Acupuncture: A 40 year love story

Acupuncture: A 40 year love story

This year marks two major milestones in my life:

The first is that this month , Six Fishes Neighborhood Acupuncture turns 10! The second is that this year marks my 40th anniversary as an acupuncturist. 

10 years ago, I got a bug in my head to open a hybrid private and community acupuncture clinic. At that time, Independence Blue Cross didn’t cover acupuncture. There was virtually no insurance coverage, and I wanted to reach out to working-class  folks whose budgets were  stretched thin from mortgages, childcare, tuition, and student loans- and not much left over for self-care. We’d offer treatments that would offer solid but streamlined holistic care. To differentiate it from other community clinics, with recliners in a common space, I’d have massage tables and separate them with drapes. It would be semi-private

My husband found an ideal space in the Grays Ferry Triangle on the ground floor of the Osun Building. The building was developed to be a home for Lois Fernandez the founder of the Odunde Festival, as well as other seniors. There had been a short-lived pharmacy in the space that opened and closed quickly.

At that time, Naval Square was new. The triangle only had Grace Tavern and the Balkan Express. It was dark at night. The condos all along the south street were still large empty lots. The actual triangle still had traffic on both sides. The condos in the church were a dream for the future.

But- it had a walk score of 95. I knew there were plans to build CHOP. I sensed the triangle’s potential and imagined a future there. So– with no business plan, budget, or team –and only a crazy dream– I signed a lease and wrote a mission statement dedicated to excellent treatments, community service, life-long learning, generous sharing of knowledge, all while providing well-paying, dignified employment for acupuncturists. We would do good by doing good. 

And then I stopped sleeping. What the hell had I done? I ruined my life! Why do I need two offices in one zip code? How would I run two places? I was broke. 

There was no path except forward: I built the space out on credit cards. I painted and re-covered chairs someone had put on the street for the waiting room. I repurposed a hair salon’s granite counter into a desk. Made a window from a door, sewed curtains, made daily trips to IKEA and opened the doors. 

I did everything I could think of to let people know about the practice. I’d have “raffles,” and I’d literally call everyone and tell them they “won.” I had coupons.  Pop up clinics. Just to get people in the door. I mindfully invested in our growing neighborhood donating treatments to schools, nursery’s, theatre groups, neighborhood festivals and even little league. And then, it happened. People came, and word spread. 

Long frustrated by the lack of insurance coverage for acupuncture from our largest regional insurer, Independence Blue Cross, I wrote a long, detailed letter hand-delivered by Jim Kenney (not yet our Mayor) to Dan Hilferty- IBX’s CEO at the time, with 31 citations demonstrating how acupuncture is safe and effective for pain. Then, I tweeted @ibx for 2 years. Nag nag nag. I mean- for chrissakes- we were (are) the epicenter of the opioid crisis. Can’t we please have safe, sane pain strategies? Finally, they opted to cover acupuncture. My persistence paid off to the benefit of thousands of Philadelphians Other insurances followed and about 50% of our patients have insurance coverage. 

10 years later, we’ve safely navigated a pandemic with zero cases of covid traceable to Six Fishes. We became a machine of rules of safety. I knew if I could my staff safe, our patients would be safe. I have such deep gratitude for the grace the practitioners showed as our world was shape shifting in real time. 

Now, we see about 170 patient visits weekly, and I sure wish we had twice the space we have. 

I’m also celebrating an even greater milestone in my life. 

This June marks 40 years of practicing acupuncture. 

How the hell did THAT happen? When I was in school, my teacher, Dr. So, had practiced for 40 years. I could not imagine that one day this would be me. 

Want to know what the acupuncture landscape was like back then? When I was in The New England School of Acupuncture, acupuncture needles were considered experimental medical devices. There were no disposable needles! They weren’t available until 1984, which coincided with the onset of the AIDs epidemic. Also, there were no books! Everything was xeroxed handouts and copies of books from China or Europe.

When I graduated in 1983, I moved from Boston back to my hometown- NYC. Unfortunately, acupuncture wasn’t legal then,  so I did what everyone else did: I practiced without a license. That is, until I got busted in 1988. Who’s the OG? Me

I closed my practice in Manhattan overnight and ran to the Catskills. At this time, I’d been studying Chinese Herbs with my teacher in Philadelphia. The law had just passed here. A dear friend gifted me money, and I decided to use it to study Herbology at a hospital in Beijing. I fell in love with Chinese Herbal Medicine. 

When I returned, Nancy Post, who still practices in Mt Airy, offered to refer patients to me. I was untethered to any clinic, or even any city, I began to commute to Philly weekly, renting a room in Rittenhouse Square. When I learned I was pregnant with my daughter in ’89, I relocated here. My practice grew quickly, and then through a series of coincidental- “Can you fill this formula for me,” China Herb Company, a custom compounding herbal dispensary, was born.

This is the shortest version of this narrative. My longest-time patients know this. There were times the community held me up, most especially when I was suddenly widowed at 41 with two young children.

Can I share a nugget of wisdom? Say YES to opportunities. Take risks. Do it well. Do it badly. Fuck up, learn, and do better next time. Be in service to others and the world. And most importantly, lead with love.

40 years on , Chinese Medicine still engages me. I still feel curious and eager to keep studying this beautiful and human medicine. In this final chapter of my career, I see fewer patients, run the business end of things, and teach and write. I’m trying to learn to work less, and work differently and maybe, just maybe, imagine a retirement one day. 

A lot of life has happened in the 33 years since I arrived in Philadelphia. I am grateful and honored to care for so many; to all who took a chance on me. 

With a deep bow of gratitude to you and with all the love in my heart.