Drew Pollack Interview

Over the past few months, we have been interviewing the acupuncturists at M & R Acupuncture to learn more about them and what brought them to where they are now.

For our third and final interview, Danielle will interview Dr. Drew Pollack.

Journey to Acupuncture and what brought you there? 

I was interested in eastern culture from a very young age, I remember back in middle school reading haikus and stuff.  My mom was a librarian, so she would always bring many random books home.  I would ask her to bring home something and she would bring books on that topic.  At a young age I was interested in Chinese art and philosophy and ancient Chinese culture. Aside from my fervor for reading, I studied diets - like macrobiotic. I then studied Buddhism and Zen. From there my likes evolved into yoga and meditation.  At one point I thought of becoming a monk, and for a while I pursued that. 

I grew up in Jersey and moved to California to live in a monastery known as the Self Realization Fellowship. While I was there I worked as a cook in the kitchen for 7 years while practicing meditation and yoga.  Eventually, I realized that I didn’t want to become a monk, so I left the monastery, along with that job. I was then looking around for a career, at which time I was dating an acupuncturist who suggested that acupuncture might be a good fit for me. One month later I was enrolled and thus, my career started.

I had thought about it in high school, my mom went to acupuncture and I had seen it. I dropped out of high school after freshman year. I got my GED and at sixteen I was going to college. Looking back, I’m glad I left high school when I did. I saw most of my friends getting involved in drugs.  The teen years are difficult, to say the least. I was sixteen and restless and had this desire to be a monk, but it was hard to compromise.  I wanted something that was going to make me change. That’s why I got into yoga and meditation, as a way to work on myself. Chinese medicine is also a way of helping other people. Obviously it becomes a practice, but I had to find my path first and then I could learn something to help other people.  

 

What do you appreciate most about Chinese medicine Theory? 

The thing I appreciate the most about Chinese medicine theory is the holistic approach. It’s well balanced. That’s one of the major themes of Chinese medicine - balance. Bringing things back to harmony, bringing things back to balance, a place of homeostasis; whereas in western medicine, it’s mostly about strengthening, increasing or killing the diseases. There isn’t this focus on, “ok, what is happening in this whole system that we need to balance, bring it back into balance so that it runs properly rather than, just take this pill to reduce inflammation”. Well, why is there inflammation? Why is there an imbalance? What’s causing the problem? What can we do to prevent this from happening over and over again so you don’t have to depend on these pharmaceuticals? Don’t misinterpret, pharmaceuticals, surgery and emergency medicine absolutely have their place. But you know, everyday people who are stressed can’t just be given a pill. They need to learn skills to be able to help themselves. So, I think that a focus on a balanced approach of bringing things back into harmony and treating the whole person is most important. The whole person approach. 

 

Why did you choose to specialize in more Orthopedics/Pain? 

I think I chose pain because I like things to be concrete, to see things, to touch things and to see the change.  I want things to be real.  I don’t like to just think something is going to work - I want to see results. I want to know that this is working. I want the patient to see it and feel it and I want it to work. I like knowing what muscles are where,  how to affect certain muscles, and how to release the tension in those muscles.  I want to see the muscle fiber change and feel the muscle fiber release.  If the shoulder is unbalanced, I want it to feel balanced again. I want patients to say “my shoulder is back to normal, my knee is back to normal, it feels like I have more mobility”.  That’s what I like, and it’s one of the most effective forms of acupuncture that I’ve come across out of all the different forms. I think it resonated with me because I like to be very active and I get hurt a lot and that’s what worked for me. I love orthopedic acupuncture because it’s intense. I like everything about it. I like the aggressiveness of it, but balancing it with the gentleness as well. And I’ve learned that with orthopedics, you can always back off, you can always go lighter. It’s always individual based, and it changes from the first treatment to the last treatment. The first treatment is just getting a baseline to know where you’re at. Every patient is different, every treatment is different, every day is different.  

 

What makes you stand out as a practitioner?

I really enjoy the acupuncture. I like treating patients and I like seeing patients get better. Helping people and being of service to people, that’s what matters to me the most. I want people to feel like they are getting someone who is going to help them with whatever they have going on whether it’s stress, shoulder pain, or learning how to meditate. Just spending a lot of time teaching people how to meditate, simple little breathing techniques, can be a big help. I try to bring what I know and what I’ve learned that has helped me into the treatment, but also just listening to the patient is important.  And I think of myself as a coach a lot of the time. I am just here to help you help yourself - what do you want to accomplish? What are your goals? What are you working on as an individual? I bring that into the treatments and use a lot of different techniques. I just try to help as much as possible, whatever that may look like. 

 

What do you enjoy most about your job as an acupuncturist? 

I love that people appreciate it. That people feel better, more relaxed. How amazing, people feeling better about themselves. It makes me very happy to help people become better versions of themselves or to feel better, to reduce their pain and to get to know people. I love people and with every new patient I think, “wow, where is this person coming from, what are we going to work on together, and what do they want to do”.  So it’s really fun getting to know people and sharing whatever I can to help them. Connection is so important. 

