Damien Bodnarchuk is an ACMAC member and practices from Bondi Beach Not-for-profit Community Acupuncture Clinic.
Interviewed by Charlotte Whitestone.
CW: Hi Damien. Could you start off by telling me a little about yourself and how you came to be practicing acupuncture?
DB: My name is Damien Bodnarchuk. I studied at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) where they have the
Bachelor of Health Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine 4 year undergraduate degree. This has been at this university for over 15 years. I graduated recently but have always been involved with working with humans and health! I have a love of yoga and gained a diploma in yoga and taught for a few years prior. Basically I wanted to focus one on one with people. When I found out that Eastern medicine was being taught in a Western context at university, it blew my mind! It gave me an alternative medicine to work one on one with people with a mainstream path. I couldn’t resist the combination!
CW: When did you first open your clinic?
DB: I wanted to jump straight into community acupuncture as I wanted to treat as many people as possible. I first opened my community clinic in June 2011. I was inspired by the ideas of ‘community and treatment’. Community is what truly inspired me in the context of not for profit: reaching out to those who needed it. I decided to go with a full community ideal. I actually wrote a blog entry: “Community acupuncture: the McDonalds of Acupuncture?” to try to whip up some interest and opinions about it, but it didn’t get any comments! I was comparing a business model to a not-for-profit model. What cemented the not-for-profit angle for me was the fact the location I had found was an old church building set up as community healing centre and they weren’t charging me any rent. So I decided to charge $29 for each appointment and donate to the church organization – I was treating one-to-one. It wasn’t too soon after this that I got an angry phone call from a multibed clinic in town saying I couldn’t use the words ‘community acupuncture’ and that I was stealing their idea etc. Yeah, I know drama from our own kind! Anyway I told them not to worry as it was a totally different angle anyway and never heard back.
CW: What kind of experiences did you have getting off the ground?
DB: The setting was an amazing place. The congregation was too small to keep the church going but the religious group decided to use the space as a healing centre. High ceilings, stained glass windows and that amazing peaceful feel a church has… Actually it was a bit too peaceful! I was treating one patient an hour and soon I was in the back room. Still nice surroundings and I would contemplate the world in dusty coloured sun-beams… Anyway after about 3 months I was getting some regular patients on the hour. I would get some patients who would travel for an hour to get there. Actually I realised that maybe more bargain hunters were coming instead of needy types! I discovered a definite flavour of these patients too. Details. Detailed questions. Detailed responses. One patient would record a diary of all their post-acupuncture reactions for the week after treatment and present it to me before his next treatment. Oh my gosh! Luckily he would record what movies he saw too. Thank goodness we could talk about them too!
Even though this place was a great premises I decided to approach another church, in Bondi Beach, run by the same religious group. It was a bit closer to where the action was. Eventually the minister there could see the benefit of a potential increase in the numbers of people visiting his church. From the beginning of January 2012 I started at this new premises with a new approach. Here I offered $5 acupuncture treatments. Again for the first 3 months it was fairly slow going with mainly eccentric types coming in to find some peace off the street. The minister sent out a group email to a years-old database and I had a few people turn up. From this time onwards I picked up some momentum. My first busy day people were waiting for me before I got there.
CW: What kind of model do you use?
DB: The way I set it up was on tables in an open room. One booking every 15 minutes, which I stuck to with the other practitioner working there too (very busy when I was on my own for a while!) I was also approached by an on-line booking company and we did a free trial for a period of time to try it out. Great idea, but the majority of my patients had very little computer access or computer literacy. This took me by surprise and mainly the on-line bookings were not used by anybody.
CW: What kinds of conditions and patients do you treat?
DB: At the Bondi Beach place I began treating some exceptional cases. People who had slipped through the medical system because of lack of finance or psychological issues. I have treated 100s of cases now. Flicking through the patient cards I can see mainly back pain, shoulder and knee pain. Some very complex cases of ear and nose issues with additional issues such as dry mouth, digestion problems. The exceptional cases included the worst psoriasis case I had ever witnessed, even worse than in the text books, the main areas effected being knees and elbows and general body but with a thick crusting. Other stand-out cases included a shocking ascites case due to ovarian cancer, and a post breast cancer patient who stopped taking her medications. I had plenty of patients with psychological issues too, like schizophrenic cases. I would treat the symptoms from the medications, usually nausea, fuzzy brain sensation etc, Sp diagnosis and underlying Kd xu (fear). Anxiety and stress, some depression cases. I treated one head scar, post operation, very successfully. Her hair was regrowing fully after weeks of not growing back. Mainly I just met awesome people who appreciated any help at a low cost.
CW: How has your clinic developed since the early days, and what have you learned that you didn’t know you didn’t know?
