Astoria Characters: The Man Out To Heal the World

At the present moment, Dave Santander is sitting on a bench outside a café sipping herbal tea.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave is working on his master’s degree.

He’s reflecting on his life.

All 30 years of it.

It’s more full than his cup of tea: He’s a college student, commuting to class in Connecticut three times a week, and he’s working a bunch of jobs to pay the rent and the tuition to fuel his ambition.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave grew up in Harriman, New York.

If you’ve taken a Chinese yoga class, stepped into an Uber, stopped into a neighborhood bar for an after-work cocktail or ordered fast food delivered to your apartment, chances are you’ve encountered Dave.

(When he’s a delivery boy, he calls himself “Doctor Pizza Man,” a nickname whose significance will become clear when you know more about him.)

Dave, who is studying traditional Chinese medicine so he can practice bone setting and acupuncture, was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but he spent most of his childhood in Harriman, a village in Orange County, New York, whose population hovers around 2,400.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave’s studying traditional Chinese medicine.

“It’s suburban and rural,” he says, adding that his was a middle-class family with four boys. “It’s baseball and McDonald’s after practice.”

Dave, a bright, shiny new car, followed a rather traditional course: He joined the Boy Scouts and wrestled in high school and didn’t think too long or hard about the Significance of Life.

“When I was getting ready for college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I liked working out, music, art, nature and literature, and I was looking for something that had all of these.”

His first encounter with Asian medicine occurred around the same time. At a family barbecue, a cousin who was studying acupuncture asked Dave to be a practice patient.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave commutes to Connecticut three times a week for classes.

Whether it was his cousin’s lack of experience or his own lack of belief (“I thought it was bullshit,” he says), Dave was suitably unimpressed with the experience and the results.

He went on with his life, finishing a bachelor’s degree in human biology at SUNY Albany and settling in Portland, Oregon, where, for a time, he worked at an outdoors school, getting students in touch with nature.

There just happened to be a famous acupuncture center in the city, and Dave made an appointment. He was hoping simply to alleviate his physical exhaustion.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave will finish his doctorate at the end of the year.

“I practically had an out-of-body experience,”  he says, adding that he took the treatments for a couple of months. “It was like seeing the world for the first time. I saw bright lights, felt fresh air, and my brain was filled with ideas.”

It was one of those ideas that brought him back to the East Coast.

“I decided to go back to school,” he says. “I let all the old go, and all the new came in. I started to train in acupuncture, and my life started to change.”

He moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn and began taking classes at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in New York City.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave wants to heal the world.

He transferred to the University of Bridgeport, where he will graduate in May with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine and then begin work on a doctorate in the same subject that he will complete by the end of the year.

Dave can’t wait to share the medicine.

“I want to do good,” he says.

He has all kinds of ideas about how he can contribute to the well being of his fellow beings; it’s possible that he’ll open a clinic or even create a “floating” center to treat patients.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
He can’t wait to start sharing the medicine.

It will all come in due time.

“My perception of time has changed,” he says. “I used to be focused on the end result, but now there’s no beginning or end.”

He dreams of traveling the world, exchanging ideas – about medicine and culture – with everyone he meets.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Dave: ‘I’ll go where I’m needed.’

Dave, who tends bee hives on the roof of his apartment, likens it to “cross pollination.”

“It’s spiritual pollen,” he says. “Its object is to help, to learn to get better, to change my perspective.”

He’s more than ready to get started.

“There’s suffering everywhere,” he says. “I’ll go where I’m needed.”

Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram,,

Copyright 2020 by Nancy A. Ruhling