 

How does Acupuncture work? 

There are so many different ways acupuncture works. There’s so many different approaches, we don’t know why it works but we know it works. It’s really hard to take acupuncture and apply it to western medicine expectations because there are so many variables, so many things happening, and so many facets to acupuncture. It’s not just needles. It’s the meditation during the treatment or before the treatment, or just the connection. Where are we at, what are we working on, how was your week. When someone feels so much tension in their neck and shoulders and then they get up and say, “wow, I have so much more mobility”, that’s why I like orthopedic acupuncture, because I feel like it’s the closest thing where you actually see it working. They come in with lack of range of motion and then they come out with increased range of motion. You can see that they definitely had a change happen. 

Orthopedic acupuncture works by releasing the muscle tension. Your brain has proprioception, which means your brain says, all right, my head is in this position and my torso, like this, is normal and in the proper place. Whatever you’re doing, your brain is coordinating your body in space and that’s your proprioception. So for someone that’s sitting at a desk all day, to them that’s normal posture. They feel comfortable in that position. What we can do with the acupuncture is to change the tension and the proprioception of the muscles and the perception of the body in space, so actual correct posture becomes more normal to them. You can see it happening and people can feel it. You can have pretty profound changes in the muscles. 

There’s so many different ways to look at it and why it works. We want to see how one little aspect of acupuncture works, but it’s not just one aspect. It’s a part of a big picture, a very complex system that is deeper than just one effective result of acupuncture. What works for some people doesn’t work for other people. Every practitioner makes it something different. 

 

What are some of the experiences you have had as you grew into the acupuncturist you are today? 

When I was still a student in school in San Diego, I was broke and needed to make some money. I went to Mexico and got a job doing acupuncture because there is no licensing requirement for acupuncturists in Mexico.  I was also volunteering at a HIV and tuberculosis hospice clinic and a drug rehab there. That was interesting because I was brand new, I wasn’t even finished with school, and I didn’t speak Spanish very well. Then, they gave me the patients and I had 30 minute treatments. I couldn’t even do an intake because I couldn’t really understand them. They had these terrible needles so I eventually started bringing my own needles. The doctor in charge of the clinic would tell me I was too slow, and that I needed to hurry up because they wanted them out within 30 minutes.  Meanwhile, I wanted to take my time and really needed an hour and a half to do an intake, but they were paying me.  I was working and being paid by these people in pesos. So, this was a very interesting experience. 

I did that for a little while and then I volunteered at a hospice, where I saw the craziest things you could have ever seen. AIDS does crazy stuff to people and these are untreated patients, either alcoholics or drug addicts and mostly homeless individuals. People would get herpes sores because their immune systems would get so low and their bodies just couldn’t fight it off. Sometimes when I would go down I would bring a friend from school who spoke Spanish but aside from that, it was just me, and I had to explain acupuncture to these patients and convince them that I was there to help them. I would advocate for a lot of patients who were getting treatments because a lot of people in that clinic used to live in the US.  They were born in Mexico and  immigrated to the US illegally. They never got papers and because these guys are generally 50 or older, they didn’t have good records in Mexico of their birth. If they got deported from the US  they would go back to Mexico and they would have no Mexican papers. It’s just as bad, if not worse, being in Mexico without papers. They’re native Mexicans but they have no birth certificate, no identification, and there is socialized medicine down there. You need your identification to get medicine, so they were living on the streets and had nothing. They couldn’t even work. Without the means to help themselves, they would either prostitute or they would sell drugs unless they were begging and constantly being harassed by the police. It was very sad. So, they would go to these homes to try and get some medicine and some help. It’s a very difficult situation. It was devastating but at the same time it was extremely interesting and really showed me what I could and couldn’t do and what was or wasn’t effective. That experience taught me so much. 

Rory Crouse Interview

In the next few months, we will be interviewing the acupuncturists at M & R Acupuncture to learn more about them and what brought them to where they are now.

For our second interview, Danielle will interview Rory Crouse, one of the founders of M & R Acupuncture.

What was your journey to acupuncture like?

So, it’s kind of a long story.  It started when I was doing my undergrad upstate.  I hadn’t decided what career I wanted to pursue yet, but after a year of college I knew that it wasn’t for me.  So I left to go on a solo backpacking trip across the country.  I walked from New York to Colorado.  It was during this time that I met a Sioux Native American in Boulder, Colorado who taught me about herbal medicine - this experience really drew me towards the healing and medical field.  I learned how much herbs can help people, especially underprivileged people who don’t have access to conventional medical care.  I’ve always been drawn towards natural medicine, so I decided to make my way back to the east coast and continue to study herbal medicine while also taking western medical courses such as anatomy, physiology, and biology at Suffolk.  I wanted to find a way to combine both conventional and natural medicine, with an emphasis on herbalism.  I eventually found that Traditional Chinese Medicine had developed an organized and systematic approach to herbal medicine that can be traced back as far as 2,500 years ago.  For example, one of the text books I use daily at our clinic was written approximately 2,000 years ago.  I loved how concrete and evidence based it was.  So, while still taking western medical courses, I enrolled in school for Chinese medicine and immediately discovered that I loved it.  I felt this was a great path and decided to dedicate myself to Chinese Medicine and Chinese herbs.


