By Jen Hirsch
The sounds of rain and bells and the smell of incense and moxa float through the air as Athena Desai palpates the wrist of a patient lying on the table in her small Cambridge office on Arrow Street. She pushes and then is still and pushes again, looking for a change in the quality of the heartrate as the man remains quiet under the red glow of her heat lamp, several tiny needles propped in the skin of his arms and legs.
For veterans experiencing the aftermath of physical and emotional injuries, the road to recovery can be fraught with difficulties, uncertainty and stigma. Given these challenges, reaching out to these individuals can be especially difficult, but it’s a project Desai has taken on with the One Arrow Project – a program in which she provides acupuncture treatments to military veterans on a sliding scale.
Desai hasn’t always been handy with needles. The 38 year-old Cambridge-resident and mother spent 12 years reporting for National Public Radio (NPR) before entering the New England School of Acupuncture in Watertown five years ago. Desai, also a licensed herbalist, now practices Japanese styles of acupuncture just outside of Harvard Square in an office, which she shares with five other bodywork specialists.
Acupuncture is a branch of Chinese medicine that’s been in continuous practice for roughly 2000 years. It’s a holistic medicine that treats the whole individual (versus a disease or disorder), on a physical, emotional and spiritual level. It’s based on the principle that moving energy around the body helps to heal wounds – both physical and mental.
Her desire to treat veterans has been a slow burn. Working as a reporter during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, she covered many aspects of the conflicts – including the troubles of families of veterans who were killed or wounded overseas. Reporting these stories from the comfort of San Diego and Washington D.C., she was struck by how little the lives of ordinary Americans were affected by these wars as scores of veterans returned home with physical and mental injuries. Unlike previous wars, without a draft, or higher taxes, they were not impacting day-to-day life of most people in her community.
“It’s not sympathy that inspired this program – it’s more that I feel compelled to help treat the wounds that people in my generation have as they return home from this war. I feel a sense of duty and the need to contribute – to give back,” says Desai.
Desai treated her first veteran while still in graduate school at the student clinic. She began building the One Arrow Project as a solo endeavor to connect with Boston’s young military veteran community and to help them heal from injuries sustained during active duty.
Veterans come in with a variety of injuries. Desai says that many service members might associate acupuncture with the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) — which is typically characterized as a type of anxiety resulting from trauma. Since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a steady rise in the prevalence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with studies showing that as many as 22% of Americans who served in those countries suffer from the disorder. The U.S. military has increasingly begun experimenting with acupuncture as a treatment for PTSD – with positive results – but veteran friends have told Desai that it remains a touchy way to frame her treatment because the term is so loaded. But acupuncturists don’t make any biomedical diagnoses, rather, the treatment is holistic. Given the nature of acupuncture, it can also affect the psyche and alleviate stress for those patients seeking treatment for physical pain.
“I’ve observed that veterans tend to incorporate their pain into their lives and don’t want others to know that it’s there. They are so duty-driven and accustomed to navigating high pressure situations and demands, that they tend not to pay much attention to pain, even if it’s chronic,” says Desai. “They just adjust. And, in my experience, they don’t like to talk about it unless it’s reached a point where they can’t ignore it.”
Desai met her first One Arrow Project patients through Team Red, White and Blue, an organization that brings veterans together through physical activities like runs along Charles River and Cross Fit workouts. She treated a former Army captain who recently received his MBA from Harvard, from the early spring until he left for a motorcycle trip to Argentina later in the summer. She also met and treated a woman who lost a sibling in Afghanistan. Both patients have since moved out of the area.
Currently Desai is treating a handful of veterans including Socrates Rosenfeld, a 31-year-old MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and former helicopter pilot who served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010. Rosenfeld sought help for numerous physical injuries including pain in his wrist, neck and lower back. He admits that he had a bit of a fear of needles before he began his treatment in September.
“I realized right away that it’s about so much more than just the needles,” says Rosenfeld. “It’s really about releasing blockages that exist in your body.”
He found that the alleviation of his physical pain paid off in other ways. “Mental health is very much tied to physical well-being, especially right when you come home from a very stressful environment. I realized that it’s important to recharge the body as you re-enter the civilian world,” he said.
Desai has long been interested in populations that have been through traumatic experiences. While attending Vassar College she worked at Green Haven Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison located in Stormville, New York in a discussion group with prisoners serving extremely long sentences. The experience was highly educational for her as she learned about the trauma that many experienced growing up in intense inner city situations and the social and cultural contexts that make crime so prevalent. She worked with the group doing community service projects to raise funds for at-risk youth – a way for the prisoners to give back to their communities and help to end of the cycle of violence.
“There is a real need to be gentle and compassionate through any kind of traumatic experience. We all have them, and they don’t just go away. Our bodies hold onto experiences that are difficult to process, and acupuncture is the perfect way to move what’s stuck and understand where pain and imbalance are coming from. Acupuncture is about restoring balance – if there’s too much of something you pour it out; if there is not enough you add to it,” says Desai.
Rosenfeld was surprised that he has seen immediate results and alleviation of the pain in his wrist, neck and back, “The first experience was pretty cool — I was surprised at how much she was listening to my body. She would take my pulse and try different points on the body and spend a lot of time with me before she made a recommendation.”
Desai says that most people realize very quickly that acupuncture is more complex and nuanced than you might think. It’s about exploring the body and really listening to the patient.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how quickly he’s become aware of his own body and how his history, structure and behavior come into play in the issues he’s working on now,” says Desai of Rosenfeld. “He’s made a lot of progress in a very short time and like all veterans I’ve treated, is super humble about his service and grateful for the treatments, which is humbling for me.”
Despite the fact that Desai is trying to give away her services for free, or offer them for reduced rates, she has had a hard time finding a robust patient base. She hopes to grow the project significantly over the coming year and is still working to make inroads with the veteran population in Cambridge. She has been in touch with the veteran alumni groups at area colleges and universities and various other organizations including the veteran group run by the city of Cambridge.
Though acupuncture has been around for thousands of years the treatment itself – just the principle of moving energy – is still a mystery to most people.
“It probably sounds like I’m calling from Mars when I say that I’d like to stick needles in veterans for free,” laughs Desai, “but it’s really all about getting people to take care of themselves – something that can be extremely difficult.”
According to Rosenfeld there is a fairly robust community of military veterans in Boston due to the high concentration of colleges and universities. Rosenfeld says, that in the military, acupuncture is an unknown and exotic kind of treatment. He believes that people are just starting to understand and appreciate the practice and that the Project will eventually grow by word of mouth. “Military veterans need to hear it from each other that it works.,” he says.
The act of just getting a veteran to walk through the door and begin to heal from injuries sustained during the war is not completely selfless – Desai believes that it’s an act that helps the entire community. A small percentage of all revenues from all treatments go to sponsoring the program. Thus the Project is based on the idea that just by taking care of yourself, you can help somebody else.
Desai has continued her outreach efforts and is slowly growing her patient base. She is thinking about implementing a fundraising structure for the program in the future as well.
She hopes eventually to create a thriving community of veterans and civilians who are invested in healing and partnership. “I want to bridge the gap between veterans and meaningful care, and I want to facilitate a connection between all of us who are driven to serve in one way or another. I also hope to expand the program to include other types of ‘warriors’, primarily teen survivors of trauma.”
For more information on the One Arrow Project or to apply for treatment please visit: www.athenaacupuncture.com.