Interview by Sarah Clark, LAc.
Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Helen Henry, MD, LAc, to talk about her journey to become both an MD and an acupuncturist, and to understand how she combines these approaches in her healing work. Here is what she had to say.
Sarah: Tell me about your journey into becoming a healer.
Helen: My mother had some serious health problems when I was about 12. I was the third of six kids. My father always took me in to talk to the doctors. Then we’d come out and he’d say, “Well, what did he say?” I don’t know how that happened, but we just sort of arrived at that somehow. People who knew me then always thought I was going to be a doctor. I had no conscious thought of that.
But then I was drawn to the sciences in college, and I ended up studying nuclear chemistry and radiochemistry. At that time, if I pursued that, then I’d be working for the Department of Defense, and I didn’t want to do that. So I went to medical school.
It was a pivotal time in medicine. I was in medical school in San Francisco, and there were strikes by the house staff. We were taking care of people who were living in their cars, giving them baby formula and orange juice to survive on. It was just a crazy time.
I ended up deciding I wanted to do primary care. I had done research all through college and paid my way through medical school doing research at one of the medical schools in St. Louis. I ended up in Portland because an old friend was here. I ended up doing internal medicine in a primary care focused place. I really enjoyed that, but that was right before all the managed care stuff and the pressure to produce, produce, produce, and try and do everything in a mechanistic way. And it just got sort of miserable to practice. And more and more women were leaving the practice because they had children. And I also had a son. Everyone wanted a woman internist so I’d get all their charts. So, I got to the point where the workload was ridiculous, and I felt like I was going to lose out on my son’s young life, so I quit in 1999.
Then, in 2000, this woman just called me from across the way and said, “We want you to come and work for us. You can have whatever hours you want.” And so I worked part time and was able to participate in my son’s school and all that sort of stuff. And that clinic was focused on sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health in general. So that was sort of interesting. I had been in San Francisco right when AIDS was defined. So it was like, “What is going on?” And then we realized what was going on, and 50% of our general admissions at San Francisco General were related to AIDS, so I’d had very intensive experience then.
I started doing Tai Qi when I turned 50, and that did amazing things for my mood and general health. I kept trying to talk my patients into doing it, and they wouldn’t. I started getting fliers for these medical acupuncture courses, so I thought, “Well, I really ought to do that.” But between family life and my job that was hard to do. I ended up getting separated from my husband shortly before my son went off to college. So I went from having a family to being on my own. It was sort of the perfect time.
Sarah: Where was your first medical acupuncture course?
Helen: Well it was the Helms Medical Institute. Helms was this guy who went to France after finishing a family practice and studied in France, where they teach acupuncture in the medical schools and they have a body of scholarship on acupuncture. So he learned the French Energetic System from the great scholars of it at that time. And then he brought it back and started training physicians. He’s done that for 35 years or something. So, I took that course. And it was great. The French Energetic system was the first system that worked very well with the medical model, but I realized there was a lot more to acupuncture that I wasn’t getting.
So when I finished the course I realized that I needed to immerse myself in an environment where I could really keep learning. Because if I’d stayed where I was, I’d have ended up doing the three things I felt most comfortable with and never really expanding and getting integrated. So, I moved over here to Kwan Yin and started working.
I did David Berkshire’s mentorship. He was my mentor for a year. And I’ve done a lot of Five Element acupuncture because right here that’s really accessible. But then through the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture I’ve been exposed to different teachers, and ended up figuring out how to study with them more. Now I’m doing the Kiiko Matsumoto course that’s offered through Harvard Medical School, and one of the great things about that is they’re doing a lot of research there. There’s all this data, which gives me a way to talk to my medical colleagues about it.
Sarah: So tell me about Kiiko Matsumoto’s style and what kind of research is being done in that realm.
Helen: Japanese acupuncture started before the Chinese had stopped doing a lot of abdominal diagnosis. There was a lot of abdominal palpation before, in Nanjing in particular. But at some point the emperors didn’t want the physicians touching their bodies, so physicians began to do pulse and tongue diagnosis. Kiiko’s style uses abdominal palpation. You palpate specific indicators for different things. For example, in the left lower quadrant there’s a point that’s characteristic of liver congestion. So we always go there first. Because if the liver’s congested, the qi won’t flow. So you go there, and if it’s tender, or if the texture is different, you say, “Okay, that needs to be treated.” And then you go to points on the extremities: Liver 4 and Lung 5. You can palpate the abdomen and get exactly the right angle and location for the needling.
Sarah: How do you know the angle and location are right according to what you’re feeling?
Helen: So, if I have the right angle, I will no longer feel firmness in the skin. So there’s immediate feedback. And if I know that it’s right there at that angle and I can release it, I don’t have to put the needle in very far. So it’s a shallow needling technique. It’s a lot more comfortable for the patient. There are all these different things that you can do with these different reflexes in the body.
One of the more interesting pieces of research they’ve done was they took rats (typical brutality toward animals) and put blue dye and mustard on their uteruses. And what happened is the blue dye came out along the kidney channel. Particularly along the abdomen. So every animal is a little bit different. But basically that was the pattern. So, before, our understanding of where the nerves went was that the nerves went from the uterus to the central nervous system. We thought there was no connection to the abdominal wall. But this was saying there’s a direct connection between the uterus and the abdominal wall.
They’ve also done a lot of neuroimaging with MRIs to see what happens when you activate an acupuncture point. They see differences in what happens between the needles and moxa. And also you could look at Gall Bladder 34 versus Stomach 36 and see different activations, even though they’re so close to each other. They have a lot of information about changes at the skin’s surface in terms of conductivity, and how under different circumstances that conductivity changes even more. So, there’s a lot of stuff going on with Kiiko Matsumoto’s style. It’s just a fascinating technique. I did the first weekend course there. Then I went to visit my son, and I did a treatment on him, and it was just amazing. So I’m really excited about that. Because it takes all the different things I’ve been looking at and puts them in one place.
