From Alternative Healthcare Management, The Newsmagazine of Non-Traditional Medicine
By Teri Pastore
Mary Helen Lee’s journey began with a dream—to help others learn about alternative healing practices and take control of their own healing. If Lee had it her way, acupuncture and alternative medicine would be readily accessible and as deftly understood as traditional allopathic medicine.
She may be a dreamer, but she also is a dogged pragmatist. Her vision of becoming an acupuncturist and opening her own alternative healing center became a reality in 1992. Today, she offers acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), herbal remedies, diet and nutritional counseling, aromatherapy, homeopathy, magnets and the age-old application of moxa—a rolled stick of mugwort used to heat the needles and stimulate the meridians.
Her path unfolded in the way many other healers’ journeys begin: with a personal health crisis. Suffering from consistent low energy and joint pain, Lee eventually found out that she was suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. Western medicine failed to offer relief and she eventually turned to an acupuncturist who listened to her pulse, read her tongue, and then placed acupuncture needles in her body. After the very first treatment, which was supplemented with Chinese herbs, her symptoms subsided. “I was amazed,” she says.
She says, however, that the most important discovery on the first visit was that she had found her path and purpose in life. “I knew after the first treatment that this is what I wanted to do,” she says. “I asked the practitioner if I could study with her and she told me about some acupuncture schools.” Once she found out the she could study such areas of medicine, she sent away for a catalog and enrolled immediately.
She attended the Midwest College for the Study of Oriental Medicine located in Chicago. As part of her internship, she worked at Cook County Hospital’s Pain Clinic, as well as the Northside HIV Treatment Center in Chicago. She worked there for three years, volunteering one day a week to treat patients with HIV and AIDS. “One of the most important observations I made was that patients who [relied on] a lot of pharmaceuticals ended up dying; [whereas] the patients who stayed off the pharmaceuticals, took herbs and changed their lifestyle, lived longer.” She says she came to believe that in the latter stage of the illness, acupuncture and herbs could decrease the symptoms of HIV and AIDS. In its earlier stages, acupuncture could actually improve the quality of individuals’ lives and keep them healthy.
In 1992, after becoming certified by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA), with a $15,000 start-up loan from her aunt, the White Moon Healing Center opened its doors. In Rogers Park, a neighborhood in north Chicago, Lee created a prosperous and thriving acupuncture clinic.
The White Moon Healing Center is housed in a two-story brick apartment building on a tree-lined residential street, three blocks from the great Lake Michigan. It includes the clinic, a pharmacy and two treatments rooms. The treatment rooms have massage tables equipped with magnetic pads. The clinic also provides aromatherapy diffusers, sound relaxers, TDP lamps, live plants and amethyst crystals, as well as other healing stones. As patients enter the hallway, they can see shelves lined with jars of dried herbs from Angelica to Zizyphus and everything in between. With the support of her three staff members, Lee prepares most of her products on site: a daily batch of Kombucha Tea, tinctures, balms, sprays and compound formulas, using Western and Chinese herbs. Additionally, her pharmacy stocks supplements and homeopathic remedies similar to those found in health food stores.
Milk Thistle, a liver detox formula, is her most popular item. Her treatment protocol is to detox the patient before tonifying the organs. “If you do that,” Lee says, “you’re going to get results.” The Milk Thistle compound is Lee’s own formula from her pharmacy. “All the herbal extracts are mixed and poured by hand and up until a few months ago all the labels were written by hand.” Lee explains that she prefers to use organic herbs, or herbs that have been wildcrafted (herbs that grow uncultivated in nature). Because farming practices in China are not yet regulated to qualify as organic, most of the herbs she uses come from the Pacific Northwest.
She states that one on her biggest challenges is that the Midwest is still struggling with the terms, definitions and appropriate application of alternative medicine. Because of the political and legal restrictions in Illinois, she has had to overcome the liability of not being able to advertise for clients during her six years of practice. Acupuncture—or any other alternative medicinal practice except for chiropractic—was considered a Class Two felony in Illinois, equivalent to kidnapping. It was a legal technicality, but one that was readily enforced and professionally devastating. Her solution? She started out by treating people for free: friends, relatives and referrals. “The more people you treat, the more clients you get,” she says, “I used a sliding scale so people who could pay in full did so; those who couldn’t used the sliding scale.” Eventually, her clientele grew to where she had so many patients that she was able to stabilize her fees.
In January 1997, Governor James Edgar signed into law a bill allowing for the standardized regulation of acupuncturists, which allowed for the practice of acupuncture by non-physicians without the treat of arrest.
Today, Lee’s White Moon Healing Center is one of the most successful acupuncture clinics in the city of Chicago. Within four years, she paid back the initial start-up loan, she employs three part-time practitioners, and the clinic has begun to show a profit. Clients range from elderly patients seeking relief from chronic pain to first-time clients exploring alternative healing options. The center treats all kinds of illnesses: AIDS, cancer, chronic pain, liver disorders, emotional imbalances and infertility. The center now attracts students seeking internships for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine.
Lee remains committed to establishing alternative healthcare as a viable option in the Chicago area. She has created a thriving business in alternative medicine, which continues to prosper. She also trades services with other alternative medicine providers, such as massage therapists, Reiki practitioners and chiropractors. Lee provides lectures and classes on detoxing, herbal medicine, and nutrition. She also says that what continues to inspire her is empowering her patients’ with awareness about alternative medicine so they can be in control and contribute to their long-term well-being.