Oakland medical hub draws more alternative healers
on November 22, 2009
Tiffany Easley, who gave up on hormone fertility treatments a few months ago and decided to try another approach to becoming pregnant, lay back on an acupuncturist’s table last week while her midriff was pierced one by one with needles. “Your body is naturally supposed to have children,” Easley said. “So if your body is in harmony with itself, your body is going to do what it’s naturally supposed to do.”
Jessica Biedorn, a student acupuncturist at the Oakland’s Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences, worked carefully along the middle of Easley’s body, inserting six needles under the supervision of a licensed acupuncturist and toggling each needle slightly before moving to the next. Then Biedorn moved down to Easley’s legs and carefully inserted eight more needles below the knee and around the inside of her ankle. Easley hoped to fall into a dreamlike state, which she says is common for her after the needles have been inserted.
The 32-year-old business and accounting technician for the Lafayette School District, who had two children when she was quite young, is anxious to have another with her new partner. But it was the overwhelming side effects of the hormone Clomid, which she said made her feel like a “raging crazy person,” that finally persuaded her to abandon Western medical interventions in addressing her fertility problem.
So she turned to the traditional Chinese medical practice of acupuncture, and is coming to Oakland to receive it. From what she’s learned, Easley said, acupuncture doesn’t fix infertility specifically, but acts as a balancing mechanism, allowing a person to function normally. “That’s the theory behind it,” she said.
The theories behind acupuncture have steadily swayed people over to the alternative practice for the last three decades. It appears that acupuncturists are responding to the demand in Oakland with the proliferation of independently owned clinics right in the heart of Western medicine—“Pill Hill.”
According to Christopher Pearson, an acupuncturist and massage therapist whose practice is in Pill Hill, working alongside traditional Western practices can be a facilitating component for people who want to offer alternative care.
“If you look down the street, you see Summit Medical Center. And close to that is Merritt College, which is a training facility for nurses,” Pearson said, explaining why he thought Pill Hill has turned into a hub for acupuncture. “Being able to see Western and Eastern medicine working side by side, in terms of the eyes of the consumer– it legitimizes the practice,” he said.
Acupuncture isn’t the only kind of alternative medicine thriving in North Oakland. Just blocks away from Pearson’s practice is an Ayurvedic Specialist, who uses traditional Indian healing methods that incorporate massage, herbs and dietary regimens to address patient needs. And on 44th Street, the East Bay Energy Therapy treat emotional distress in their patients by using a practice they call Emotional Freedom Technique. EFT follows the same system of energy points as acupuncture, but employs a tapping method instead of puncturing the skin.
Western medicine set its roots in Pill Hill over a hundred years ago. Institutions like Merritt and Providence Hospitals came to the area at the beginning of the 20th century. When disasters like the 1906 earthquake dispersed San Franciscans and sent people fleeing to the East Bay for refuge and medical care, their services grew. Since then, Pill Hill has grown into the epicenter for Western medical care in the East Bay.
And today, Western medical practitioners including obstetricians, urologists and general practitioners labor away in the same building in which Pearson holds his practice, on 29th and Summit Streets, the heart of Pill Hill. For Pearson, being in such close proximity to Western practices isn’t something he finds unusual. He considers himself a part of a health care revolution in which people are looking for alternative ways of addressing their health concerns.
“What’s missing from most Western practices, we are filling that gap,” Pearson said. “We know that they can’t treat chronic conditions. We know that they can’t treat constitutional disorder. We know that they can treat trauma. We know that they can treat crisis and they are extremely effective at it. But you know, in terms of taking care of people, they’re subpar at best.”
The most visible practice under the alternative health umbrella in North Oakland appears to be acupuncture. Pinning down the exact number of practicing acupuncturists in the area is difficult, according to the Alameda County Health Department. The health department does not keep track of the number of licensed acupuncturists on a county or city level. But the user-generated review site Yelp.com lists more than 130 acupuncturists in Oakland, and nearly half of those are in the North Oakland area. Google Maps shows at least eight other independently owned acupuncture clinics within a two–block radius of Pearson’s practice in Pill Hill.
Stephen Woodley, dean of academic affairs at the Oakland’s downtown Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences, a school that prepares students
for careers in acupuncture, also refers to a map of the area in explaining why acupuncture practices have sprouted up in North Oakland. North of Pill Hill and the Academy, he points out, is “Hippie Town” (Berkeley). To the south, there’s Chinatown and a high concentration of Asian immigrants. Both places have high numbers of acupuncture customers. “You’ve got kind of a perfect formula for acceptance of this medicine,” Woodley said. “Whereas maybe in Omaha, Nebraska, it wouldn’t thrive.”