What was your first experience with natural medicine?

I was introduced to the world of natural medicine when I was a child - my father was always interested in acupuncture, chiropractic, etc.  He was also very spiritual and would bring my brother and I to meditation retreats at Kripalu when we were kids.  Natural remedies and teas like echinacea were a part of my life, and the natural approach to healthy living was something that I always appreciated.



How does acupuncture work?

I believe that there are different ways that acupuncture works depending on what you are treating.  In regards to pain, acupuncture reduces inflammation, releases tight muscles, calms pain receptors, and relaxes the body.  Earlier today I had a patient come in with lower back pain -  when they arrived their pain was an 8 out of 10 on the pain scale and when they left their pain had decreased to a 2 out of 10.  This patient had pain because their hips were misaligned, creating tension in surrounding muscles and tendons; they also had inflammation affecting a local nerve, causing shooting pain down the leg.  My approach with this patient was to insert needles directly into the muscles that were in spasm so that the muscles would release and relax.  This type of local needling also brings fresh blood flow to the affected area to ease inflammation and stop nerve pain.  This type of orthopedic approach can cause a dramatic decrease in pain very quickly.  

When treating internal disorders, like digestive issues, acupuncture works in a different way that, in my opinion, is pretty far out.  According to acupuncture theory, there are a number of energetic pathways (“meridians”) that flow throughout the body.  These pathways easily become imbalanced and it is my job as an acupuncturist to locate this imbalance and correct it.  Let’s say somebody has ulcerative colitis, a disorder that affects the large intestine.  I would choose points on the large intestine meridian (located on the arm) to treat the issue.  Although it may seem surprising that I treat the arm in order to heal the gut, these points have a direct affect on the large intestine because of the direction of energy flow.  To get even more detailed — the large intestine meridian has a connection with the stomach meridian.  So, I will also choose points on the stomach channel (like “Stomach 36” which is just below the knee to strengthen the colon and “Stomach 44” which is between the second and third toe to clear toxic energy).  It’s hard to imagine how a point below your knee, or on your foot or elbow is going to help you with your digestive issues.  I personally wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t see it work all the time!  But this medicine has been practiced for thousands of years and it wouldn’t be so popular today if it wasn’t helping people.

Lastly, I treat a lot of depression and anxiety.  Our clinic provides a safe, calm environment where patients have no other responsibilities to attend to - we have calming music playing, essential oils going, dim lighting and comfortable treatment tables.  If a patient needs to talk, I’ll listen and encourage them to share any feeling they want to voice.  This builds a trusting relationship between me and my patients.  I really do love all of my patients.  Then, receiving acupuncture brings the patients blood pressure down and calms their nervous system so it forces them, in a way, to chill out in this environment.  I use calming points like an ear protocol called NADA that is approved by the FDA to treat depression, and a point in the middle of the forehead called “Yin Tang” which opens the third eye.  I’ll also use a point between the toes that grounds the Liver meridian which is responsible for processing big and small stressors.  I find that grounding the energy in this meridian, rather than allowing it to spin out of control higher up in the body, helps to treat depression and anxiety.  I think of an acupuncture session as an opportunity to put on training wheels for meditation; meditation comes easier in this peaceful environment with the acupuncture needles doing their work.


What do you appreciate most about Chinese medicine theory? 

One of the most important concepts in Chinese medicine is that of balance and avoiding excess.  Excess is such a normal part of the American way, so avoiding it can be difficult for people, myself included.  Each day we wake up and hit the ground running, doing as much as we can and powering through fatigue.  I try my best to find balance in my life by spending a few hours every day in complete silence, doing no activity what so ever.  A lot of people would call this meditation, and I find that if you do have excess stress and activity in your life, it helps to counter it with lots of sleep and quiet time with as little mental and physical activity as possible at certain times of the day.  But you have to find what works for you.  For a lot of people, coming into our office for their regular treatment is a part of finding that balance. 



What do you enjoy most about your job as an acupuncturist?

It’s really nice helping people; lots of times someone will come in with something simple like neck pain and after I help them with that issue I show them that there are  other ways in their life that I can help improve, like sleep and mental wellbeing.  And I think opening their eyes to these subtle aspects of their life is a great part of my job.  Or, if they’re already on the path to healing, I can be a part of it with them and help guide them through some decisions.  I also love learning from my patients - there’s no better teacher than experience. I’ve grown a lot as a person just by interacting with my patients. 


What are some of the experiences you have had as you grew into your acupuncture career?

