These days, Asheville is a national hub for alternative medicine. That makes it hard to imagine what the local health-care landscape was like back in 1985, when Mary Cissy Majebe opened the city's first Chinese medicine and acupuncture clinic.
And the ensuing two-and-a-half decades were not without their challenges: In 1990, following a complaint by the North Carolina Medical Board, the State Bureau of Investigation raided Majebe's clinic and seized its medical records . Majebe fought back, and in 1993, the General Assembly formed the N.C. Acupuncture Licensing Board, which she initially chaired.
Speaking to Xpress at her Montford Avenue clinic amid the bustle of patients, children, clinicians and students from the nearby Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts (where she serves as academic dean), Majebe talked about the spread of Chinese medicine here and how it can help in stressful times. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Mountain Xpress : What's changed in the field since 1985?
Cissy Majebe: There's been a tremendous growth in Chinese medicine — not just here, but across the United States and Europe. Twenty-five years ago, there were less than 20 acupuncture colleges in the U.S. and only three written textbooks that had been translated from Chinese to English. Now there are over 60 acupuncture colleges across the U.S. — one of them right across the street. And you could fill a library with books on Chinese medicine: There's thousands of them now.
Back then, there were still a lot of people who didn't know anything about acupuncture; now there's been so much stuff on television. I think most people now know that the most effective treatment for pain is acupuncture. It's not about covering up the pain: It's about trying to resolve what caused the pain; it's getting to the root of the pain.
What reception did you get when you opened in Asheville?
When I came in, physicians would say, "Well, make sure they sterilize their needles." It was kind of foolish, because we have the same standards as far as sterilization.
This community has really been supportive of alternative medicine, including Chinese medicine. Now they say [Asheville] is a mecca of alternative medicine, and Chinese medicine is one part of that.
But 25 years ago, the people who did alternative medicine here were George Guess (a homeopathic physician and M.D.), John Laird (an allopathic physician who did alternative medicine and chelation) and myself.
What led to the raid on your office?
Because both those men were physicians, the medical board began harassing them and threatening to take away their licenses. I wasn't a physician, and at that point there was no licensure of acupuncturists [in North Carolina], and the medical board had decided that only physicians could practice acupuncture. But that was just the medical board, and they don't get to write the laws of the state.
So they filed a complaint against me, and my office was raided in 1990. And because of that, the locals got galvanized and also the state community, and we did a big legislative push, and acupuncture became a licensed health-care modality in the state of North Carolina in 1993.
How did your patients rally around the cause of Chinese medicine?
A lady named Francis Kelly, a Sunday school teacher, was 78 when she started seeing me, and she saw me for almost 20 years before she passed away. I would bet she sent me more patients in 1985 than anyone.
When they raided my office, she went down to the local SBI office and demanded her records back. At that point she was probably 82 or 83, and they threatened to arrest her. And she said, "You can arrest me if you want to, but I'm not leaving without my medical records."
She said: "Those belong to me. They don't belong to Cissy; they don't belong to you." She just stood up to them . And when they gave her her chart, well, every other patient went down there.
Who seeks out Chinese medicine in Asheville?
We see [everyone from] newborns to people who are looking at what they want for end-of-life care. The patients you see here, if you spend a day, would be the exact same kind of patients you would see in [an M.D.'s] office. People with upper-respiratory infections; people with asthma, children with earaches, people with irritable bowel syndrome, all the way up to people with hypertension and a diagnosis of cancer. We see everything.
How can Chinese medicine help us stay healthy in stressful times?
All of us know what we need to do to take care of our health. We all know we need to eat right; we all know we need to exercise. But how do you motivate yourself to where you do that — where you don't run into McDonald's, or where you go outside and take a walk? We started talking to people who, maybe their jobs have been cut, talking to them about how they can begin to take better care of themselves and use this time for healing physically and emotionally, even though life is much harder because of lack of money.
How does stress affect health?
Stress is one of the biggest promoters of disease, whether it's stress about jobs or stress about family. It really doesn't matter.
In Chinese medicine, we talk about stress creating what we refer to as an internal heat. From a Western perspective, that internal heat sometimes will correlate to something called C-reactive protein, which [is an] inflammation marker in the body. And so someone could have their C-reactive protein checked. From the Chinese medicine perspective, it has to do with what is creating inflammation, and most inflammation is self-imposed by stress and diet. Chinese medicine isn't just about trying to fix the problem: It's also about helping a person learn how they got to this place to begin with.
So what we try and do is look below the symptoms, looking at your family health, your parents, your lifestyle and your constitution. And then we go to the root. Maybe if you're allergic to formaldehyde and you work at Home Depot and you're sick all the time, part of it is you may have to get another job. And sometimes change is hard.
Rather than waiting too long to get help and then going to the emergency room for treatment?
When people don't have access to health care, what else can we expect? We've set up a system where the disenfranchised don't have health care. It's easy to say they should go see a doctor during the day. But try to call around and find a doctor if you've got Medicare or Medicaid.
Secondly, our system is so classist. Don't get me started on the politics of medicine, because it runs much bigger than people going into the emergency room because a child has a fever and an earache. That's their only option; that's what we have created in our culture.
Are people seeking out Chinese medicine because it's more affordable?
Acupuncture is the fastest growing health-care field in the United States, as far as people entering into it and the people utilizing it. So it's pretty much going to mushroom at this point, because people are seeing that, one, it works, and two, it's cost-effective. And if you can go and get eight acupuncture treatments rather than doing back surgery, you are going to be very happy. You are going to be spending less money than what your co-pay would probably have been on the surgery.