Sarah: So, as an MD, tell me how you use acupuncture with your patients?
Helen: Well, I take both Western and Chinese medical history and try and put together “Why did this happen now for my patient? Why is this patient hypertensive now? Why did they get gallbladder disease now?” And we never have good answers for that. But with the Chinese medicine type of history, I try and figure out, “What were the things that happened that compromised the systems that either caused destruction or deficiency that lead to the outcome?” So by using the two together hopefully I get to a better understanding of what the constitutional issues are. So, that’s a lengthier process.
I do a Western exam and a Chinese medicine exam. And then I talk with them about what I see the outcome of this being. And sometimes the options are things that I don’t know much about. Like I don’t have much background in naturopathy or homeopathy, but I know that some people have had good results with that so I try and keep all those things on the menu. And then usually what I’ll do is start with a constitutional treatment. And this reflects the fact that my patients are typically older. They all need constitutional treatments. They all need some help with their root energy. From there it’s trying to figure out the most effective way to make them feel better, so that they can really find their authentic selves and take responsibility for their health. That’s a dialogue that takes place over time.
Sarah: What are the big health issues you see patients dealing with?
Helen: One of the big issues is weight loss. A lot of health issues are consequences of endocrine changes that happen as we gain weight. So, again the constitutional treatments are helpful, but also looking at the balance between wood and earth. And sort of optimizing nutrition. Generally people can benefit from an increase in activity.
Say someone has problems with emotional eating because they never feel like they have enough. And they just struggle with that. Maybe the weight is not so much the issue as the distress they feel about it. They’re not eating the right things. They’re just not able to take care of themselves because of this sense of emptiness inside. We look at that in a lot of different ways. We ask, “Well are there trace mineral deficiencies that lead people to feel that way. Are they not absorbing their food?” That’s a classic earth deficiency in Chinese medicine.
Sarah: What do you see happening with your patients after you treat them?
Helen: There’s a shift in mood, for sure. Someone who has refused to exercise, all of the sudden they come in and tell me they’re walking three miles a day. I do see a shift. People are more able to get in touch with what they really need. I think the Western medical model is so negative. Like, “You have to do this or it’s all your fault.” And that doesn’t work. I see people feeling more positive about themselves through treatment with Chinese medicine.
Virtually everything we see is related to lifestyle. And to change your lifestyle in the face of an eight hour a day job–and having all the different kinds of responsibilities people have– is really difficult. And to be discouraged at the outset or self critical at the outset is going to make it very hard to do anything. So that shift to just being open to making change is one of the most amazing things about treatment with acupuncture.
And then one of the other things I see is that people do have sort of a neural endocrine change. Less edema. Less trouble with weight loss.
Sarah: When do you bring in your skills as an MD with patients?
Helen: If someone comes in with high blood pressure, we are going to use medication to treat it until it comes down. For mood disorders, sometimes antidepressants are appropriate. They can bring huge relief while we work on all these other things. I’ve had a lot of people come back to me and say, “I resisted taking an antidepressant but it was really the best thing I could have done for myself.” So I do see that there are some medications that are very beneficial to people in certain situations. I think we’d all like to limit our exposure to medications. But I think we can use medication in whatever dose is appropriate and then see if we can reduce the dose of the medication–and then eventually withdraw it.
Sarah: Tell me about your work with diabetes and cancer patients.
Helen: One of the things we do in the French Energetic system for diabetes is that we put the needles in the mu and shu points of the kidney and connect them to a tonifying low frequency electrical stimulation. I started doing that on my diabetics and their blood sugar would drop precipitously. Their erectile dysfunction would go away. That made me really realize how much the kidneys need tonification in diabetes patients.
With cancer it’s very much trying to figure out where is the problem. Because the cancer treatments–most of them–are very destructive to normal tissue. The idea is that more rapidly reproducing cells will be damaged more readily. But the toxicity is huge. So that’s a situation in which people really need their constitution supported. So, again, I start by supporting water and earth. Often in looking at the patient’s medical history and seeing how things went wrong related to external crises helps figure out where the constitution has been stressed the most.
We realize now that we’re all developing cancers all the time and our immune system gets rid of them. So the body can do a lot for itself if it’s supported. And radiation and chemotherapy in general do not support the body. They do quite the opposite. So having someone else come in with some help for that is what patients need. Nutritionally there’s a ton of research on what kind of diet is best for someone who is undergoing treatment or has cancer. Many people say eat whatever you feel like. Just keep weight on. Sugary stuff? That’s fine. But there’s a lot of research saying that a sugary diet is not fine in that setting, and that a diet with a lot of vegetables is really important. And some of the cancer care centers really go into that. But a lot of times people don’t have access to those resources. So that’s where I really try and make sure people are at least getting access to the information about that.
And then I do use fairly aggressive treatments–a lot of electrical stimulation. But the idea is to support the body to do the natural healing it’s capable of doing. When people come in with visible tumors and metastases they’re going to need other treatment to get better, but this is a treatment to help them get through that and feel better in the process.
There’s a lot of research on this now. It appears that acupuncture does help cancer treatment work better. It’s exciting. Because so many people are affected by cancer, and I think we can do so much better than we’re doing right now. Acupuncture gives people the resources to cope with what’s happening. Even if they’re going to die. Just being able to own the time they have a little better and not just be sick all the time. I think that’s very helpful.
Sarah: What do you do in your off time?
Helen: I do a lot of Tai Qi. I like to dance. I like music. I have a couple of things on my bucket list. One is to see the Aurora Borealis and the other is to kayak through Glacier Bay in Alaska. And I love live theater.