Seven people recline in easy chairs, most of them relaxed or even asleep despite the many needles sticking out of their skin. An eighth person moves among them on a rolling chair, inserting even more needles into their ears, foreheads, hands, and ankles.
This is community acupuncture in action. The patients are being treated by Matthew Stuckey, a licensed practitioner and the owner of Bellingham Community Acupuncture. Appointments are staggered in 15-minute intervals, with each patient receiving individual consultation time and up to an hour for their treatment session.
A Community Model for Care
Acupuncture — the practice of inserting thin needles into specific points on a patient’s body to stimulate their nerves — has been a mainstream practice in the U.S. since the 1970s. Often used to treat pain such as carpal tunnel, back problems, and rheumatoid arthritis, acupuncture has also been used to help ease the effects of chemotherapy, stress, depression, withdrawal, and PTSD.
Despite gaining traction in the U.S., current data shows only six percent of the population has sought acupuncture for treatment. If more insurance companies covered acupuncture, might more people explore it as a treatment option?
Community clinics such as Stuckey’s aim to put acupuncture within the financial reach of all. The community model originated in China and arrived in the U.S. in the early 2000s. As word spread about community acupuncture, the model grew in popularity along the West Coast. In 2011, POCA (if you say it aloud, you’ll get the little joke), the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture was formed. There are now more than 100 clinics working within the POCA cooperative model across the U.S.
Affordable Acupuncture, Locally
The first community clinic in Bellingham was founded in 2013, by a practitioner named Ed Layton. In 2018, Layton handed his ‘pins’ to Stuckey, whose first experiences with the community model were as a patient, dealing with injuries — first from a car accident and later from snowboarding.
“It’s like coming full circle. I want my work to be meaningful to a bigger cause,” Stuckey says. “I’m trying to get acupuncture to people who wouldn’t otherwise get it.”
The centerpiece of Stuckey’s clinic, located on Elm Street in the Columbia neighborhood, is a spacious room lined with recliners. Each recliner is covered in a clean fleece blanket. On the day I visit, one patient looks at his phone, two have their eyes closed, and another is clearly asleep. The atmosphere is relaxing, with a sense of safety.
This is clearly not the typical Western model of patient care. For starters, treatments range from $25-$45 per session. Additionally, patients do not receive treatment alone in a sterile room or discuss their medical concerns in private. We are, instead, part of a community of people that need treatment and relief, and perhaps the community is part of the treatment, for I am struck, over and over, by the respect that patients here show one another. No one looks directly at anyone else, except to occasionally flash a quick smile of recognition. The sense of safety in the room is palpable. I ask Stuckey if the energy of the room can help the healing process.
“I have heard that so many times — and I’m not woo-woo, either,” he says. “We have a traumatized culture, so to be in a room with other people, instead of just one doctor, one patient…I think it just feels safer. I’m trained in trauma-informed care, and I’m trying to create an atmosphere of safety.”
Stuckey notes the community model could be a model for other types of treatment, too. “The challenge of bringing medical costs down is part of a systemic problem. What we’re doing here is taking matters in our own hands. There is no insurance, no waiting for approvals, etc.”
A Slower, More Gentle Approach
What about the needles? Specifically, needles inserted into the body — a top ten fear of most Americans. Stuckey understands and sympathizes. His technique of tapping the needles means some patients don’t even notice the moment of insertion.
“Find a practitioner who’s gentle with needles,” Stuckey says. “I’m needle-phobic myself. In school I had to stick needles in myself for a long time.”
While Stuckey sees people for both physical and psychological issues, he says some patients come in without a specific concern, but rather for the overall benefits. “Some people don’t have an ailment, they just want to feel good; they just want a tune-up,” he says. “As a society, we’re craving slowing down. [Here] you just have to sit…how often do we do that?”
Finally, I ask Stuckey the question he says he was dreading: How does acupuncture work?
“There is a Western explanation and an Eastern explanation,” Stuckey says. “Acupuncture comes from a very different cultural viewpoint of the body. [It] nudges you into the parasympathetic state — rest and relax. When we’re working on emotions, we’re not working on thoughts and brains, we’re working on the body. I’m comfortable saying we don’t exactly know how it works.”
Hamlet’s words pop into my head: “There are more things on Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I believe acupuncture’s adherents, myself included, are comfortable not knowing exactly how it works. We show up, instead, for the very real benefits we’ve experienced.
2205 Elm St., 360.734.1659, bhamcommunityacupuncture.com
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