Chicago, Illinois, United States
For sixteen years I drove seventy-eight miles round-trip to stick needles in addicts, alcoholics, violent offenders, and homeless women. I practiced acupuncture with vulnerable communities around Chicago and southern Wisconsin even though it was not considered mainstream in our culture. I knew it to be an important tool in the management of pain and chronic conditions. Acupuncture licenses were not even available in the state of Illinois until 2000.
At one of my practice sites, in Chicago’s inner city, I worked with three Chinese doctors that came from Liaoning Provincial Hospital, located in Chicago’s sister city, Shenyang. When the small stipend that supported our project dried up they left, but not before inspiring me to follow them to China two years later. I went as a proctor for a group of students from Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, where I taught and supervised their student clinic. It was that trip to Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine that defined “mainstream” for me once and for all. The clinic treated 10,000 outpatients daily, for everything imaginable, using a medical matrix that included acupuncture, herbal medicine, tui na manual therapy, and western medicine. They and other traditional Chinese medicine hospitals had been offering this mélange of eastern and western medicine since the 1970’s, when Mao resurrected traditional Chinese medicine as “the Great Jewel” of the Chinese people. I came back to Chicago inspired. Two years later acupuncturists were able to apply for licenses in Illinois, thanks to a grassroots campaign guided by a newly hired lobbyist. My license was the hundredth issued. To mark the occasion, the Chicago Sun Times newspaper sent a photographer over to my clinic, where he snapped a picture of me brandishing an acupuncture needle at his camera. The photo appeared on page two of the paper with my quote, “Finally, we have been decriminalized!”
However the watershed mainstreaming moment happened thirteen years later, when I was Chair of the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (AOM) Program at National University of Health Sciences in Lombard, Illinois. Our program had several goals, including accreditation, treatment and research on acupuncture with war veterans, developing an internship program, and increasing the enrollment of the national program.
As a result of striving toward and meeting these goals, acupuncture began to be a mainstream practice in Chicago. Our veterans’ clinic expanded to be able to treat forty-five patients a day. This provided our interns with the experience of treating veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and the Freedom’s Sentinel and Enduring Freedom Campaigns. This was significant in light of the sobering suicide statistics for veterans. During that time we also initiated an acupuncture program in the John A. Lovell Veteran Affairs Hospital in North Chicago, which was followed by the launch of an acupuncture internship at the John H. Stroger Hospital Pain Management Center. As a natural consequence of these programs, our AOM program enrollment doubled.
If there ever was a “build it and they will come” story, the veterans’ acupuncture treatment programs exemplified it. My first two patients included a Vietnam vet who was a former All-State high school wrestler who learned how to shake poisonous snakes out of his sleeping bag while on sentry duty, and a combat medic, previously a jeweler, who never got over tending gravely wounded soldiers, promising that he would contact their mothers and tell them how much their sons loved them. Every one of the vets we saw had a gut-wrenching story hitched to their pain. As part of our outreach, we also started treating homeless Vietnam vets at spring and fall events. We would treat up to 400 veterans in two days, taping vaccaria seeds on reflex points located on the ear for instant pain relief.
We integrated our acupuncture program with an existing expressive therapy program at the hospital. There a B24 tail gunner might rub shoulders with a veteran from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, while listening to performers from their assembly sing, play music, rap, and tell jokes and stories to their brothers and sisters in arms. The program director would always introduce me, and I would demonstrate hand or ear reflex points for the self-treatment of pain. I began volunteering one morning a week, treating up to fifteen patients for pain and post-traumatic stress disorder over the course of three hours.
The Pain Treatment Center at Stroger Hospital continues, after six years, to be the crown jewel of my mainstreaming experience. Over 100 interns have rotated through the clinic to be trained in real-world acupuncture treatment scenarios. On the first day I walked in to the director’s office, and after the usual introductory conversation, I cut to the topic of treating veterans with acupuncture. The director replied, “We won’t be doing that here. However if you worked here you would treat gunshot, stabbing, and beating victims, cancer patients, neuropathy patients, and severe motor vehicle and workplace injuries. All of this is part of our mission to provide quality care, independent of the patient’s ability to pay.” This is what I had been waiting and hoping for: treating large quantities of diverse patients with challenging conditions in a setting that cared for people of all ages, all races, and all income groups; and the ability to teach others to do the same. I am grateful to the acupuncture interns I instruct; to the open-minded physicians that refer their patients; and to the directors and administrators that have supported this program. Most of all, I am grateful to my patients, for their curiosity, their patience, and their commitment to improving their own well-being, no matter how different that may look, or feel.
FRANK YURASEK received BA and MA degrees from Notre Dame University and MS and PHD degrees from Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, Chicago, and Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, PRC. He is an adjunct professor at National University of Health Sciences and Midwest College of Oriental Medicine. Professor Yurasek has been teaching East Asian Medicine and has been in practice since 1988. He presented research studies at Society of Acupuncture Research Meetings in Beijing, Harvard, Stanford, and Michigan Universities, and Midwest Pain Society in Chicago. He is Director of Acupuncture for Cook County Health & Hospitals Systems at the Stroger Hospital Pain Management Center. Read more about practicing and teaching acupuncture in a hospital setting on his blog, Hospital-Based Acupuncture.