Working at the sharp end of health
Kate Roberts found acupuncture so valuable after being injured she took it up to help others.
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