I have seen a lot of health care professionals get carried away with selling products and losing sight of what is best for patients.  There are practitioners out there that try to sell products that aren’t in the patients best interest and/or aren’t entirely necessary to the patients treatment.  So, I try to remain focused on what patients really need and keep it simple and honest.  As a lot of our patients know, we sell Chinese herbs and a small number of high quality supplements -  something we’ve done to avoid financial incentive is to sell all of our herbs and products at cost rather than for profit.  If I think it is important for someone to take herbs as a part of their treatment, my only incentive is to get my patients better. 



What makes your treatments effective? 

I provide a holistic approach, so that I am treating all parts of the person - their diet and their exercise routine, their posture, their sleep cycle, their emotions.  I try to touch on all of these things with all of my patients.  I always keep an open mind about all the possible approaches to treating a patient and getting them to feel better.  The answer is not always clear, so I try very hard to think outside the box and consider any alternative ways to treatment. 

Megan Crouse Interview

In the next few weeks, we will be interviewing the acupuncturists at M & R Acupuncture to learn more about them and what brought them to where they are now.

For our first interview, Danielle will interview Megan Crouse, one of the founders of M & R Acupuncture.

Your journey to acupuncture and what brought you there? 

 

While I was an Anthropology major in college, I traveled to India with one of my professors.  During that trip, we did a week-long meditation retreat where we learned Reiki energy healing - this was my first introduction to alternative health and the theory of energy pathways.  I loved this experience and started to understand that energy could make you feel good, bad, sick or well.  When I got back to school, I decided to switch my major to a more concentrated version of anthropology that focused on health and healing traditions in different cultures - so I became a medical anthropology major.  Through my major I learned about acupuncture and found it fascinating!  I started going to a community acupuncture clinic to get help with some of my own ailments (I had extremely painful periods) and it helped me a lot.  I decided to volunteer at the clinic as their secretary, which gave me the opportunity to learn about acupuncture theory and treatments.  All of the patient’s that visited the clinic were so happy and grateful for the services, and the acupuncturists really loved what they did!  That’s when I decided to pursue acupuncture too.

 

 

You mentioned learning about Chinese medicine theory from the acupuncture clinic you worked at. What do you appreciate most about Chinese medicine theory? 

I really like that it’s an art anda science.  You have to understand human anatomy and recognize red flags in order to treat safely.  But you are also able to treat every person uniquely and tailor treatments to fit their needs and individual constitution; it’s not a one size fits all approach that you sometimes find in western medicine.  There’s so much flexibility and artistry to coming up with an acupuncture-point protocol and herbal formula. I also appreciate the concept of balance of yin (calm energy) and yang (active energy) in the body - to stay happy and healthy your body is constantly working to maintain a balance between these two forces. 

 

 

Why did you choose to specialize in fertility? What was your training like?

I love working in the field of women’s health.  Because acupuncture/Chinese herbs helped me so much with my own menstrual issues, I wanted to help other women too.  Acupuncture is so effective in treating hormonal imbalances, while also being a gentle and side-effect-free approach to getting women’s bodies back on tract.  But as for fertility - while I was in acupuncture school I had a few fertility patients come in to see me for help. They had been told that they would never be able to have a child according to their medical records and blood work.  After a few months of treatment with acupuncture, herbs, and some lifestyle coaching, they all were able to have a baby!  It was so exciting to have helped them conceive without any invasive or harsh medical interventions - after that I pursued additional fertility coursework and continuing education classes.  I also spent some time as an acupuncturist in a labor and delivery unit - using acupressure and manual techniques to ease pain, promote healthy labor, and prevent the need for C-sections. 

 

What makes your treatments more effective, what makes you stand out as a practitioner?

I have a very gentle approach.  It typically takes about three months to balance hormones/the endocrine system and to regulate a woman’s menstrual cycle, so I create a long-term plan in which treatments build upon each other and change depending on where a woman is in her cycle.  With my fertility patients, we don’t just do acupuncture, but also herbs and moxibustion, as well as a lot of discussion on emotional wellbeing, nutrition, vitamin therapy. 

 

 

What do you enjoy most about your job?

 

I know it sounds cliché, but I love helping people.  I really enjoy working one on one with people and helping them improve their quality of life.  I feel lucky that I get to form a relationship with my patients and hear about their lives, stories, backgrounds.  I also love working in the peaceful environment of our clinic :)  

 

 

How does acupuncture work? 

Acupuncture is fascinating and there is so much depth to it, but I’ll try to keep it short.  There are a series of meridians (like rivers) that run throughout the body.  Our Qi flows throughout these meridians, and keeps our blood and body fluids flowing and distributing to all the areas of our body. Disease, discomfort, and any sort of imbalance occurs when the Qi in our meridians gets blocked.  An Acupuncturist’s job is to choose specific points along the particular meridians affected and restore free flow of Qi.  From a western standpoint, acupuncture releases endorphins (which boosts mood and encourages your body to heal itself), reduces inflammation (inflammation is a huge contributor to a number of health issues), calms the nervous system, and improves blood circulation.  Getting acupuncture provides a period of time when someone can fully relax; and when they fully relax, their body can start to focus on its wellbeing rather than being in survival mode. 

