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Chinese Hospital's new downtown acupuncture clinic: The point where East meets West


Chelsea Mao ’97 watches as Ceclia Wong Leung ’94 applies an acupuncture treatment to Rochelle Germano in the community room of Chinese Hospital’s new clinic on Commercial Street, right between Chinatown and the Financial District.

By Chelsea Mao ’97
Manager of Program Development & East West Health Services at Chinese Hospital

A flash of insight in a pop-up zendo, years of yoga and a provocative e-book on community acupuncture provided my inspiration for designing Chinese Hospital’s newest clinic in downtown San Francisco, a healing center that offers a new take on a thousands-year-old medical tradition.

 I graduated from Cal in 2001 and worked for a year in equity research before deciding that finance was not for me. I left my job and moved to Japan to refresh my perspective. While teaching English with the Japan Exchange Teaching Programme for three years, I traveled to more than a dozen countries, learned much about the world and myself, and deepened the yoga practice I had started after college. 

Following four years of Division I lacrosse at Cal, I first approached yoga as a form of physical exercise. In time, however, the practice revealed itself as something more profound. I learned to meet difficulty with a sense of curiosity and self-compassion, and to appreciate the process of building poses rather than rushing towards their outer form. These lessons clearly translated to life off the yoga mat. My passion for yoga led me to India, where I stayed for three months and completed a month-long teacher training at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Kerala.

I returned to the U.S. in 2005, full of enthusiasm from my travels in Asia, wanting to know more about traditional cultures and their perspectives on health. In 2008, I completed a master’s program at the Yale School of Public Health, where I researched the evidence basis, practice and delivery of complementary and alternative medicine in the U.S. 

While at Yale, I joined an evening meditation in a pop-up zendo for grad students to reduce stress before midterms. Instead of relaxing, however, I found myself sitting with terrible pain in my shoulders, worrying about unfinished papers and post-graduation plans. My misery grew as I looked around the room and saw that everyone else seemed to be sitting as peacefully and perfectly as a collection of stone Buddhas. Forty minutes passed. Moments before the meditation bell rang, I was struck by a flash of “satori” – a life changing insight. I could see that from the outside, I looked like everyone else: posture upright, face calm and without expression, all the while feeling consumed by pain, envy and self-judgment. In that moment, I realized how appearances can prevent us from acknowledging our own and others’ suffering.

That realization confirmed my desire to serve in healthcare. After graduate school, I returned to San Francisco, and began working for Chinese Hospital. There’s really nothing like it in the country: a fully integrated, non-profit healthcare delivery system that remains intimately aligned with the needs and rhythms of its community. While the hospital’s mission is to serve its community, it is open to everyone. The integrated healthcare delivery system includes a 54-bed acute care facility, numerous outpatient clinics, a 30,000-member health plan and a 200-member physician group. Over the years, the system has benefited from the contributions of many SI grads, including Dr. Edward Chow ’55, Kelvin Quan ’75, Dr. Colin Quock ’57 and his son, Dr. Justin Quock ‘86.

My work involves building integrative medicine programs, including services that improve the wellness of staff, patients and community members.  Over the last three years, one major project has been to develop and introduce the hospital’s new Chinese medicine program. 

It may seem odd that it has taken so long for Chinese Hospital to offer Chinese medicine. However, when the hospital first opened in the early 1900s, it offered Western medicine as most Americans knew little of Chinese medicine and the need for Western medical services in the Chinese community was great.

Chinese Hospital East West Health Services

Our Chinese medicine program has been in the making for many years, requiring the collaboration of numerous leaders from the hospital’s board of directors, administration and medical staff. I’ve learned much in the process and am excited to see our first dedicated clinic open.

As the nation’s first community hospital-operated clinic specializing in Chinese Medicine, Chinese Hospital East West Health Services aims to make holistic medical practices like Chinese medicine more integrated, understandable and accessible with a convenient downtown location and 24/7 online scheduling. Aside from acupuncture, the clinic provides cupping, moxibustion, herbal medicine, nutrition therapy, health education and classes such as tai chi and qigong.

The 1400-square foot clinic on Commercial Street feels like a refuge amidst the bustle of downtown activity with two 25-foot trees providing a leafy canopy just outside. To protect patient privacy, the clinic has separate areas for consultation and treatment, including four private treatment areas. The focus of the clinic, however, is the community room, a warm, open space where patients relax while receiving treatment as they rest fully-clothed on comfortable zero-gravity recliners. The layout allows for both individual repose, as well as a feeling of connection and collective participation, similar to a zendo or meditation hall.  Instead of doors, brush-stroke patterned curtains provide soft, quiet dividers between the different areas of the clinic. Soft music and a hint of aromatherapy set the tone for a relaxing experience.

The clinic draws patients from both sides of Commercial street, including patients from the Chinese community who know and have been using the Western healthcare services of Chinese Hospital for generations, as well as the multitudes of people who live, work or commute near the Financial District. Though the clinic just opened last year, people are eager to visit us because of our affiliation with the hospital. Our acupuncturists have experience and a strong interest in working with Western medical providers.