Pearson and his colleagues offer their services for free every second Sunday to help promote acupuncture to people who haven’t found it on their own the way Easley did. “(The free Sundays are) to provide equal access to holistic forms of medicine,” said Pearson, 35, who shares his practice with two others. For Pearson, the once-a-month free service is a way both to build business and to reach people who might not know about alternative methods when they consider their health care options.
Tall and broad shouldered, Pearson leaned back in a lounge chair in his front office and clasped his large hands in his lap as he spoke. The free clinic hours for that Sunday had ended; they had treated 13 patients that morning. The Sunday clinics offer abbreviated 30- to 45-minute sessions, as opposed to the full hour paying patients receive.
It seemed a man of Pearson’s size would have a louder voice and take up more space, but his voice was soft and his demeanor unimposing. He said senior citizens can run into problems when managing chronic conditions like hypertension through pharmaceutical medications. “It’s all synthetically based,” he said. “And if you step off the merry-go-round, it’s going so fast that your health will spin out of control. It’s like you can’t stop taking them. But if you just had some lifestyle modifications, and education, and some awareness…”
Pearson wasn’t always sold on acupuncture, he said. He began his career in massage therapy, and initially didn’t see himself leaving that kind of work. But he learned that many alternative medicine methods have common underlying views about the nature of health and health promotion. “My massage teacher would tell me, ‘All you can do with your hands you can do with needles–in fact, you can treat more people,'” Pearson said, describing his transition to the field of acupuncture. “It seemed more like a medical discipline… I wanted to be able to reach as many people as possible, so the ability to place a needle and leave the room and go and be with another person, I think, is an extremely valuable tool.”
This growing presence of acupuncturists in North Oakland is part of a larger trend in California. According to a survey conducted by the California Acupuncture Board, nearly half the acupuncturists in the state have been practicing for five years or less. And only about 12 percent have been practicing for more than 20 years.
On a national scale, a study conducted by the National Health Interview Survey found that 3.1 million adults and 150,000 children used acupuncture in 2006 to address health concerns. And between 2002 and 2007, the number of people using the ancient Chinese method grew by 1 million. The practice itself has been in use for millennia, and involves penetrating the skin at points along energy lines of the body with thin, long, metallic needles and then manipulating them with the hands or applying low levels of electricity. It’s used to address chronic pain and severe muscle aches, and started gaining traction in the United States in the 1970s.
Many people in the field attribute the practice’s popularity spike 30 years ago to James Reston, a New York Times journalist, who underwent acupuncture after an appendectomy while on assignment in Beijing. Reston’s article about the experience seemed to single-handedly garner an interest in a healing method few in the U.S. had heard of before. When Reston died in 1995, William Prensky, president of the Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in New York wrote a letter that appeared in the New York Times observing how influential Reston’s article had been in generating a new population of acupuncture enthusiasts.
There is still an ongoing debate in the U.S. about acupuncture’s effectiveness. Woodley said until five years ago the FDA considered needles an experimental device. “But now more and more MDs are doing acupuncture,” he said. “They can’t explain how or why it works. But they see it works for some things. And MDs are very pragmatic. They say, ‘It works? Let’s check it out.'”
Woodley says the Academy of Chinese Culture, where Easley goes weekly for her treatments, is transcending the typical demographic the school usually sees and is extraordinarily rigorous. That’s partially because many students accepted to the program aren’t coming from backgrounds relevant to Chinese medicine. Those who make it through leave with their masters of science in traditional Chinese medicine.
“Twenty-five years ago it was very fringe people, among your average American,” Woodley said. “It was basically middle-aged hippies treating middle-aged hippies.” But now people from all backgrounds are beginning to see it as a viable career path with the practice becoming more common, he said.
For Pearson, the emergence of alternative medicine may be the result of a growing intolerance of the inefficacy of Western medicine. According to Pearson, the general public is helping to breathe life into this kind of healthcare because the current design just isn’t working.”I can help [people] find a more sound and complete way to address the way they’re living and how to be in balance and live an existence that’s fulfilling,” Pearson said. “And I don’t think that the old guard can say that by and large.”
Back at the Academy, Easley had been lying on a cushioned table sheeted in paper with her belly exposed under the warmth of a heat lamp for 30 minutes. Her time was up. Biedron entered the room and methodically pulled out each of the 14 needles, disposing them into a small red bin at the end of the table. A bleary-eyed Easley sat up, smiling as she pulled down her shirt. “I feel good,” she said. Easley plans to come back next week and the week after. She says she wants to give herself one more year of trying to have a child naturally. After that, she said, she’ll start looking at other options.
Lead image: Tiffany Easley consulting her acupuncturist in downtown Oakland.
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