 

How did you and Rory meet?

Meg

Rory and I met in my first acupuncture class.  He had already been in acupuncture school for one year but was a transfer student to the school I just started attending, so we ended up being at the same orientation and in some of the same foundation classes. 

 

Rory

We went to the same orientation and I picked her out in the room.  We were in this big room full of people and I saw this bright light shooting from the top of her head, true story.  So I said, oh whoever that is I need to go sit next to her.  So I started telling people to get out of the way so that I could make my way through the isle to sit next to her.

 

Meg

Haha.  That’s true.  My entire row was full except for the seat next to me and he had everyone get up and move out of the way for him so he could sit next to me. I thought, who is this guy!? 

 

Rory

Then we had two classes together.

 

Meg

At the beginning of medical terminology class, our teacher would have us stand up, look diagonally across the room and say “even though I am not prepared for class today, everything is going to be just fine.”  We were all new and obviously nervous so he wanted to take the pressure off.  Rory and I always ended up looking at each other during that.

 

Rory

It’s true, I asked her out to tea in between classes, and I would say cheesy things like “would you like Tuesday tea time.” 

 

Meg

And I was thinking this guy is so cheesy.  But soon we became inseparable.  

 

Rory

I was tutoring her

 

Meg

But here’s the thing, I didn’t actually need tutoring.  He was a year ahead of me so he said he could teach me some of the things he had already learned, but really this was just an excuse for us to hang out! 

 

Rory

Yeah I don’t think she paid attention.

 

Meg

I didn’t.  But that was it.  A few months later we started dating.  Then a year and a half later we were engaged and we moved to san Diego to finish our degree.  That’s where we met Drew and became friends - we all talked about opening a nonprofit together one day, which maybe we will still do.  We got married and moved to Long Island.  We kept in touch with Drew and he decided to move out to join our business too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Acupuncture Experience in Mexico

by Dr. Drew Pollack

 

            Of the three years spent in PCOM, the last year was my most memorable. One day a week was spent volunteering in Mexico with the homeless, the poor, and the dying. This article will attempt to describe those experiences, and the lessons learned.

            Prior to embarking on this journey of discovery, personal objectives were set. One of the most profound was to put myself into challenging situations as a means of eliciting feelings of being uncomfortable, scared, and overwhelmed. From this position, apply TCM techniques and theory learned in the clinic and classroom. Application would facilitate improvement of learned acupuncture skills of assessment, diagnosis, compassionate communication, and time management. Most importantly these challenges would serve to discover something deeper within myself, to explore the significance of death in relation to medicine, acupuncture, and my personal associated fear.

            On a rainy morning in January 2016, a good friend accompanied me on the first of many visits to "Las Memorias." It was a large cinderblock building at the end of a dirt road on the East side of Tijuana, part drug rehab facility, part hospice, part Tuberculosis clinic. When we first entered the foyer, there were resident/patients representing all age groups; some lounging on a couch, some using their cell phones or on the computer. After introductions in the large, open common area where sermons were also held, we were brought to the hospice section of the facility. It was in this part of the building that we observed and treated the most severe cases of HIV/AIDS, however it wasn't until we got to the tuberculosis ward that we truly grasped how ruthless an illness can be when left untreated. We were given face masks as protection again TB infection and lead to a second-story room. Suddenly the terms "barrel chest" and "blue bloaters" were no longer medical jargon, but living breathing persons. Veracity of true illnesses were staring me in the face, challenging the intelligence of my decision to volunteer in such a setting. I was scared, and each of the patients exhibited signs of being scared.

            I treated a man as he sat up in bed and gasped for air, unable to lay down because of his lung infection. He arrived a few days before and began antibiotics to treat his TB. I administered auricular acupuncture to calm him and slow his breathing. He was extremely sensitive, flinching with every needle. His right ear was feverish with hues of purple and red. The left side of his face was cold. His yin and yang separating, and mirrored on his face. His eyes darted around, unable to be still in his discomfort. He mumbled to himself, with a far off look in his eyes. When I sat down next to him and got his attention he kept asking me over and over if he was going to be okay. All I could reply was "yes" some-how, everything was going to be okay. The next week I returned to the Tuberculosis ward and he was gone. His lungs had failed him. These fragile patients, their experiences, and the mystery of death is what I found myself thinking about on the hour drive to and from my house to the clinic.

            It is a gift to comfort someone during a time of difficulty, to lessen their pain, to listen to their story. Acupuncture offered me the unique opportunity to step into a new and strange situation, to be a part of something tragic and beautiful, to observe objectively, and give a gift to a community in need.

