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  Home > Publications > Gateway to Research & Inventions > Linda Halcón
At Home in the Moment
Linda Halcón helps communities find their own paths to health

Mani wheels in Dharamsala


Halcón in Peru

I understand my role as one of helping people see their own health so they can discover their own solutions. --Linda Halcón

Halcón in Iquitos, Peru

Linda Halcón



In Dharamsala, India, home of the Tibetan government in exile, travelers find rows of mani wheels mounted next to paths. Spinning the wheels, also known as prayer wheels, invites the blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. But the wheels also represent movement and travel-visitors spin the wheels as they walk slowly around sacred sites recreating Buddha's clockwise path around the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment.

Buddhist monks also carry handheld mani wheels on long pilgrimages. Along with the wheel, most carry much less than a Westerner could imagine--sometimes only an alms bowl. But what they bring and where they go are far less important than what they think. Using one of Buddha's core teachings--With our thoughts, we make our world--these monks strive to always embrace the present moment.

Linda Halcón, associate professor of nursing, follows a similar path. She began her career helping people in Minneapolis. Since then she has traveled the world working to improve the health of communities in need. Her research and outreach work have taken her to Madagascar, Kenya, Sudan, Iraq, Peru, and Dharamsala, India. She has worked out of army tents, an embassy, a hotel, a family residence, small planes, and trucks.

Today she works out of a sixth-floor office on the east bank of the Minneapolis campus. She is satisfied with where she has landed and she is embracing the present moment. And she is again working to improve the health of people in need here in Minnesota.

What guides your world

The Twin Cities are home to thousands of refugees from countries with a history of government or clan-based torture of citizens. For these refugees, time and physical distance will never undo the past. The memories, both physical and mental, can't be simply left behind at the airport. The additional strains of living so far from home in a new culture, climate, and civil system make life even more of a challenge.

Halcón and fellow nursing professor Cheryl Robertson hope that an innovative intervention can help. Supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, they are assessing the feasibility and acceptability of the Health Realization intervention in Somali and Oromo refugee women.

The intervention, which has shown promising results in a variety of settings and populations, teaches people to manage intrusive thoughts by simply acknowledging rather than reacting to them. It helps people to view thoughts as just thoughts--nothing more. And over time, practitioners learn that with their thoughts, they make their worlds.

Halcón and Robertson believe this intervention can give people the power to recover from the past and improve their own lives. "This health realization model is about taking charge of your life--about how what you think guides your world," she said. For her, this project is another step in her own journey to help create a healthier and more livable world for disadvantaged communities.

The real revolution

Halcón has always been drawn to community outreach work. In the late 1970s and early 1980s she used her nursing degree working as a sexually-transmitted-disease clinician, a nurse counselor for sexual assault victims, a chemical dependency staff nurse, and a college health nurse. In 1987, after completing a master's degree in public health, she moved with her husband to Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa. While he worked as an architect with a non-profit architectural service, she worked as the administrator and nurse of the U.S. Embassy health unit. As part of her work there she helped a Malagasy physician to found the country's first chemical dependency treatment program.

From Madascar the couple moved to Kenya where Halcón met a representative from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who convinced her to travel to southern Sudan to help establish a refugee health program. As the project coordinator and nursing supervisor, she helped set up an immunization and child nutrition program.

In all she spent two years in Africa, which made a strong impression on her. "Prior to living in Africa I was full of solutions for the world's problems," said Halcón. The difficulties she faced there, however, left her discouraged and cynical. "Later I regained my optimism about the possibilities for personal and community transformation anywhere in the world under any circumstances, but now I know that the answers are within those communities. I understand my role as one of helping people see their own health so they can discover their own solutions. That is the real revolution."

When Halcón returned to Minnesota she was hired as public health director for Isanti County, just north of the Twin Cities. But the comforts of home were hard to come by. "The biggest shock of living in Africa, especially Madagascar, was the slower pace of life and the pervasive emphasis on relationships over consumerism and materialism," she said. "Afterwards it took me a full two years to readjust to life in Minnesota. I still cannot walk down the cereal isle at the supermarket without cringing."

Not surprisingly then, she again followed a path that led overseas. At the end of the first gulf war she spent one month as medical coordinator for the International Refugee Committee's Kurdish emergency relief program in the town of Zakho in northern Iraq. That program supported the needs of 40,000 refugees.

Her travels then led her from Isanti County and Iraq back to Minneapolis, where she worked at Boynton Health Service, eventually serving as interim director. But by then Halcón had decided to bring her experiences into the classroom. She completed her Ph.D. in epidemiology in 1998, and embraced teaching and research.

