with cerebral palsy. Sweat beaded on his brow as he realized he had no answers. But as the steady stream of patients flowed in and out of the makeshift examining rooms, he went from uncertain intern to full-fledged doctor. He had no choice — many of the hundreds of patients who flock to La Clinica de Mariposa hadn’t seen a doctor in years, if ever. They were eager for attention and willing to trust the band of chiropractors from the North to ease their pains and help them regain their bodies’ normal functionality.
Dr. Spicer developed a bond with many of his patients, including Michael, a teenager who worked in the fields of San Miguel. He suffered from knee and ankle pain that limited his ability to work. Although he was concerned that the American doctors couldn’t do anything to eliminate the pain, he approached Dr. Spicer. Dr. Spicer adjusted him and sent him home with instructions to come back the next day. Michael said he doubted he would return, but the next day, he was back grinning from ear to ear. For the first time in months he was free of the pain that crippled him. By his third visit to Dr. Spicer, the young man had opened his heart to him, offering the hospitality of his home should Dr. Spicer ever visit Costa Rica again.
The scenario was repeated again and again over the four weeks Dr. Spicer spent in Costa Rica. Suffering, yet trusting, people came looking for healing — and found it from a man who hadn’t yet earned his doctorate.
Witnessing his own healing abilities shocked and amazed Dr. Spicer. In the midst of oppressive heat, venomous insects, limiting language barriers and primitive working conditions, Dr. Spicer learned to trust the only thing he could — himself.
“I now trust my hands and my heart and my head,” says Dr. Spicer. “I now trust how I feel. It’s nice to have X-rays, MRIs and advanced imaging, but for me, I’m now OK with just using my hands.”
Today Dr. Tom Spicer is a different person from the man who traveled to Costa Rica in late September. His experience — which, in the best of circumstances, could be described as an adventure — taught him more about compassion, about diagnosis, and about himself than any number of classes or internships.
“I began each day in Costa Rica nervous and scared. I had no idea what each day would bring — downpours, language barriers, conditions I had never seen. But by the end, I was able to tell myself that it’s going to be OK. I was able to know that I would do OK.
“I went to Costa Rica an intern. I came back a doctor.”