Work­ing at the sharp end of health

Kate Roberts found acupunc­ture so valu­able af­ter be­ing in­jured she took it up to help others.

The Dominion Post - - Career Market -

A hor­rific car crash in her teens left Kate Roberts with a bro­ken back and a re­cov­ery time of al­most a year.

But as they say, ev­ery cloud has a sil­ver lin­ing, and in the Syd­ney­born woman’s case it marked the be­gin­ning of a long ca­reer in acupunc­ture.

‘‘I broke my back in three places, I was in a cast for about a year and in hos­pi­tal for a long time – West­ern medicine saved my life and patched me back to­gether.’’

But left with emo­tional and phys­i­cal scars, the then 19-year-old came across acupunc­ture, which helped to re­duce pain, post­trau­matic stress symp­toms, encouraged sleep and helped her build re­silience.

‘‘My body had just had taken such a big beat­ing that it was for­ever ready for more – it was learn­ing how to let that go and man­age stress, anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion fol­low­ing such a big, trau­matic event – acupunc­ture was re­ally pow­er­ful in en­abling that to hap­pen.’’

So pow­er­ful that as Roberts re­cov­ered, she be­gan train­ing in acupunc­ture her­self, and af­ter fin­ish­ing a four-year de­gree she took up some ad­vanced clin­i­cal train­ing in China be­fore tack­ling her Masters in Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine

Twenty years on, the 41-year-old still lives and breathes acupunc­ture – she runs a pri­vate clin­i­cal prac­tice in Is­land Bay called Bendy Bud­dha, works as a lec­turer and clin­i­cal su­per­vi­sor at the New Zealand School of Acupunc­ture, and is work­ing on her PhD at the Otago School of Medicine.

If that’s not enough, the mother of two is also chair of the Acupunc­ture for Men­tal Health Clin­i­cal in­ter­est group and sits on the Coun­cil of Acupunc­ture New Zealand.

‘‘If I hadn’t had that crash I have no idea where I would be to­day. It’s one of those things where you’re ob­vi­ously not happy that it hap­pened, but it started me on this path and I’m re­ally happy where I am now.

‘‘Acupunc­ture has been a pow­er­ful tool for my own re­cov­ery, the phys­i­cal and men­tal symp­toms were so linked that the com­ple­men­tary medicine model made com­plete sense to me.

‘‘I am no longer de­bil­i­tated by psy­cho­log­i­cal symp­toms or chronic pain, my body has ended up more or less back in bal­ance.’’

Speak­ing from first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence, Roberts is now on a mis­sion to help others.

Through her pri­vate prac­tice she spe­cialises in acupunc­ture treat­ment of men­tal health, mus­cu­loskele­tal con­di­tions, gy­nae­col­ogy and fer­til­ity. It means con­sul­ta­tions and treat­ing pa­tients from ba­bies through to the el­derly, in­volv­ing any­where from four to 20 nee­dles in­serted in any num­ber of the more than 400 points on the body.

Of those, Roberts ex­plains there are 40 most com­monly used points, among her favourites be­ing the Shen Men point on the wrist.

‘‘It trans­lates as spirit door, it’s on the heart chan­nel, it’s re­ally good for stop­ping anx­ious symp­toms such as pal­pi­ta­tions, breath­less­ness and sleep­less­ness.’’

Each client is treated dif­fer­ently, de­pend­ing on their symp­toms and his­tory, but it al­ways in­volves the in­ser­tion of nee­dles.

‘‘The acupunc­ture point sys­tem has been likened to a map of the af­fer­ent nerve path­ways in the body which en­able the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem to tap into the body’s sup­ply of var­i­ous neuro trans­mit­ters which can ef­fect both the phys­i­cal body and the emo­tional state.

‘‘In other words, say some­one was in a high state of alert, their adrenalin lev­els would be re­ally high, so I might do a point on the kid­ney chan­nel, around the an­kle, and that would help man­age the level of adrenalin in their sys­tems.

‘‘By sub­tly mon­i­tor­ing the way these neuro trans­mit­ter hor­mones are be­ing re­leased, it can bring the body back into that bal­anced state, called home­osta­sis.’’

And that’s the whole aim of acupunc­ture says Roberts, to bring peo­ple into bal­ance so they can achieve op­ti­mal health out­comes.

The ba­bies she treats could be suf­fer­ing from the likes of sleep­less­ness, birth stress, feed­ing or di­ges­tive is­sues, or al­ler­gies, while se­nior clients might be suf­fer­ing from pain is­sues, med­i­ca­tion side ef­fects, in­som­nia or os­teoarthri­tis.

She de­scribes her men­tal health pa­tients as mild to mod­er­ate, that is, those not want­ing or need­ing med­i­ca­tion but strug­gling with dayto-day life, or those who use acupunc­ture as an ad­junct to their West­ern med­i­cal care to help with any side ef­fects they might have.

‘‘Of­ten I get peo­ple pre­sent­ing in a state of stress, they might have had bad news, be bul­lied at work, or had a par­ent die, they’re just not cop­ing with the stress and the strain of the emo­tional up­heaval, their ner­vous sys­tem is on high alert and they’re get­ting that adrenalin feel­ing.

‘‘It’s hard to sleep and be calm when you’re re­ally wired and edgy, but acupunc­ture has the abil­ity to flick that switch and en­able peo­ple to re­lax, breathe, sleep and just chill out enough that they are able to put things in per­spec­tive and move for­ward a lot more ef­fec­tively.’’

