My Chiropractic Short Term Mission to Poland

This chiropractic short term mission trip I took to Poland was one of the highlights of my career.

DAY 1: I arrive in Warsaw after a 10 hour flight from Chicago. The weather is a cool 32 degrees F with gray skies and is a fitting tribute to my preconceived image of Poland from watching black and white movies and documentaries about WW2 that show Nazis shivering in concrete bunkers guarding concentration camps. I soon enter reality when we are stuck in a traffic jam in thriving Warsaw and I see sharply dressed people talking on cell phones. I am with Dr. Jerry Zelm, a chiropractor from Oconomowoc, WI and Dr. Tom Feldman from Stoughton, WI. They both have been on these types of trips several times and that helps me feel safe. We are members of the Christian Chiropractors Association and are on a short term mission. Our purpose is to provide chiropractic care in this country of 40 million people, which has only two chiropractors, and to help spread the word about Jesus Christ. We are being guided by locals affiliated with Christian Youth Ministry. Their purpose is to promote evangelical churches in Poland.

Although 95% of the Polish people claim to be Catholic, most do not follow biblical principles and cling to traditions that many times hamper their relationship with Jesus. Our guides plan on using us to draw people to these new churches to ease fears and motivate revival. My companions warn me to expect a flood of patients. Dr. Zelm hits me with some bad news. We’ve been sitting in the plane for 10 hours and we must now be driven another 3 hours to our first assignment. On the way I come to experience what Dr. Zelm also warned me about. He said many of the people we will be treating are suffering from chronic injuries due to numerous traffic accidents and bad roads. I’ve never seen such wild driving on dark, narrow, pot-holed roads. They try to calm me by saying our driver, David, is one of the better drivers available. We are jarred several times as the driver must dodge people walking in dark clothes on these unlit highways. Only one of 4 Polish people own cars. By the end of the 3 hour drive I need chiropractic treatment myself; the Fiat we were in had terrible suspension. The grueling trip is made worthwhile when we are greeted by a lovely school teacher at our destination named Stephania whose hospitality is surpassed only by her cooking.

The aroma of a homemade meal upon entering her home eases all of us. She serves us a traditional Polish spread of borscht, stuffed cabbage, meat balls, potatoes, pickles, tomatoes and bread. It was exactly what I needed except for their inability to stop putting more food on my plate. I soon waddle off to bed.

DAY 2: Upon awakening I am called to breakfast consisting of cheese, tomatoes, and bread. I and the other chiropractors laugh about the toilet paper — very rough like sand paper! The bathroom had three different rolls which I said was 60, 80, and 120 grit to be chosen depending on your circumstance! We are soon rushed off to or first assignment, a church in this ancient town called Biata Podlaska, population 30,000. We are in eastern Poland 20 miles from the border of Ukraine.

We carry our portable adjusting tables past a crowd of people at the church entrance who have been waiting for us. I soon notice a profound effect of treating patients in this country in which chiropractors have not been persecuted: we are extremely appreciated and respected. There are no chiropractic adversaries here partly because of the shortage of chiropractors and also the state run health system does not view us as competition. Although many of the patients today have sought us for relief of their back, neck, shoulder, knee and headaches; many also are seeking our help for digestive, breathing, and circulatory problems. Word has gotten out among the population from previous chiropractic mission trips that chiropractic treatment can at times be an alternative to pills or surgery for many health problems. Even more amazing is that many people have brought all their babies and children, often times to be adjusted for prevention of health problems. I’ve practiced chiropractic for 17 years and can claim many fantastic experiences in my office but this was unbelievable. This is what all chiropractors dream of. I’ve heard business management gurus advocate “getting lost in service.” I’m sure this day is what they refer to as the day flew by. We tallied about 300 patients. The line of people seemed to never let up. We finally threw in the towel at 8 PM feeling near exhaustion.

Many people were told to come tomorrow. Some cases were memorable. A 12 year old boy was carried in by his teary eyed mother. He was disabled since birth, very weak, unable to walk or talk. After his adjustment he was able to pick his head up better and appeared more comfortable. The mother was so impressed she came back later with the grandmother who also wanted treatment. Another mother came with her 2 son’s age 22 and 17. My interpreter, Magda, said they came a great distance even though they were very poor and had no transportation. The older son could hardly walk explaining he had extreme spinal stiffness for 6 years. The medical doctors diagnosed him as “stiff” and had no answers. He brought x-rays which we had to hold up to the light of the window for viewing. We saw no pathologies. He was so bent over he was unable to lay flat. We all struggled to lay him sideways and Dr. Zelm did an adjustment called “atlas toggle.” He came back later in the day for more treatment with some relief and a smile. The younger brother had the start of the same trouble but was adjusted much easier full spine. The mother was so impressed she brought us gifts of homemade pickled mushrooms and bags of pumpkin seeds for snacking. Many patients were also extremely thankful. Some came from as far away as the neighboring countries of Belarus and Ukraine.