DB: After getting up to treating 20 patients in an afternoon I was pretty happy with the experiences and development of cases. I was presuming something though. One day I had a very well-off patient booked in and other people were waiting. As I honoured bookings over walks in I treated her but I wasn’t happy. The reason why I was charging $5 was so that people who couldn’t afford acupuncture could get a treatment! Suddenly I realised that anybody was getting a treatment! It hadn’t occurred to me that even people with money would bother to get a $5 treatment if they could afford a regular price. Yes they would! This developed another re-think. Also I’d put an advert out for another practitioner to help out (a more involved process than you would realise! But an awesome person came along to play). From this point on, instead of $5 treatments with all proceeds going to charity I decided to develop a pricing system and also develop some income for the clinic and donate to charity. I doubled my prices! $10 for concession treatment (proven with a concession card) and $29 for full income.
CW: And what happened?
DB: Numbers dropped! 3 months later I had a third of the number of patients and maybe one waged patient attending and I let the awesome person who joined me go. Currently I have put the clinic in recess to re-evaluate! In the end I think the location dictated a charity-type feel for the patients coming. So people didn’t mind getting $5 treatment, which included a lot of needy people. However paying $10 was a bit of a stretch for people with no money at all! Anyway that is my theory…
CW: What really makes you buzz about your clinic?
DB: One of the things I enjoyed the most about the way the clinic was set up was the casual relaxed atmosphere.
Not running it as a business created this. I would rarely get demanding patients and if I did I would keep it pretty casual. If they didn’t show up again it wouldn’t really matter. Sometimes I would put my favourite radio station on and listen to whatever I liked in the moment. Awesome people would turn up and swap playing the piano in the room for a treatment and other types of practitioners would come along to practice. After a while we had a person doing energetic healing, two massage people (one doing Swedish massage, who was from Sweden-can’t avoid mentioning that), someone else doing Qi Gong and meditation. A very creative and progressive atmosphere developed. Soon my vision of a room full of people getting treatments went way beyond what I had imagined. It was a room full of patients and different types of practitioners too!
Most patients felt great. Some returned a dozen times or more. Some definitely stating the positive effects from repetitive weekly treatments that they would not be able to normally afford. The clinic also afforded a lot of flexibility. One patient I will never forget had a knee pain issue. After the fifth treatment I’d done with no effect we started playing with different ideas. I was able to play with some theories and deducted a kidney issue. After normal local and distal kidney points I decided to do the radical Kidney 1 point with a grounding kidney theory; according to Deadman there are some pain treatment associations for Kd 1 too. So in this generous and flexible space I tried it. No problem. A point I had never done outside of uni became a semi favourite! In the end I used this technique for a handful of patients, mostly ungrounded types with a sense detachment or disassociation. Anyone who seemed ultra-spaced actually!
CW: What has your experience been of fitting the community acupuncture model into mainstream healthcare and/or mainstream acupuncture?
DB: Initially I tried to tie the clinic to the university I graduated from. The idea being they could support me with their name and students could attend the clinic as a stepping stone to their own clinic. After talking to the head of the faculty and getting a maybe I ploughed on and addressed a meeting of faculty representatives for the Chinese medicine faculty (mainly teachers) through a letter but nothing got up. After that I also tried to engage the professional association of which I am a member and active committee member, with the idea of community acupuncture. As a committee member I tried to put this on the agenda but after two meetings it got bogged down and then fizzled as an idea. Currently the committee is addressing an idea that a new member has suggested: treating in a highly medicalised setting through an established charity for free. The emphasis being that university student-mentoring may be established more easily in a state-of –the-art medical setting. Personally I am also pursuing treating at the Aboriginal Medical Service Co-Op in Redfern, but this is turning out to be a very long, drawn-out committee-based process!
CW: And how have other practitioners responded to what you’ve been doing?
DB: Most of the response has been very positive. I deliberately made sure people knew I was treating mainly concession patients at a low rate. This was to make sure other practitioners in the area knew they weren’t being under-cut. I heard one response about ‘training for years not to treat cheap’, but I only heard that through a third person. I presume they didn’t realise it was mainly concession treatments.
CW: Do you think community/multibed practice is transforming the provision of Australian acupuncture, or is there some way to go?
DB: The original people I checked out now have 4 multibed clinics around Sydney. They are expanding their business. A lot practitioners love the idea of community acupuncture as a not-for-profit as well. However when I put a email out on a well known database in Australia asking for help (maybe 2000 Chinese medicine practitioners on it) I got 5 responses about volunteering to do acupuncture. It only occurred to me then that this was more of an exception than I’d thought!
CW: Why did you join ACMAC?
DB: When I saw ACMAC I thought it would be great to align myself with a bunch of people doing something similar and I must say you [Charlotte] have been a beacon of positivity.
CW: Why thank you!
DB: I wear my ACMAC t-shirt with a lot of pride. Straight away there was support, fun and a sense that I was not so independent. Probably my greatest fear is that acupuncture can be a lonely process. It’s you and your patient, and then you and your next patient, and so on. There’s not much camaraderie and in fact I think there is a lot of competition! With the community aspect you can have a go and if someone else wants to have a go you let them as you are not competing for a dollar. You are collaborating to the end goal of helping patients and each other. That is the beauty of it, and along with it your mind and heart are expanded by looking through someone else’s eyes.
CW: Well, that’s what I think is important too. By collaborating we can be stronger as individuals and as a movement. Your work sounds great and I wish you all the best in the future. Thanks for sharing your story with us, Damien.