At Wildwood Health Center, acupuncture is made accessible and affordable.When Sasha Rose and Daniel Katz first started Wildwood Health Center in downtown Portland, they could only afford to rent a single room. “It was about half the size of this one,” says Rose. The idea is astonishing; we’re sitting in a space no larger than the average bedroom, outfitted with an adjustable bed, a dresser, a hanging pot of devil’s ivy that trails its green tendrils almost to the floor, and a few comfortable chairs. This is one of four rooms Rose and Katz use for meeting with patients—behind a graceful courtyard, inside an old brick building, they have a reception area, an office, storage space, and a large room where they can see multiple acupuncture patients at once. But 13 years ago, they had just one bed, one tiny closet for their numerous herbs and supplements, and a desk in the shared lobby that they used as their reception area.
“We had to take turns—one of us would check in the patient at the desk, and the other would see them, and we’d switch off,” Katz remembers. “It was fun for awhile,” Rose insists. They lock eyes for a moment and I can see, briefly, the faintest outline of their fruitful partnership.
Wildwood Health Center has grown by leaps and bounds, and it’s not easy to pinpoint exactly why. There are too many reasons. There’s the conventional medical system, which is frustrating for many patients to navigate (and so they seek out alternative or complementary practices from people like Rose and Katz). There’s the community the center has fostered (they have many long- term patients, including some who have been with them since the beginning). And there’s the workplace culture (practitioners are given freedom to treat patients according to their areas of expertise, which range from oncology to nutrition to Lyme disease).
But perhaps the most unusual aspect of Wildwood Health Center is a commitment to making acupuncture affordable and accessible. Each month, approximately 550 people are seen in the community acupuncture program, where each treatment costs just $35. (Acupuncture treatments typically range from $80 to $140 for a single session.) According to Katz, acupuncture should be more widely available to people of various income ranges because the treatment provides “a different and valuable perspective on how the body optimally functions.” When Katz, Rose, or any of their licensed practitioners meet a new patient, they start by looking for patterns in the body that aren’t optimal. They try to get a broad overview of the patient’s health, from their sleep patterns to their digestive issues to their mental health.
“I think of my job as nudging the body toward a dynamic balance,” Katz says. He explains that access to alternative medical treatments is often limited; not everyone can afford to manage their pain or treat their ailments the way they would like. “It was important for us to give access to these treatments to our whole community,” he says. “Now, we have homeless people coming in and sitting next to doctors and lawyers. I think of the community acupuncture clinics as the social justice of medicine—everybody gets the same treatment.”
Rose and Katz have also recently announced a partnership with the Cancer Community Center that offers anyone in active treatment eight free acupuncture sessions. “Research has shown that acupuncture can help with the side effects of chemotherapy,”
Katz says. “Specifically fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and neuropathy.” While there isn’t much research on how acupuncture can help with the anxiety associated with undergoing cancer treatment, Rose and Katz have observed that patients often feel more relaxed after their treatments, and many report that the acupuncture provides some much-needed positivity in their overall treatment plan. “When you’re undergoing chemotherapy,” Katz adds, “you may feel like everything you’re doing is about killing the cancer.” In contrast, acupuncture is about feeling better, balancing the body, and quieting the mind. It’s not about destruction of cells, but rather healing the body.
While Rose and Katz use a variety of alternative techniques, they’re quick to note that their work isn’t always an alternative to Western medicine, nor do they promote ignoring the hospital-based system altogether. “Often, we try to complement the treatment that is going on outside these walls,” says Katz. “Our treatment isn’t always instead of going to the doctor, but along with.” For instance, Katz might provide acupuncture treatments to a patient who is also seeing a psychiatrist to deal with issues surrounding anxiety or depression. One of their colleagues, Renee Lang, specializes in Lyme disease. (Like Rose, Lang is a naturopathic doctor, meaning that they have both achieved a doctoral level of medical training.) “Her recommendations often include antibiotics along with herbs, supplements, and maybe even acupuncture,” says Rose.
However, Rose notes that sometimes Wildwood provides alternative options to patients who prefer not to follow their doctor’s orders. She recently saw a woman who had been prescribed Nexium for heartburn and acid reflux. The patient didn’t want to be on this treatment, and her primary care physician didn’t want her to be on it either, but “they had nothing else to offer,” says Rose. “I put her on various supplements and gave her diet recommendations. In a week or two she was off the Nexium. In that case, we provided an alternative treatment.” She also describes a situation in which a young woman came to her for back pain. The woman disclosed that she was also experiencing incontinence. “I knew immediately that was a red flag in someone her age,” Rose says. “That was a potentially dangerous situation,” Katz adds. “We got her to urgent care right away.”
This is typical of Wildwood Health Center; they merge and meld medical practices, using Chinese medicine, Western medicine, acupuncture, and physical therapy to create a whole-body approach that works for their patients. “We’re blessed with a very large toolbox,” Rose says. They’ve created a comfortable space, with white linens on the beds and art by local painters hanging on the walls. “Everything is for sale, too,” Katz says, “and unlike a gallery, we don’t take a commission.” While there are visual cues that this is a health center—the reclining beds, the closet full of supplements—it doesn’t feel like a doctor’s office. It’s a little less buttoned-up, a little homier. That’s intentional. “We want people to come in the door and breathe a sigh of relief,” says Katz. “And our receptionist tells us that people often do exactly that.”
Although Rose and Katz have enjoyed watching their business grow, the most exciting part of their work remains the same as it always was: they are just happy to heal. “We’ve been doing this for 13 years, and every once in awhile, we check in and say, ‘Do we want to be doing this? Why are we doing this?’” Rose says. “For me, it always comes back to those little moments with a patient, when I can connect with them. To see people in their true selves, to share a little part of their life—it’s a privilege to witness that.”
After a momentary pause, she adds, “To play a role, in whatever way we can, in healing is an honor. And that doesn’t ever get old.”