One of our newest acupuncturists, Cecilia Wong Leung ’94, grew up in Chinatown and serves as a wonderful bridge between Chinese and Western culture and medicine.  Six years ago, Wong Leung was involved in a car accident that badly injured her arm and left her disabled for half a year. “No amount of MRIs, pain medication or physical therapy could give me back the use of my right arm,” she said. “I finally tried acupuncture, and within one treatment, I regained function in my arm. It felt miraculous.” 

Following her recovery, Wong Leung quit her job, enrolled in Chinese medicine school and began apprenticing with the Chinese doctor who had treated her. She chose to work at Chinese Hospital because she was born at the Chinese Hospital and grew up in Chinatown. “Both my grandpa and my dad owned businesses here, and my mom still lives here today,” she noted. “I had always thought that if any hospital would have acupuncture, it would be Chinese Hospital, so I am proud and honored to use my Chinese medicine and language skills to serve my community.”

Group-based Therapies

Group-based acupuncture first came to my attention in 2009 when a friend sent me an e-book written by a Portland-based acupuncturist who had studied Chinese medicine because she wanted to be a healer, but found that few people could afford to pay the standard rate of $60 to $120 per visit and come with enough frequency to achieve the full benefits of treatment. A typical course of acupuncture can involve six to 10 sessions, and just like a prescription of antibiotics or injections, if acupuncture treatments are spaced too widely, their effect is diminished or lost. The author discovered that a group-based model allowed for more economical use of space. She passed her savings on to her patients, who then came more frequently and saw greater improvements.

Given the hospital’s goal to make Chinese medicine more available and accessible, the group-oriented layout of our community room is both efficient and allows patients to see others benefiting from treatment, thus creating a sense of connection among patients, especially those who may be nervous about trying Chinese medicine for the first time. Also, being with other people provides powerful support, even if names or words are never spoken, just as in yoga or tai chi classes.

Educational Mission

The clinic also works to improve public understanding of Chinese medicine, including its applications and limitations. At the hospital and through our community physicians’ offices, we sometimes hear stories about patients who have relied detrimentally on Chinese medicine instead of seeking appropriate Western medical care. Conversely, there are many cases in which Chinese medicine can provide a more or equally effective treatment alternative, often with fewer undesirable side effects. 

The key is education. People are often afraid of what they don’t know. We encourage people to ask questions regarding the largely unexplored territory of integrative medicine. The field continues to unfold as public interest and funding increase. The challenge is to build programs that are as cost-effective as they are integrated to ensure sustainability.

All of the clinic’s classes are held in the community room. While one-on-one education is important, group classes can help participants who learn from both the instructor as well as the questions and experiences of other patients. People see they are not alone in dealing with issues such as chronic pain, insomnia, cancer, diabetes or infertility. These issues affect both the bodies as well as the priorities, routines, diets and social lives of our patients. People need support as they acknowledge and address the non-medical aspects of their health conditions and goals. 

Final Thoughts

If we think we’re the only ones with pain, whether physical, mental or emotional, our suffering is magnified; however, when we realize that others experience pain like ours, we gain relief in knowing we’re not alone, and our connection to others gives us strength.

People coming to our clinic, I hope, will enjoy the process of learning, as Chinese medicine can be as fun as it is fascinating. I also hope they will begin to understand themselves better and learn to care for what they find important as they journey through various phases of life, whether sickness or health, injury or healing.

This is also an extension of what I learned in that zendo years ago: We can’t always know the hidden sufferings of others, so why not treat everyone with care and compassion, even if they don’t appear to need it? For me, yoga, meditation and Chinese medicine help me to understand myself and to connect with others.  These practices help so many people maintain health, speed recovery and develop the internal resources we all need so that we might get through and learn from difficult times.

When we dare to look deeply at our own experience, vulnerabilities and hopes for safety, security and happiness, it’s hard not to see how we share these with everyone. It’s just part of being human.

Sidebar: Honoring Dr. Edward Chow

Two SI grads who have cared for San Francisco's Chinese community over the years have been Dr. Colin Quock ’57, the recipient of SI’s Christ the King Award, and Dr. Edward Chow ’55, a commissioner on the city’s Health Commission.

Dr. Chow received the Department of Public Health’s Silver SPUR Award last October at the Moscone Center for his long history of service. The department praised Dr. Chow, citing his work “addressing health needs, access and disparities for four decades, including working with the Chinese Hospital and its physicians to create the Chinese Community Health Plan, the nation’s first culturally competent health plan dedicated to the needs of an Asian community.”

Dr. Chow has served under five mayors on the San Francisco Health Commission, where he advocated for the rebuilding of its two public hospitals and established neighborhood primary care clinics. He is a founder and leader of numerous organizations, including the National Council of Asian and Pacific Islander Physicians.


Posted by Mr. Paul J. Totah on Friday March, 15, 2013 at 01:23PM

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