Six days a week, acupuncturists tiptoe in and out of two softly lit rooms in a building on Second Street, the only sounds a few whispers exchanged with men and women in the 11 reclining chairs and the soft shush of traffic outside.
It doesn’t look or sound like a revolution, but Santa Fe’s We The People Community Acupuncture has been a solid part of one since it opened in 2008. The clinic treats an average of 150 people each week, and most of those patients pay just $15 per treatment.
Owned by Santa Fe native Katy Whitcomb, Doctor of Oriental Medicine, it’s part of an international cooperative of community acupuncture clinics that began in 2002 when acupuncturists Lisa Rohleder and Skip Van Meter founded Working Class Acupuncture in Portland, Ore. In doing so, they turned the American model of acupuncture delivery on its head, offering affordable treatments in a group setting.
Whitcomb said the business model takes after the traditional, community-style treatment common in Asia. “People go to the acupuncturist for four or five days in a row when they feel the need, rather than waiting until they are in emergency mode. It’s affordable and the treatments build momentum. When the pain is gone or the issue is resolved, they stop going. Simple.”
Whitcomb explains that acupuncture is most effective in treating pain, anxiety, depression and trauma, and “for it to really be effective you have to go two, three or four times a week. In America, treatments run around $75, and it isn’t affordable for most people.”
Born and raised in Santa Fe, Whitcomb attended George Washington University for pre-med for two years, “and really got to see how the Western medical system worked. Doctors had their hands tied, with insurance companies on one side and pharmaceutical companies on the other. The big missing piece was patient wellness.”
She then went to China on a study-abroad program at the School for International Training in southwestern China. “That changed my life. I dropped out of school and traveled for a year, went back to school at The University of New Mexico and got my degree in anthropology, moved back to Santa Fe and went to the International Institute of Chinese Medicine here, graduating in 2002.”
She opened a private practice in acupuncture and began adding work at the clinic in the fall of 2012. “The private practice never really felt right,” she said. “I wanted to help people but didn’t want them to have to pay $50 to $75 a treatment. It was uncomfortable. This is very simple, and it feeds me in a very deep way because people are so grateful. It’s just lovely. It’s all about getting people the treatment they need.”
At the clinic, volunteers staff the front desk, and Whitcomb shares treatment hours with Thomas Hodge, a Tesuque resident and licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine.
“We use points on the scalp and below the elbows and knees to treat the entire body, so there’s no need to undress — just remove your shoes and roll up your pants and sleeves,” Whitcomb said. “You are surrounded by other people quietly receiving treatment at the same time. This is not a lack of privacy but an opportunity to experience treatment with family, friends and community. The patients create the healing atmosphere as much as the practitioner — the shared state makes individual treatments more powerful.”
The 200th community acupuncture clinic opened in 2011, and the movement incorporated as the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture. POCA offers membership and leadership to community acupuncture patients, licensed acupuncturists and those in training programs, community acupuncture clinics, and supporting groups, and also provides micro-loans to startup clinics. A central part of its mission is “a mode of direct delivery of inexpensive care for people of ordinary incomes regardless of insurance coverage …” and “a commitment to social justice and the deconstruction of barriers to care and health care resources.”
POCA clinics use a sliding scale of $15 to $50, with no proof of income required or income guidelines used. Santa Fe’s clinic charges $15 to $40, and like all the others, doesn’t require proof of income or use income guidelines. There’s also a one-time initial consultation fee of $10. No appointments are required, and drop-ins are encouraged. In New Mexico, there are three POCA clinics in Albuquerque and one each in Taos and Las Cruces.
If this is a revolution, said Whitcomb, it’s a very benign one: “Acupuncture is fundamentally different from so many other healing modalities in that it treats trauma and chronic stress. That’s the inspirational part of acupuncture for me — helping people clear the emotional component of stress out so it doesn’t form disease.
“Our goal is to have people say to us, ‘I’m getting better. I don’t need to come as often.’ My goal is to move the inflammation out, and then they don’t have to come back.”
Contact Carolyn Patten at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We the People Community Acupuncture
1406 Second St.
Open Monday, Wednesday and Friday 10 am-4 pm, Tuesday and Thursday noon-6 pm and Saturday 10 am-2 pm