Three people — eyes closed, their breathing slow and relaxed — are already reclining in La-Z-Boys in the treatment room when a man, a walk-in, crosses the threshold of Communi-chi’s front office, housed in Beacon Hill’s El Centro de la Raza building. After filling out a questionnaire addressing health issues past and present, he enters the room and, locating a seat in a corner, eases back until his legs are buoyed by the chair’s elevating flank.
Held in a state of repose, he turns his hand palm up to acupuncture practitioner Serena Sundaram, who lays her fingers on the man’s inner wrist. She gauges his pulse. Then, moving with quiet efficiency, she delicately inserts small acupuncture needles in the auricles of his ears, the flesh between thumbs and forefingers, the skin separating big and index toes. Sundaram checks on the other patients, sometimes applying the slightest pressure to the thin, nearly invisible stainless steel filaments rising from points on their heads, hands, and feet, before closing the door behind her.
In her wake, soft music, overdubbed with the strains of chirping birds, plays. Sunlight streams through a bank of eastern-facing windows. And four patients, seated in one room together, are experiencing a phenomenon relatively new to Seattle: community acupuncture.
“The basic difference with community acupuncture,” suggests Jordan Van Voast, Sundaram’s business partner, “is less on an exotic style: Let’s just create an acupuncture treatment that people can afford.”
It’s this tenet – that the benefits of acupuncture should be available to all people, regardless of income level — that sits at the heart of the model practiced at Communi-chi. The business name echoes this philosophy, with its play on the word community, substituting the last syllable with chi, the Chinese term variously translated as “energy flow” or “life force.”
“A roomful of people getting treated simultaneously,” says Van Voast, “will create a feeling of healing that all people can draw from.”
What gives the community model its own life are three principles, drawn from the bylaws of the Community Acupuncture Network: Treatments are on a sliding scale, topping out at $35; patients are treated en masse; and clinics must operate sustainable business models that offer economic recompense to the practitioner. At Communi-chi, patients, based upon their income, can receive treatments for as little $15, while seated in one of the nine fleece-covered La-Z-Boys cast in a circle in the treatment area.
“In a way,” says Sundaram, “it’s reframing health care.”
While acupuncture (which comes from the Latin pairing of acus, “needle,” and pungere, “prick”) has been traced back some 5,000 years, the community model harkens to the “barefoot doctors” of Maoist China. Trained from anywhere between six to 18 months, these individuals treated rural citizens, focusing on preventive care that even the poorest could take advantage of. While the system of barefoot doctors was abolished in the early ’80s, its philosophy of affordable, preventative health care survived.
In the Northwest, this model is best exemplified by Portland’s Working Class Acupuncture, which treats hundreds of people a week. Locally, Evergreen Treatment Services, a methadone treatment center, offers acupuncture in a communal setting.
Laura Thomas, sole proprietor of Community Acupuncture and Healing Center of North Seattle, says the standard mode of acupuncture in the United States — which centers on one-on-one treatments that can range between $60-$125 a session — sometimes bears the veneer of classism. Insurance billing was also difficult, she says. And though she only has one table and a chair upon which to practice at the moment, she looks to the model as one that can address the country’s health care inequities. “I think it’s going to take grassroots organizations or clinics [to do it],” says Thomas.
Sundaram believes that, even while Communi-chi is only a month old, making acupuncture accessible is the first step in helping people experience greater health. Having been treated herself, when she was nine, for a heart murmur, she thinks that removing the treatment’s usual costs will make any fear of needles dissipate into the ether.
“Putting down $15 for something new makes it easier,” she says.
By ROSETTE ROYALE, Staff Reporter
What to learn more about local community acupuncture? Check out the Communi-chi website, www.communichi.org, or contact Community Acupuncture and Healing Center of North Seattle, (206) 226-9014.
The Community Acupuncture Network is a collection of practitioners and patients working to make acupuncture more affordable and accessible: www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/28/feb-28-2007-entire-issue