None were asked for any money but we were later told that several hundred dollars were given by the end of the day to the church by these grateful yet poor people. Unemployment in this town is above 20%. The average salary is about 400 dollars a month. I adjusted a medical doctor who never had chiropractic treatment before. He wanted to be treated for prevention. I wanted someone to pinch me and wake me up from this dream. Later, my interpreter told me their national health system is very accessible but there is much bribery to get good service. Many patients brought x-rays and MRI scans wanting to know if they needed the surgeries as recommended by their MDs. Most of these did not appear to need surgery. We adjusted them and taught them what we could in regard to exercise rehabilitation and lifestyle changes. We wished we had more time. We were frequently asked when we were coming back.

The local newspaper editor came to take pictures of us and write a story. [Some reading this may wonder what good does treating these people once accomplish. About half the patients treated said they had chiropractic treatment the last time a chiropractic mission came here and most reported that it helped them immensely. So, we do what we can. There is no doubt more would be better for them. Also, all of us chiropractors notice that the patients definitely seem to adjust easier and respond faster than our American patients. We attribute this to their more active lifestyle which includes walking and bicycling since there are fewer cars. We also notice their diets are healthier than ours; for example, a high percentage raises their own vegetables, chickens, and pigs. They can’t afford to buy chemical fertilizers so they use a lot of compost and manure. We assume their food has more mineral content because of this. Lastly, we notice few people on prescription medications compared to our patients back home. We have long suspected that heavy use of prescription drugs hampers the innate ability of the human body to heal.] We laughed during a wonderful Polish dinner about a lady who dropped her skirt, underwear included, in the crowded treatment room when she wanted Dr. Tom Feldman to check her knee problem!

Polish people waiting in line for their chiropractic adjustments.

DAY 3: It’s snowing here. They tell me this area is known as Polish Siberia. We attend service at the same church we worked at yesterday and are told there is much higher attendance today because of what went on yesterday. The medical doctor I treated is there and he spoke at the pulpit praising our chiropractic abilities. Dr. Jerry Zelm volunteered to sing a beautiful song and the people are amazed at his talent. The pastor named Costic presented us with small wooden barrels as a gift. He said he wanted us to always remember them when we eat sour kraut which they locally call “kapusta” here and make in wooden barrels. After the church service we are escorted back to our treatment tables where another crowd of people with children are waiting. One of the first patients is the medical doctor I treated yesterday; he’s back for another adjustment. There are many interesting cases, many bearing gifts like apples and chocolate.

“Gene kuja bardzo” they tell us over and over which means “thank you very much” in Polish. Several more children are carried in with things like birth defects and paralysis. We adjust them and pray for improvement. Dr. Jerry Zelm witnesses an amazing improvement in a young girl’s crippled leg after adjusting her. Pastor Costic, who was interpreting for him at the time, shed tears. Afternoon arrives and we must move on to our next assignment. We are taken back to Stephania’s home to pack up and are treated to a large Polish meal of Kluski noodle soup, chicken, various salads, and deserts. My belt feels a little tighter each day! During the meal says she received a phone call from one of the ladies I treated yesterday. The patient claims her blood pressure has improved and she feels much better. As I am waiting for our van to be packed I take a short walk and notice almost every home has a large garden, some have pigs and chickens. I smell soot as the homes are heated with coal and wood. On the way to our next church in Warsaw our driver David tells us about his experience growing up during communist times. He says his father was interviewed monthly by the KGB due to his refusal to join the communist party. He tells us of long lines at stores with empty shelves and how everyone had a job but many had nothing to do except sit around. He tells us things are much better now but Poland is still struggling and there is much controversy about whether Poland should join the European Union.

We have polish pizza for dinner which was quite different but good. Over dinner we laugh about our attempt to speak more Polish which is a difficult language. One chiropractor tried to tell a patient to turn over on her back. Later he found out he really said “you have a large bottom”! I tried to say “prosha” to a patient which means “you’re welcome” but I mistakenly said “proshe” which means “pig”! We stay the night in a bleak dormitory built during communist times.

Polish people crowding a room waiting for an adjustment.

