Free Acupuncture for Weary ER & ICU Staff

Doctors, nurses and receptionists from St. David’s get treatments on the house

Volunteers Suzanne Ritteberry (l), Ainge Lin (m) and Adriana Martins work on E.R. medical professionals (Provided by AOMA Graduate School)

Starting last summer, a group of volunteer acupuncturists and Asian bodywork therapy specialists from the AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine and massage therapists from Massage Envy offered their services free of charge to ICU and ER staff at St. David's North Austin Medical Center. The program began when Pamela Ferguson, former dean of of Asian Bodywork Therapy at AOMA, hashed out the idea with her partner Bernadette Winiker, who worked as a nurse and nurse manager at St. David's from 1996 to 2021.*

The couple decided to set up shop in one of the waiting areas of the hospital, which was closed due to restricted visitor policies during the pandemic. All ER and ICU staff, from doctors to receptionists to members of the cleaning crew, could take breaks for acupuncture treatments to relieve some of the stress of the work environment. With COVID cases declining, the group has moved from their makeshift practice in the hospital, but they're still offering free services to St. David's hospital staff at the AOMA student clinics at both their north and south locations.

These days, stress in hospitals is high. For the first year and a half of the pandemic, St. David's had a no-visitor policy, which forced ICU staffers to play the role of family members in consoling sick patients. Visitor policies are ever-changing but always limited. "The past few years have been a very emotional time because of the amount of deaths we've had to endure," said Lisa Jo Harrison, the ICU manager at St. David's. "Just getting that little bit of solace was very beneficial." Ferguson worries about these workers, especially the overnight crew. It was important to her that her volunteers offer services to all crews, not just the daytime staff, so she rallied a team to visit from 9pm to midnight on Saturdays. "The night crew is neglected. Everyone focuses on food donations for the day crews and they're left with crumbs at night."

So as not to intimidate, volunteer Connie Randolph likes to use an introductory method of acupuncture, the NADA protocol, which involves placing small needles on designated points on the ears. Volunteer shiatsu therapist Adriana Martins' patients are often surprised when she asks to do pressure points on their feet, but she said they're happy to kick off their shoes and relax (some even take a quick nap). Many patients have since shown up to AOMA's student clinics for treatments.

The partnership is not just practical, but philosophical. AOMA President Dr. Mary Faria explained, "Integrative care will change health care in this country. We need good integrative care models that combine the best of all the things that keep people healthy, and acupuncture plays an important part." Harrison, the ICU manager, echoed this sentiment: "Nurses don't just believe in Western medicine. We believe in any kind of therapy that will benefit the body, not only physically, but also spiritually."

In such a heavy environment, just a break in the day and the loving attention of another can heal. Ferguson, the program's organizer, was amazed at the impact the quick sessions had on the hospital workers: "In just 15-minute sessions, they would come in with one demeanor and go out with a lighter step."

* Editor's note Thursday 3-25 12:58 pm: This story has been updated to Pam Ferguson and Bernadette Winiker's correct titles and to include that massage therapists volunteered from Massage Envy, not AOMA. We regret our errors.

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AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine, St. David's North Austin Medical Center, Pamela Ferguson, Bernadette Winiker, COVID-19, Coronavirus

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