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November 9, 2006

 In the News

I'M ACU-PERFECT!: I just wanted to have someone stick those needles in my face. If I had known I had to first divulge the particulars of my menstrual cycle -- clots? color? pain? crying jags?-- or my digestive feats, maybe I would've passed up the treatment. But there I was on a Monday afternoon sitting very close to a slim, dark-haired 30-something man with cute glasses and probably the calmest, warmest demeanor I've ever come across. I was telling him that there was really nothing wrong with my health, I just wanted the needles. "So, you're pretty much perfect then," he said kindly. Or did he ask? The point is, he noticed.

We went on with the interview anyway. I told him everything I knew about my health history -- my dog broke my nose last year, my job requires me to stare at a computer screen for hours at a time, my grandma had Alzheimer's, I've had a heart palpitation or two in my life. Other than that, tip top. So he looked at my tongue. He felt my pulse, or pulses -- my meridians, as they're known in non-Western medicine -- concentrating intently with his head bowed, squeezing different spots along my wrist and forearm. It made my scalp tingle. He took his hands away, sat for a second, smiled as if to reassure me that my constitution wasn't rotten, and asked me if I had a sweet tooth.

Hello. More like a sweet fang. If I don't get my daily chocolate fix I go batty. And do I eat a lot of bread? The man was a psychic. The night before I ate a half a loaf of focaccia. He suggested I cut back on those things. Try some more sour foods, maybe some lemon. Ginger would be good, too, and of course more vegetables. Everybody needs more vegetables. He got the sense that my digestive system was, well, a little weak. Same with my liver. My heart and my kidneys seemed strong but at the same time constricted, kind of tight. When your organs are imbalanced, your overall health is diminished and sometimes the symptom presents itself as fear-inducing PMS. Acupuncture, a 5,000-year-old form of Chinese medicine, can bring harmony to your body by stimulating energy channels under your skin.

I should probably get to the news hook now. This place, The Oasis: Chinese Medicine and Healing Arts Center in Arcata, is very bad-ass. In mid-October they started this low-cost clinic on Mondays where you can get acupuncture for 20 bucks. The reason for this small-budget affair? Oasis Acupuncturist John Servilio and Office Manager Rick Austin were having to turn away folks with Medi-Cal because it paid such crap -- $5.79 a visit. Hi. That doesn't even cover their administrative costs. But kicking ill, poor people to the curb was giving them a serious case of the guilties. The solution was pretty obvious, but it took a couple months of planning.

Now, anyone can come in -- uninsured, poor, what have you. There are no income evaluations or eligibility requirements, so you could be filthy rich for all they know. What makes the $20 clinic different from the regular one, besides the cost, is that three patients share a room, each reclining in his own zero-gravity chair rather than having his own room with a massage table. They do this sort of thing in San Francisco, where the low-cost acupuncture clinic movement began. People get acupuncture for all kinds of reasons, arthritis, fibromyalgia, fatigue, insomnia, mood disorders. Anything, really. Rick said that a number of patients come because they've lived with chronic pain for years and Western approaches like surgery and especially medication never resolved their health issues.

OK, back to me. So when we wrapped with our interview I followed John into the softly lit, yellow-walled acupuncture room. Two people with little needles coming out of their arms, legs and head sat very serenely, eyes closed in the chairs. John took the needles out of the lady, who then rose with a smile and floated out of the room. I took off my clogs and my socks and got into my chaise lounge. Then I realized that my legs weren't shaved and felt mildly embarrassed. At that moment though, I was more focused on the needles. I'd been looking forward to this, but now I was nervous and a little sweaty in the armpits. John swabbed a spot on the top of my head with alcohol and stuck me with a needle. It didn't really hurt at all, but my instinct was to swat at it and scream. John must have sensed my discomfort because he quietly asked if I was all right. Yeah, I whispered. He put more needles in my forearms, my hairy legs and my cute feet and then he left to interview another first-time patient, took the pins out of the middle-aged guy next to me and brought in the new guy. He got a needle in his earlobe and I felt slightly jealous. I wondered what was wrong with him, and how that one needle might help.

And then I had an Arcata moment. I realized that that one tiny pin on this man's big body was kind of like this one little clinic in a big, messed up country that has very big health care problems.

-- Helen Sanderson



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