DAY 4: After a large breakfast buffet which included cucumbers and tomatoes we arrive at our second church assignment. People are lined up waiting so we quickly set up our portable adjusting tables and get to work. The patients here in Poland’s largest city and capital, Warsaw, population 2 million are very different from those in the smaller town we came from. These patients are higher educated, younger, and many speak decent English. They mainly have subluxations (misalignments) of their upper spines which they attribute to their office jobs and computer work. Many complain of numbness in their hands which responds well to adjustments to the upper spine and wrists. One memorable case is a 38 year old mother of 2 with a tremor in her right hand she says started when she gave birth 3 years ago. The medical doctors gave her medication for her brain which she refused to take. Her friend who belongs to this church told her to come here and get adjustments. After her treatment she notices improvement and wants to know when she can get another. Dr. Jerry Zelm greets a lady who has come for an adjustment claiming she was treated by his brother, Dr. Alan Zelm, here in Poland. She expresses much gratitude and explains that she could not walk before that first adjustment and was about to have surgery. She walked right in for this adjustment today and wanted a tune-up. She brought her husband to be adjusted also.

We finish by 1 PM having treated about 100 patients. We pack quickly and travel to our next destination which will be a 3 hour drive north. This time our driver is Danielle, a wilder driver than the last! In a tight squeeze he side swipes another vehicle and damages the driver’s side mirror. We later see a severe accident on the side of the highway complete with corpse covered nearby — boots sticking out. This seems to make him slow down for the rest of the trip. We arrive at a town of 40,000 called Ostroda and will stay the night in meager dormitories above the church. A church attendant tells us to expect a busy day tomorrow because both the local radio and television stations featured stories about our arrival. We take a walk before bed and notice signs posted on trees besides the road. Our interpreter Danielle reads them: Chiropractors Available Tomorrow! Everyone welcome! We decide to adjust each other and go to bed.

Sign posted around town "Chiropractors coming tomorrow!"

Lots of fantastic food in Poland!

DAY 5: We awaken to the first blue sky and sunshine since arriving. The temperature is around F. 20 I take a short walk before breakfast and see many people walking to their jobs and school. Few cars are on the roads, most are very tiny Fiats. Breakfast is cheese bread and very milky oatmeal, like soup. We are watched by a dozen elderly disabled people who live in the church dormitory. After breakfast I look outside and see a line of people waiting for their adjustments. Our three portable adjusting tables are set up this time in the church sanctuary which feels very odd. The tables are soon filled with patients.

Most of the patients today are elderly and none speak English. Many of them bring x-rays and MRI scans since they have previously sought help at the state run hospital. Many have been told to have surgery on their spines which they refuse to do. Upon analysis, most look like they can be helped and they are eager to be adjusted. Many say they feel better quickly and express their appreciation with kisses on our cheeks. One elderly gentleman, 84 with a long white beard brings out his mandolin and plays us several Polish tunes, he then goes on to play a harmonica, and then an accordion. He then pulls out a small piece of tree bark that fits in his mouth and looks like a turkey call and again plays beautiful music. Lastly, he pulls a leaf off a small tree and puts it in his mouth for even more astonishing music. One of the interesting cases is a 38 year old man, disabled with back and neck pain for several years. He has been told by the state run medical plan that he must have spinal surgery or lose his disability payments. The x-rays and MRI scan he brought clearly show no need for surgery. I adjust him and he moves better right away. He wants to come tomorrow before we leave.

A lady tells Dr. Jerry Zelm about her health problems. She works in the bakery across the street. He then says, “If I cure you will you bring us some bakery?”. They both laugh. Ten minutes later I see a large platter of assorted Polish pastries brought in! The church provides lunch for us at noon and I’m amazed at the many different things I’ve never seen before. All extremely good and so unique I had to take a picture of my plate. Even the drink was a hot pear juice with chunks of pear in it! Supper was just as good. I had to take more pictures of the food. The pastor was laughing at me. In the evening we walked to the downtown area which appeared quite prosperous. Our interpreter took us to an old fortification built by Teutonic knights in the 16th century.

We walk down a dark staircase and open a creaky, heavy wooden door, entering a dimly lit room that looked like a dungeon. Here is a Polish tavern and we drink steaming hot Polish beer with herbs and spices. Very good stuff, unfortunately I forget what they call it. While we are enjoying it a man walks up to us and says he is an American who moved his boat building business here. He says he enjoys the cheap labor costs ($1.75 per hour), low income taxes (20% cap), and low living expenses ($100/month apartments and $6 excellent meals). I get visions of moving to Poland! We purchase raspberry filled doughnuts they call paczai. Dr. Jerry Zelm, age 61, keeps us laughing almost constantly. I can’t remember laughing this much. I had to wipe my eyes several times. He finds humor in almost everything. He also snores like a diesel tractor going up a mountain. I’m glad I brought ear plugs! Dr. Tom Feldman, age 35, is quieter but has lots of interesting stories about the many mission trips he has been on. He is single so everyone keeps trying to get him married. He is seriously considering moving to Poland and marrying a local. He understands and speaks pretty good Polish just from coming on several of these trips.