On January 28, 2016 the following excerpt was entered in my journal:

 I remember Adrian as he is nearing death quickly. He is resting on his back, under covers, with his head turned sharply the right, vomit on his shirt over his right shoulder. His breathing is labored. I call his name and shake him. No response. He was at the hospital two days ago the other patients tell us. He has cirrhosis (of the Lv), Kd stones and ascites. No amount of acupuncture or medication can save him. He was taken to the nearby hospital, but the doctors sent him back to hospice. He hasn't taken medication in years possibly, and today he refuses food. It looks like he aged ten years in the last week. Thinner, darker. He moans occasionally. At this point what can I do? I needle his abdomen, yintang, and burn lots of moxa. The needles are of no consequence, its more to give me time with him, to pray with him. We are merely two souls. I play my role. He plays his. What his experience is, I have no idea. I palpate his abdomen which is swollen like a water balloon, his ribs bulging over his enlarged spleen. My last memory was of him sunbathing in a wheelchair, hiccupping. I don't think I will see him next week. With one death a whole universe ends.

            Adrian passed the day after I treated him. The following week his bed had a new patient in it. And so on it went. Every week I returned to "Las Memorias", new experiences were encountered. New patients. New deaths. Often the story of how they ended up in the hospice had similarities. The person was in the US, usually Los Angeles, working, getting treatment for HIV, then got deported and dropped off in the streets of Tijuana. No more treatments, no access to medical care. Inevitably symptoms would start. Fevers, vomiting, diarrhea... three or four days in a row, all night long. Now in hospice, laying in a bed, under blankets and receiving IV fluids; they are without family, friends, and medication.

            I often reflected about the hospice between visits. About its simplicity. Behind a building, against a brick wall and under a sheet metal roof, a fire would be burning to warm water in a large pot. The residents would fill buckets to bathe. What if life wasn't about filling up a bank account, and going on vacation once a year to Cancun; what if this was the meaning of life… to be uncomfortable, to be challenged, to face the scariest situation you can imagine, and make it beautiful? I find it interesting to think about the notion that when a person is born, people cry with happiness, yet when one dies, people cry with sorrow. In the HIV hospice, when a person died, I often breathed a sigh of relief; their struggle finally over, at last the pain had ended.

A second excerpt from January 28, 2016:

I think about this place during the week, about the patients, families, and children who live here. I also worry. It’s a big risk. I could get sick. I could poke myself with a needle. I could get TB. This place is changing me, how I think about life and death. Then I get in my car and drive home, and it all seems to get forgotten.

Patient's families would often visit, today it's Jorge's family. Jorge is in his mid 20's. Last week he was having sever head pain, to the point of screaming, writhing in pain. The week before that he had 3 seizures. Today he is quiet. It’s nice to see Jorge so peaceful compared to last week. He is like a child now. He reaches for my face when I talk to him. I worry if his hands are clean. His eyes constantly turned sharply to the left. He can barely track my finger. He mouths something to me, but I can't understand his gestures. He doesn't recognize his father. His family is huddled together, whispering, deciding what to do, take him to the hospital or leave him in the hospice. I tell them about our efforts to treat him. They decide to take him to the hospital.

Due to lack of resources, and because patients commonly have drug addiction problems, patients often go without pain medication. Philip, like many patients at "Las Memorias," has a history of drug addiction, he is stick thin, like a holocaust survivor. As I needle him, he screams in pain. I remove the needle, but the pain remains. He begs for his pain medication. I massage the point and burn moxa. Again, he asks for his pain medication. Tears roll down his cheek. The volunteer in charge of distributing medication says he gets his pain medication only before bed. Its 12:30 pm. I tell him. He cries. No matter what position he has pain. He asks for more acupuncture.

 

February 13, 2016:

 

Last week I treated a man who is on oxygen. A small man, thin, his shoulders raise with every breath he takes, it takes a long time to say a full sentence. He had TB for 2 years and the scar tissue left behind makes it difficult to breath well. His oxygen tank is too big to walk with. He asks me for a small tank of oxygen to be more mobile. He sells loose cigarettes to the other patients, his only source of income.

 

February 18, 2016:

 

Carlos lays in bed. A sweet, middle-aged Mexican man missing most of his teeth. Last week he showed us the beginning of his Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) he has as a result of his untreated HIV. Two small dark round spots on the inside of his upper arm, and several more on his ankle.

 

This week we found that the lesions had spread, covering one third of the soles of his feet, no longer individual spots, but one continuous raised area. His false teeth won't fit any more, and he shows me a KS lesion in his mouth. He complains of abdominal pain. I can feel a lump just under the skin above the belly button. He winces as I palpate. It’s difficult for him to urinate. An obstruction, caused by the KS I assume. I don't check. KS develops on the connective tissue of the skin, muscle and bones and is one of several definitions of having AIDS. It is the result of herpes virus 8.

