The scale of loss in the Oso, Washington, landslide is nearly unimaginable. On March 22, 10 million cubic yards of mountainside swept through a rural neighborhood, burying 30 houses within minutes. To date, the death count stands at 41, with two people still missing. But even that figure obscures a deeper reality for this small community on the Stillaguamish River: Those deaths amount to almost one in every four residents. Every family in Oso is affected.
As citizens around the nation wondered how to respond, sending cards and displays of support, acupuncturists in Washington state decided on their own response: They would offer their medicine, free of charge, to anyone who needed it. They formed Acupuncture for Oso and have provided treatment to nearly 300 Oso residents and emergency workers since March 27.
Organizing on the fly, they have taken time from their private practices to volunteer shifts at the disaster response centers at fire stations in Oso and nearby Arlington and Darrington. They have offered sessions of 30-minutes or longer to first responders, introducing their medicine to many who have never used it.
"It took some time to gain trust, but we did," says volunteer Brenda Loew, LAc, EAMP, a faculty supervisor at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.
Working at the Oso Fire Station, she invites emergency workers to sit for a few minutes and receive care for themselves between lengthy shifts on "the pile" — the landslide’s aftermath of mud, trees, building debris and cars compacted to the size of refrigerators. Loew spoke of treating a volunteer firefighter who had been deeply involved in the rescue attempts.
"He was out there working 16-hour days in the mud and the water," she says. "When he finally agreed to sit down for a moment and receive acupuncture, he talked to me about the intensity of emotions, the adrenaline that kept him going. He was just finally starting to feel the loss and the grief come up."
Volunteers use 5-needle acupuncture, placing needles in the ear of a seated patient. The protocol is used widely in disaster situations by the non-profit Acupuncture Without Borders, and the U.S. military has adopted it for "battlefield acupuncture" in combat situations.
"The five-needle protocol is a really simple and powerful treatment," says volunteer Kathleen Lumiere, DAOM, MAc, LAc, a faculty member in Bastyr University's Department of Acupuncture and East Asian Medicine. "It's very good for stress, insomnia, depression and fatigue. It has a powerful calming effect on the brain."
Dr. Lumiere has led groundbreaking research studying acupuncture's effectiveness by measuring it with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Treating patients in an emergency setting has been another way to understand its value, she says. Working in the firehouse, with its notes of support and posters and cards from children, humbled her.
"It's an incredible space to be in," she says. "It's just so full of love and concern. It makes me realize that the impulse to do something in such a situation, no matter how small, matters. Even if it's just sending flowers or boxes of cereal, everything is appreciated."
Acupuncture for Oso has brought together alumni from Bastyr's acupuncture and Oriental medicine programs with graduates from other schools. Lead organizers Bill Wulsin, ND (’89), MPH, MA, LAc, and Jordan Van Voast, LAc, of Seattle’s CommuniChi clinic, have worked to line up volunteers from the state’s professional community.
Over time, the focus of emergency response has shifted from recovering missing people to helping survivors rebuild their lives. The acupuncture group continually re-evaluates its role, though it expects to stay in the area until at least June, Loew says.
“Every day is different,” she says. “We’re trying to evaluate how much longer we’re going to be up there. The trauma is obviously going to continue for a long time, probably for lifetimes.”
She acknowledges the limits of emergency medical treatment, describing the more-extensive therapies that acupuncturists can provide in clinical settings. For now, she says it’s key to provide brief moments of rest and decompression for emergency workers who can be reluctant to give themselves breaks.
"These treatments are a tool," she says. "They don't address the deeper emotional wounding, but anything that gives a little space and comfort, a moment of relaxation, gives you better resources to deal with deeper levels of trauma."