Case in Point // Inside the Growing Practice of Acupuncture

By George Soltes

Cassie G. likes to meet life head-on. Nicknamed “Granola Girl” by her brother Kip for her healthy habits, the longtime Bainbridge resident has always taken full advantage of the island’s natural resources, maintaining a packed schedule of biking, hiking and swimming in addition to working as a hematology nurse at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle.

In May 2018, after experiencing unusual difficulty pedaling her bike up Wyatt Way, Cassie sought medical attention and was met with the unexpected news that she had lung cancer, which had already spread, among other places, to her brain. “Right away,” she said, “I decided that I’m not getting sucked into the doom and gloom.”

She charged forward with an all-hands-on-deck approach, supplementing the world-class medical care she received at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance with meditation, yoga, exercise and acupuncture. “I determined right when I was diagnosed that I was going to use everything in the book that people have been using for thousands of years and acupuncture is one of those.”

After a bit of research, Cassie began receiving regular treatment from Bajda Welty at Fire Dragon Acupuncture and Massage. She believes that acupuncture has helped with symptoms such as nausea, poor appetite and abdominal pain and has boosted her energy level. She also has other hopes for the therapy. “I really believe on some level it helps the immune system kick in again and maybe take care of the cancer cells too, so I’m putting that in my back pocket.”

Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles into the skin, a technique based upon the traditional Chinese concept of qi (pronounced chee). Qi is believed to be a vital life energy that flows along pathways called meridians. Illness is said to result when there is disruption of flow through these meridians, and health is regained when needles are inserted into specific points in the body to improve energy flow and restore qi to proper balance.

As acupuncturist Welty (at right and on previous page) explained, “The Chinese theory of acupuncture is purely an energetic theory of medicine.” Modern Western science has not settled on a unified understanding of how or to what extent acupuncture works, but theories abound.

Proposed mechanisms include release of endorphins, happy chemicals which create an opioid-like effect; gate control theory, which posits that the needles stimulate large nerves so that smaller, painful nerves are inhibited (the same reason that rubbing your elbow helps when you hit your funny bone); and good old placebo effect, a field of study unto itself.

Welty is less concerned with causal theories than with tangible results for her patients. “I’ve seen so many patients change, and I don’t always know why,” she said. “The way I put it is, if you have a few treatments and you notice a difference, then great. If not, then great. It’s a modality you can try and you’re not going to get a harmful side effect.”

The results Welty has achieved for her patients are reflected in the growth of her practice over the years. What started as one day a week on the island as a sideline from her main practice in Seattle evolved ultimately into the relocation of Fire Dragon (the name refers to Welty’s Chinese astrological sign) to Bainbridge in 2004 and its continued expansion ever since.

In addition to Welty, who performs acupuncture and other types of traditional Chinese medicine in five treatment rooms at the Coppertop Loop facility, the practice employs two massage therapists. Welty plans to add another acupuncturist soon and hopes to eventually offer a drop-in clinic for acute problems.

In contrast to Welty’s expanding practice, Maria Cook (at right) has operated Five Element Acupuncture out of the same single treatment room at historic Wyatt House since 1991. Cook believes in establishing an intimate, long-term relationship with each patient. “I allow a whole hour with every person,” she said. “I really sit and listen and see what’s alive in the person at that time.”

Local realtor and developer Jon T. has benefited from Cook’s approach. He suffered throughout his adult life with moderate depression and didn’t see much benefit from traditional psychiatric care and antidepressants. “Those kinds of medicines never really worked,” he said, “and I didn’t respond well to them.”

Acupuncture allowed him to take a different approach to his mental health. Once he started seeing Cook in 2002, he never looked back, and continues to be treated about every other week. “It just feels so good to me,” he said. “It gives me energy. I walk out of there kind of euphoric and feel good.”

Welty estimates that the number of acupuncturists on Bainbridge Island has doubled during the time she has been in practice, a phenomenon which mirrors nationwide enthusiasm for the procedure. So, how did a 2,500-year-old Chinese practice that involves getting poked with a lot of needles find a foothold in modern-day America?

In a prime example of the law of unintended consequences, the answer can be traced back to President Richard Nixon. While acupuncture flourished in ancient China, by the early 20th century the technique had fallen out of favor as China embraced Western science and acupuncture came to be viewed as the peasant medicine of a bygone era.

The procedure got its second wind in 1949, when Mao Tse-tung took power and sought to unite the Chinese people around common cultural values, including acupuncture and other forms of traditional Chinese medicine. Nixon came into the story when, in preparation for the president’s historic visit in 1972, New York Times columnist James Reston visited China and was promptly struck down by appendicitis, requiring emergency surgery.

Reston wrote in the Times how his pain was controlled with acupuncture and thus was born an American fascination with the procedure which has never abated. Today, there are around 18,000 licensed acupuncturists in the United States and over 10 million acupuncture treatments performed annually. Many insurance companies now pay for acupuncture, although currently Medicare does not.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a U.S. government agency which explores complementary and alternative medicine, supports the utility of the technique for headache, back, neck and knee pain, and osteoarthritis, while stating that its value for other health issues remains uncertain. Bainbridge Family Physician Michael Tomberg regularly refers his chronic pain patients for acupuncture.

“When people are in chronic pain,” he said, “I try to search for a non-narcotic and a non-pharmaceutical solution that may be beneficial. I will often add this because I think it’s often a very effective strategy that carries very minimal risk.” Eighteen months after her cancer diagnosis, Cassie G. continues to go strong. On the day we met, she had just completed a brisk swim with a friend in the chilly waters of Blakely Harbor.

“I figure it’s going to cure everything,” she joked. “Cryotherapy of the best sort.” She maintains her vigorous, multi-pronged approach to recovery, and hopes that others will educate themselves about all the resources available to help them keep well. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for our healthcare system,” she said. “But by being open to other types of therapies, it really can be an option for expanding your options for health.”