One of the first areas of research she explored was the use of botanicals, especially plant essential oils, in treating infectious diseases. She has since earned the A. Marilyn Sime Faculty Research Fellowship and faculty seed grant from the Academic Health Center to pursue this research. "Focusing on plants made no logical sense when I first started my nursing career, looking at the usual modern nursing jobs. But I have since learned that botanical therapies were historically part of independent nursing practice and I would like to revive that tradition," she said.

And because essential oils are inexpensive and accessible without prescription, this research may be particularly relevant to health planning in low income or uninsured populations. "I really believe that the healthcare system needs something different. It needs community-based solutions and alternative therapies," she said.

A simple approach

Halcón's current project with Somali and Oromo refugees began several years ago with the Refugee Population Study, an epidemiological study of refugee trauma survivors from Somalia and Ethiopia living in Minnesota. Epidemiology professor Alan Lifson, and later Dr. James Jaranson, surveyed 1,134 participants and estimated the prevalence of torture and associated physical, psychological, and social problems in these refugees.

When Halcón joined the research team midway as epidemiologist on the project, she felt it was important to build on the survey results to develop an intervention that could address the problems identified. Access to mental health and social services is limited for refugees, and cultural barriers are a major contributor to refugee's reluctance to use Western-style services, despite self-identified psychological and social needs. Therefore, Halcón needed to find an intervention that would be accepted in the Somali and Oromo communities.

She had learned about the Health Realization Model and thought that it had potential because it is a community-oriented, strengths-based approach that helps subjects discover and use their own resilience and coping resources. To test for cultural appropriateness, Somali and Oromo outreach staff were given initial training in the model. "They were incredibly enthusiastic and felt that it has great potential for their people," said Halcón.

Along with pilot testing for feasibility and acceptability, the team is developing a translated training manual in preparation for a full-scale trial of the intervention. "I'm very attracted to this simple approach and its ability to help people to change their lives," said Halcón. "We tend to focus on problems. Science shows us that what we focus on gets bigger. If we focus on a way to enable positive change, we can create that change."

To Dharamsala and back

With her personal focus on outreach, research into alternative medicines, and a penchant for interesting travel destinations, Halcón admits that there have been times when she wondered if an office in academia was the best fit for her. But the University of Minnesota has given her a chance to bring all of her diverse experiences together.

"I really value working with students, and I value being able to do research," she said. "I have always been interested in studying and working in health of disadvantaged populations. I have always viewed botanicals as powerful medicine, especially in their role as sustainable alternatives to rising antibiotic resistance and especially in developing countries. And I have always been interested in infectious diseases. This position allows me the luxury of exploring all of these interests."

This broad-based approach can be seen in her academic appointments. She is a faculty member in the Center for Adolescent Nursing, in the Center for Child and Family Health Promotion Research, in the graduate minor in complementary therapies of the Center for Spirituality and Healing, and she is an adjunct professor in Epidemiology. For Halcón, there is no one solution, no predetermined path. She finds her meanings by looking within, wherever that may take her.

Last year her path took her to Dharamsala, India. The Tibetan government in exile needed an epidemiologist to provide analysis of demographic and health data from 100,000 Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. Halcón sent her C.V. and was accepted. She received a travel grant from the Women's International Science Collaborative of the National Science Foundation, and in January 2004 traveled to Dharamsala, at the base of the Himalayas.

Unfortunately, she quickly discovered that the project required much more than one person could provide. So with permission from the Tibetan Department of Health, she presented the project to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department of International Emergency and Refugee Health. The CDC not only agreed to undertake the project, but they are providing training and development for the Tibetan Department of Health Data Unit. "I couldn't do the project, but I am very proud to have helped get someone with the resources to do this important work," said Halcón. "It's perfect."

Back at the University of Minnesota, she insists that she is done traveling, at least for now. But her previous travels continue to inform her current work. "My experiences abroad definitely encouraged my interest in refugees and their health," said Halcón. "If it was that hard for me to reenter U.S. life with 40 years' prior experience, I wonder what it must be like for new immigrants. I want them to be healthy because I believe all of our collective creativity and commitment is needed to truly move forward in this new millennium."

Staying put does not mean that she is bound by the U.S. metaphor for spinning wheels. Linda Halcón is a citizen of the world and has been to Dharamsala where mani wheels represent greater possibilities. With her thoughts and actions, informed by her past, she is making her world. And in the process, she is helping to make a healthier and more livable world for others.


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