 

This is the second time he has gone through this experience. The first time was in the US several years earlier. It had become difficult to walk, crippled with pain. He says the sensation of the KS feels cold when it first starts, then like a stabbing pain. It had spread to his intestines causing stomach pain. Though undocumented, Carlos was able to receive chemo in the US. He got ill. Nausea and vomiting. He said the treatment was very bad but he survived. Deported several years ago, he no longer has access to treatment.

 

Now he waits, alone, no family, in a room with other people who are also very ill. Carlos begins to cry as we ask about his experience. He remembers the pain from the first struggle with KS. He's afraid of the pain. He doesn't receive the antiretroviral medication he desperately needs. He has no money; the hospital will turn him away without treatment. He is sure to die, a preventable death. His death will be slow and painful. It is hard to stand at his bed side while this grown man tells his story in tears. I am angry, but I don't know who to be angry at or with. I want to bring him back with me. Take him to a hospital.


March 17, 2016:

 

Paulino had no appetite for the last month, enough energy to speak just a few words. He kept losing weight, the skin on his face like tan leather, vacuum-sealed on a skull; two large dark eyes, surrounded by pure white. He was recovering from pneumonia. How he survived that with advanced AIDS was impressive.

 

I treated a pain in his back and hip the last time I saw him. He was coughing up phlegm again, into an old plastic Folger's coffee container. No matter how bad he seemed to be doing, his assessment of himself was always "fine". The last treatment I gave him, maybe two days before he passed, his self-assessment was "so-so", a significant but subtle sign that he was in trouble.

 

This week, Paulino is not in his bed. A patient informed me he passed Sunday. I wonder if the treatments helped. A woman with a penny-sized canker sore on her lower lip is there instead, waving at me, asking for acupuncture.

 

I treat the woman with the canker sore instead. Half-way through the treatment, without warning, she vomits; bile splashes off the floor, and I jump out of the way, escaping with a small amount of puke on my shoes.

 

A man in all black is sitting on the edge of his bed, arms and hands shaking violently, hiccupping, clutching a plastic bottle of cheap liquor in both hands, black under the fingernails. He gulps it like water on a hot day. The assistant director doses the medicine, he will die if he goes without alcohol for too long. He doesn't want acupuncture. His pulse is thin and rapid, he winces in pain with any touch. He vomits clear liquid into a trash can, then falls asleep.

 

If he wasn't going through withdrawal I wouldn't have noticed anything seriously wrong with him. No bloating, or redness in the face. He looks 50 maybe, a weathered face. He likely has HIV or else he wouldn't be here, but he is in too much suffering to answer any questions. Still I want to know, I want to ask what happened, how did this happen? How much alcohol does he drink on a normal day? Where are his family and friends? He may not be here next week, not dead, just gone, back to his old ways. Maybe panhandling, or washing cars at the line for a few pesos each. A Pitbull puppy wanders through the hospice, so we turn and smile, grateful for the distraction.

            I recently found a quote. In the end these things matter most: how fully did you live? How well did you love? How quickly did you let go? I let go of many patients during my time at “Las Memorias”. Some got better, some didn’t. Others looked for someone else to help them -perhaps acupuncture wasn’t appealing to them; others passed beyond the threshold of this physical world to the astral. I am learning to let go.

            Acupuncture is not just a way of making a living, it can be way of life, a path of self-discipline. I yearn to make acupuncture an expression of selfless service. I know I have failed, and I know I will continue to fail because I'm still attached to money. I ask myself if I had treated the patients in Mexico like I treat my patients now in the local clinic in NY? The answer is no. But I will not give up and I will continue to improve, and know that success will prevail.

            As I look back on my experiences, in Mexico and this past year in New York, I understand how fortunate I am. I recently took a trip to Tulum, Mexico, about 2 hours south of Cancun. It wasn't the Mexico I knew when I lived in San Diego and crossed the border as a means to challenge myself and foster personal growth. I missed the gritty and dirty streets of Tijuana, something about it makes me feel alive, vulnerable, real.

            One cannot be pretentious when faced with a terminal illness. The smiles I saw at the clinic were always sincere, no one had time for pretense. It was refreshing. Outside of the hospice setting, clients oftentimes arrive for treatment and lack introspection. They are afraid to broach a subject of concern and importance to them. Perhaps it’s a fear of judgement. When a person is dying however, suddenly nothing is taboo. Everyone becomes equal, the fear of being embarrassed is lost.

            I often wonder why it is that I find it inspiring to be around dying people. I suppose it’s partly the lack of pretense paired with the subtle need to be reminded that life isn't all about the "American Dream", making money and being comfortable. I long to be with those who cannot live that life, who have nothing and nobody. Perhaps surrounding myself with challenging situations serves to remind me that life is fragile.

