Cups and Needles

by by Alix Taylor

If you wind your way past a wholesale pottery store to 14 Imperial Place in Providence’s Jewelry District and climb up some of the narrowest stairs you’ll ever encounter, you’ll find yourself in the soothing oasis of Emerging Energy Acupunc- ture. Mary Claire Dilks, who opened the practice in 2004, sports purple cat eye glasses and looks perfectly at home in the multi-room suite. It’s painted in a soft blue with bamboo and the occasional Chinese scroll hanging on the walls. As the daughter of a new-age yoga mom who claims to have found her personal god in Hatha breathing, I had a natu- ral interest in the practice of holistic medicine, and Emerging Energy Acupuncture seemed like a good first stop. When I first called Mary Dilks to arrange our meeting I had no idea what to expect from a “licensed doctor of acupuncture and board certified Chinese herbologist.” But my ideas of integra- tive medicine as a crunchy fad were dispelled as Dilks and I discussed the growth of holistic and alternative medicine in Rhode Island. “Obviously if you have an emergency, go to the hospital; don’t come to me,” she told me, “but there are other answers for chronic pain and illness.”

“Sometimes Western medicine doesn’t quite cut it,” she told me, a sentiment that resounds throughout my conver- sations with holistic medicine practitioners. Dilks battled chronic fatigue through her teenage years, cycling through countless waiting rooms and blood tests. She felt trapped in her body, unable to experience the activities her peers enjoyed. Eventually, though, she discovered the power of alternative medicine.

Around that time, Dilks began to explore eastern philoso- phy and meditation, going on to receive her BA in Philosophy from Loyola in Chicago, and studying Chinese medicine at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. Her study of Chi- nese medicine moved her from the Chicago campus to New York City. From there she made her way to Providence, where she opened her practice, which includes acupuncture, cupping and diet and nutritional therapy. Acupuncture stimulates acupoints along 14 major energy channels to restore the bal- ance and flow of Chi in the body. Cupping, Dilks explains, targets those same pressure points along the 14 meridians with suction instead of needles.

“The majority of my patients come to me as a last resort. They’ve been dealing with issues like chronic pain for years before they make it to me,” Dilks says. Many times doctors will recommend her practice to patients who haven’t seen results from Western medicine. But according to the young practitioner, that’s starting to change: “I started my practice
at a good time in the culture. Lots of medical studies have been emerging proving the power of alternative medicine.” According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative medicine, 3.1 million people tried acupuncture in 2007, one million more than in 2002, and those numbers are continuing to grow. Insurance companies are even starting to cover some of the cost of acupuncture, depending on the symptoms it treats. That trend may also draw more patients to Dilks, whose average rate is $120 for initial appointments and $75 per hour for follow-ups.

When I asked Dilks about the results she’s been able to achieve with acupuncture and diet, she told me the story of the youngest patient she’s treated in her practice. A seven- year-old boy came to Dilks’ office with extreme asthma, a condition he had been battling since he was under a year old. With herbs and acupuncture, Dilks was able to move him from breathing machine and multiple inhalers down to just the occasional inhaler.

“Suffering draws people to holistic care,” Karlo Burger told me over the phone. Dilks recommended that I contact Burger, a shiatsu practitioner and teacher who has been trying to build a community of hollistic healthcare practicioners in the Providence area. In 1999 Burger founded the Integrative Medicine Alliance, an independent non-profit network of “conventional and complementary/alternative medicine practitioners and people seeking healthcare.” He also maintains shiatsu practices in Providence and Cambridge, MA. In 2002, Rhode Island followed Minnesota’s lead and ad- opted the Unlicensed Healthcare Practices Act, which makes it easier for holistic practitioners like Burger to practice their healing methods. The act allows practitioners of healing techniques that do not include “surgery, x-ray radiation, prescrib- ing, administering, or dispensing legend drugs and controlled substances, practices that invade the human body by puncture of the skin, setting fractures,” as well as the practices of dentistry, chiropractic medicine, and acupuncture, to operate without a license. Similar statutes exist in California, Florida, and Idaho.


Burger explained shiatsu, a traditional Japanese healing art whose name translates as “finger pressure,” as acupunc- ture without needles. Unlike acupuncture, however, shiatsu doesn’t have a special certification requirement. Without the certification process, shiatsu has stayed out of the main- streamed holistic movements—as opposed to acupuncture and chiropractic medicine, which has a licensing procedure in all fifty states. Shiatsu remains, at most, a practice worked into the curriculum of massage schools. But Burger tries to work around that. Because insurance companies aren’t picking up the tab, Burger offers “community shiatsu,” a process in which couples or groups are diagnosed and trained by a professional, then practice treatments on each other. Because it happens in a group, it is more affordable than one-on-one treatments.

Both practitioners claimed the ease with which holistic practitioners can work in Rhode Island makes it difficult to build a community. “It’s impossible to get people together,” Dilks told me in her office. According to Dilks, there had been meetings to bring together the licensed doctors of acu- puncture in Rhode Island, but “typically people who practice acupuncture like to do their own thing.” Burger saw a similar response to his own initiative to bring together practitio- ners, “It’s like herding cats.” Burger noted that while the freedom Rhode Island allows for holistic practices to evolve and include interesting work like shiatsu and homeopathy, it also inhibits the possibility of growth brought on by unify- ing disparate practices in the community. Still, Burger speaks optimistically when discussing his practice in Rhode Island; the Unlicensed Healthcare Practices Act “follows a line of tolerance in the state dating back to Roger Williams.”

Alternative, complementary, or holistic medicine remains a field with many different courses of practice, of which Burger’s and Dilk’s are just two. The field as a whole seems
to be gaining more credence. In a June 2012 meeting of an advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services discussing the illness Chronic Fatigue Syn- drome, committee chair Gailen Marshall highlighted holistic medicine’s ability to adapt to individuals’ problems: “Too many times there’s an arrogance in Western medicine that says if we can’t give a pill or do a procedure, it’s not real and if it is real, it’s the patient’s problem, not the doctor’s. The holistic approach to care says that a person has a body, a person has a mind, and a person has a spirit—some people might call that a soul—and you must minister to all three of those to properly care for a patient.”

In between discussions of cutting-edge medical procedures, Marshall took time to show how alternative medical practices share common ideals with the broader medical community and encourage his fellows to treat it with an open mind. The care holistic practitioners give is based on “a Hippocratic principle that I was taught in the early ‘80s when I went to medical school. I continue to try to teach that to my trainees. While we espouse it, unfortunately, sometimes we talk the talk and we don’t walk the walk.”

ALIX TAYLOR B’ 15 is more than a passing trend.