She had a preg­nant pa­tient who ex­pe­ri­enced bleed­ing and though scans showed the baby was fine, she strug­gled to sleep and be­came anx­ious.

‘‘Acupunc­ture calmed her down, she’s now sleep­ing bet­ter and bet­ter able to con­nect with her baby, she feels a sense of calm and peace.’’

‘‘I find peo­ple are so grate­ful when you can help them, and it is re­ally nice to be able to make a dif­fer­ence in peo­ple’s lives.’’

Roberts finds her work with Welling­ton-based Fer­til­ity As­so­ciates a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence too, where she pro­vides acupunc­ture pre and post em­bryo trans­fers.

‘‘You go through the IVF jour­ney with them – you can be with them when they cel­e­brate a pos­i­tive preg­nancy, or help sup­port them if it’s neg­a­tive.

‘‘I’ve had pa­tients go­ing from in­fer­tile to hold­ing a live baby in their hands, some­times that can take years and some­times they can get lucky and it hap­pens first time.’’

When she isn’t in pri­vate prac­tice she’s help­ing fu­ture acupunc­tur­ists gain their qual­i­fi­ca­tions through the New Zealand School of Acupunc­ture.

She teaches both clin­i­cal and the­ory sub­jects for first year through to Masters level stu­dents and has done so for 16 years now. In that time she would have taught at least 400 of New Zealand’s 1000-odd qual­i­fied acupunc­tur­ists.

‘‘I know most of the peo­ple who prac­tice in New Zealand, it’s great to see them go from a ner­vous first year stu­dent to a grad­u­ate to a suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sional.’’

Roberts also su­per­vises in stu­dent clin­ics, where her stu­dents treat a range of clients aged 18 to 70 for ev­ery­thing from ten­nis el­bow, chronic headaches, per­sis­tent nau­sea to lower back pain and stress.

To get them to that stage she has been their guinea pigs, be­ing poked and prod­ded plenty of times.

‘‘I’m al­ways happy for stu­dents to prac­tice on me, of­ten for the first time, it’s a lot of fun and it gives me a good un­der­stand­ing as to how their skills are de­vel­op­ing.’’

Thank­fully, she has never had a fear of nee­dles, un­like many of her pa­tients.

‘‘Some have a ter­ri­ble fear of nee­dles and try so many other things first that they bite the bul­let and give it a go, and it doesn’t take long for that fear to dis­si­pate. They’re not big stonk­ing hy­po­der­mic nee­dles, they’re tiny, hair-thin nee­dles – loads of New Zealan­ders have tat­toos and I think if you can have a tat­too you can have acupunc­ture.’’

When it comes to the the­ory, Roberts is en­grossed in her PhD, in her fourth year part-time fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ing ef­fec­tive tools for col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween acupunc­ture and pri­mary care.

‘‘It’s a labour of love for a num­ber of rea­sons. One is that I come from an aca­demic fam­ily so I have a lot of sup­port for aca­demic pur­suits, and se­condly New Zealand is cry­ing out for lead­er­ship within com­ple­men­tary health­care. To forge the way for­ward is go­ing to re­quire some doc­tor­ate level qual­i­fi­ca­tions, so this is im­por­tant for me to do for the acupunc­ture pro­fes­sion as a whole.’’

Her pur­pose, as she sees it, is not about build­ing her own prac­tice, it’s about build­ing acupunc­ture as a le­git­i­mate pro­fes­sion in New Zealand.

‘‘I’m keen to take acupunc­ture to that next level of le­git­i­macy, get­ting us into in­te­grated clin­ics – there’s a lot we can of­fer to take some pres­sure off the pri­mary care load. GPs are work­ing so hard, but it re­quires some lead­ers to ar­gue that case.’’

It will also take a mind shift tak­ing into ac­count that acupunc­ture is still of­ten viewed as al­ter­na­tive medicine.

‘‘It’s sit­ting on the cusp, on the knife edge of ac­cep­tance with some strong driv­ers on both sides – I want it to be­come the norm. ‘‘We of­ten see peo­ple at the end of their jour­ney, when they’ve al­most given up hope and tried so many other things, and they’ve got noth­ing to lose. When they’re able to ex­pe­ri­ence change from treat­ment it’s an amaz­ing rev­e­la­tion for them, it’s em­pow­er­ing.’’

Iron­i­cally her fam­ily – her mother is a nurse and so­cial worker, her Dad and brother are psy­chi­a­trists – have had their reser­va­tions. ‘‘They’re still a lit­tle per­plexed by the com­ple­men­tary medicine model as a whole, but they’ve let me treat them and the path I’ve gone down has helped to open their eyes.’’

It was also her Mum who was re­spon­si­ble for her com­ing to New Zealand in the first place.

‘‘I came to visit when she was work­ing here on my way home from trav­el­ling. I flicked my CV around, wound up with the School of Acupunc­ture job, then I met my hus­band and never left!’’

There’s no doubt that the pas­sion that ig­nited af­ter Roberts’ ac­ci­dent shows no signs of wan­ing.

‘‘My pas­sion is in help­ing peo­ple lead great lives, I want peo­ple to have less pain, bet­ter sleep and bet­ter in­ter­ac­tion with their fam­ily and friends through feel­ing that in­ner re­silience and happiness.

‘‘At the end of the day, it’s about en­abling peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence joy.’’

For Kate Roberts, acupunc­ture was a way to get back to full health af­ter a ter­ri­ble car ac­ci­dent and now she trains others in the dis­ci­pline. Pho­tos: Deb Tapp

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