DAY 6: I awaken to the sound of revelry coming through the slightly opened window. There is a military base across the street that reminds me of a concentration camp with its fencing and large tall chimney bellowing black smoke. After breakfast I peek out the back door and see a line of people waiting for their adjustments. The three of us stay busy right up to lunch time. One of the ladies I treated yesterday with hands so numb and tingling they keep her awake at night came back today for another adjustment. She said she had a good night’s sleep for the first time in a long time. Another lady I treated yesterday with major pain throughout her whole body tells me she feels better today and wants another adjustment. The 38 year old man I treated yesterday who is on disability says he feels better. Another lady brought us a box of Polish chocolates. Several patients tell me they heard there were chiropractors here thanks to the local television station broadcast. Many of the patients today are professionals like dentists, nurses, attorneys, etc. Nobody today spoke any English but I’ve been learning many Polish words and can work pretty well without the interpreter. The pastor said he had to pass out numbers to the waiting patients because two fights broke out in line. The lunch is again unbelievable accompanied by some kind of hot apple drink with chunks of cooked apples in it.

We pack up and say good-bye. We now must drive 3 hours to our next assignment and treat patients this evening. On the way I notice several young ladies standing on the edge of the highway, in the middle of nowhere, each evenly spaced about a mile apart. Our driver says these are Russian and Bulgarian prostitutes all controlled by the Mafia. We stop for coffee at a diner half way which is a Russian airliner parked next to the highway and converted into a restaurant, complete with original seats! At the church in Warsaw this evening we saw more patients. One lady baked us a heart shaped cake. Another brought us handmade Christmas ornaments. Many of the people bring their children to be adjusted. This continues to amaze me because it’s a real battle to teach people in the US that this is a good thing. I’ll never tell a Polish joke again! In fact they tell me that in Europe the Poles are respected as being very intelligent and hard workers. It’s the Russians that are picked on here.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more interesting, a patient tells us his seven week old child is in the hospital because of a severe reaction to the DPT vaccine and ear infections. He drives us to the hospital and we sneak in about 10 PM. I adjusted the baby and Dr. Jerry Zelm adjusted the mother who has been sitting and lying on the floor there all day. We all prayed that the baby will be better soon.

Adjusting a baby after sneaking into a hospital.

DAY 7: We are driven to a breakfast buffet at a local hotel. One of the waitresses hears that we are chiropractors from the US. She tells our interpreter about her shoulder pain, difficulty doing her job, sleeping, etc. Dr. Jerry Zelm springs to action. We are surprised to hear the lady has her x-rays with her at work! We view the x-rays with the light of a window. Dr. Zelm adjusts the waitress in a side room as the other waiters and waitresses look on. Soon they all line up for their adjustments from “Americans Kiropraskor.” He treated about 20 people before he could get back to his breakfast. They are so overjoyed with how good they feel, they tell us to come back again for free meals next time.

We have a little time for sightseeing today, so our guides take us to a huge flea market with many bizarre things such as Russian military relics. Dr. Zelm buys some old watches that say “KGB” and some old Russian medals. I bought some gifts. We are then taken to “Old Towne” in central Warsaw. It’s about 700 years old complete with remnants of its double medieval wall. We stop at a museum and see a short movie about the history of Warsaw -very interesting.  We are next driven one hour to the village of Zackochele. Along the way I see lots of Polish people out in the farm fields picking up scraps of corn from the ground after the harvest. I also see people in the woods picking up mushrooms. We also notice lots of scantily dressed women evenly spaced along the highway again even though it’s cold outside. Zackochele means “behind the church.”On the top of a small hill we see a small church. Dr. Tom Feldman and I hike to it. It was built in 1163!

We are given another fabulous lunch upon our return. Polish people eat their largest meals at lunch. We are staying at a Christian Youth Center. Here youth from around Poland come on one week retreats to recreate and study the Bible. We soon see people from the village lining up in the lobby for their adjustments. We all stay quite busy through the evening. One family with 3 children has driven 3 1/2 hours to come for their adjustments.

Adjusting in the church.

DAY 8: We arise early and our guide drives us out into the countryside to visit the ruins of a castle built in the 16th century. He next takes us to see concrete bunkers in the woods left over from WW2. One of the bunkers is 1/2 mile long and made to hide an entire Nazi train. He then shows us a tunnel which I climb down until I see water. He says this was Nazi General Himmler’s secret underground bunker which goes down 5 stories and is now flooded. The land owner has been trying to drain it and reach the lower levels but with no success. After breakfast we go back to the airport and return home. This was one of the most incredible experiences of my career. We estimate we treated close to 1000 patients. We felt the presence of God in everything we did and give glory to his name. It’s a blessing to be a Christian Chiropractor.

To learn more about Christian chiropractic short term missions contact the Christian Chiropractors Association.

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Practice on,

Dr Tom Potisk

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Categories: Mission trip to Poland.


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