            When giving acupuncture, I receive more than I could ever imagine. In life I try not to run away from things that scare me. I observe them, I have learned to welcome experiences. I used to fear death. Embracing the opportunity to volunteer at a drug rehab facility/hospice/TB clinic in run-down Tijuana seemed appropriate. Experience and meditation jointly provide sanctuary in this world of chaos. Yogis of India meditate by the crematory pyres as a means of overcoming attachment to the physical body. Tijuana was my meditation during my last year at PCOM. I was blessed with a learned skill that helps to ease suffering. Despite language barrier, communication was seldom lost. I was merely there to offer help to whomever was open to receiving it. To my surprise many people didn’t want my services, but oftentimes when their last days on this earth were approaching, they allowed me to sit with them, cry with them, share in the loss that we all must face one day. A quiet presence is what I offered during their final hours. These moments helped me to look beyond myself. Today in the clinic treating young athletes, I am able to feel their [physical, mental, or emotional] pain; simply being with them and sharing in it, just as I did in Tijuana, that pain is lessened. During challenging cases or difficult life situations, I return mentally to those experiences in Tijuana described above. I am reminded that life goes on in the presence of death, that there is always hope and there are great lessons to be learned in suffering and loss.

            Every individual will pass through death. It is my belief that we have all experienced death many times. These experiences are something to be embraced rather than ignored. If we take time to observe, reminders are put in our path to remind us to reflect on the life we are living today. What we must ask ourselves is... How fully are we living? How much are we loving? How quickly are we willing to let go?

Meg's Guide to Breast Health

Meg’s Guide to Breast Health

According to Chinese Medicine

 

 

Chinese medicine has been discussing breast health and breast disorders such as breast lumps, pain, swelling, and what we now understand as cancer for thousands of years…and it offers an interesting and unique perspective on the topic.

 

One of the keys to breast health is maintaining proper Qi circulation through our energetic meridians, especially those that flow in the chest.  In order for there to be proper Qi flow, there must be enough healthy Qi to circulate, and enough bodily ease and relaxation for energy to move without struggle.  Think of our meridians like rivers that run through the body.  If the river is clogged, water stops flowing to certain areas and instead builds up and overflows others.  Essentially, lack of Qi flow causes accumulation in some areas and lack of nourishment in others.  Ultimately, free flow of Qi is crucial in preventing and resolving imbalance and subsequent disease.  There are a number of meridians that pass through the chest and breasts, but the meridians most closely connected to breast health are the Liver meridian, the Kidney meridian, and the “extraordinary meridians” called the Ren and Chong.

 

The Liver meridian is in charge of all Qi circulation, and plays a special role in regulating the menstrual cycle and overall female reproductive system.  The Liver meridian is weakened by frustration, anger and pent up emotions, and is nourished by relaxation, peace of mind, and moderate physical exercise.  The Kidney meridian is where all of our Qi originates.  We are all born with a fixed amount of Kidney Qi - naturally, as we live our lives we use and deplete that Qi.  The Ren and the Chong blossom from the Kidney and are responsible for keeping the female reproductive system healthy and happy.  It is important that we have enough Kidney Qi to nourish these channels and that we replenish our energy regularly.

 

Now, there is more to breast health than just Qi flow.  Chinese medicine also looks at patterns that can lead to imbalance.  The most common patterns that can disrupt our breast health are phlegm accumulation, Qi and blood stagnation, and toxic heat.  Phlegm accumulation is caused by poor fluid metabolism resulting from excess worry and overconsumption of phlegmy substances like dairy, sweets, and greasy foods.  Blood stagnation is a result of long term Qi stagnation, as Qi is responsible for moving blood throughout the body smoothly.  It can also be caused by long term tension and a sedentary lifestyle.  Stagnant Qi and blood over time can turn into excess toxic heat trapped in the body, which can create major health problems.  

 

All of this may be a lot to take in! Chinese Medicine is amazing, but it is also very complex.  Fear not, it is an acupuncturists job to understand the meridians and what patterns are at play in each unique individual…below is a simple list of lifestyle tips to keep yourself healthy and balanced, and to keep your meridians flowing with ease:

 

 

 

1.     Listen to your body. Know when to push yourself and know when to rest.

 

2.     Get regular cardio exercise (yoga, walking, running, swimming, whatever form of movement you enjoy that increases your heart rate and makes you sweat) to keep Qi and blood circulating smoothly. And remember to wear a loose-fitting bra to avoid constriction.

 

3.     Eat organic whole, hormone-free foods - avoid dairy, greasy foods, refined sugar, and processed food. Eat lots of variety within the color and flavor spectrum, making sure to include dark leafy greens, fruit, lean protein, and warm nourishing broths.

 

4.     Let your feelings out, breathe deeply, create a process that helps you let go of frustration, anger, and worry.  Try meditation or doing a soothing activity when you are feeling stressed.

 

5.     Get Acupuncture – it corrects energetic imbalances, calms the nervous system, improves blood circulation, balances hormones, and benefits your immunity and overall health.

 

6.     Take Herbs (as prescribed by a licensed herbalist) – there are a number of herbs that regulate hormones, focus on breast health, and allow the body to heal itself.