Alumni Spotlight: Katie Walker, MS, MAOM, Lic. Ac.

Alumni Spotlight: Katie Walker, MS, MAOM, Lic. Ac., Dipl. OM, NESA at MCPHS

November 28, 2016

  • Oftentimes a hands-on experience can lead to greater interest in a subject matter. And in the case of Somerville native and New England School of Acupuncture (NESA) alumna Katie Walker '13, it was a hands-on experience - with her foot.

    Two months post-surgery for a college track injury, Katie was in still in pain and relying on crutches “with no end in sight.” So she turned to Chinese medicinal treatments.

    “While the first session brought up a lot of needle anxiety, it was seemingly painless. I continued to go for the next two weeks while concurrently soaking my foot in an herbal solution at home between treatments,” she said. “To my shock, within those two weeks, my wound healed up, and I was able to walk again.”

    While her interest was piqued, her fascination with Western medicine truly ignited when she learned about the New England School of Acupuncture (NESA), “the first school of acupuncture in the US, which was conveniently located about 30 minutes from my house.”

    Once ignited, things grew from there. “I found acupuncture fascinating because the needles are merely tools to facilitate and enhance the complex physiological and biological processes that our body already knows to do to heal itself. The possibilities for treating all sorts of disease are endless,” she said.

    Katie graduated from the New England School of Acupuncture (NESA) in 2013 with a Master of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (MAOM) with concentrations in Chinese and Japanese Acupuncture. She also graduated with a Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education and Policy from Tufts University School of Medicine, through our partnership with the school.

    Katie shared more about the field of acupuncture, her NESA experience, and her day-to-day in the exciting world of integrative medicine:

    Can you share more about what happened with the injury that sparked your passion for acupuncture?

    Like many other people, I went to acupuncture as a last resort. Two months post-op, I was still suffering in immense pain from an allergic reaction to the synthetic stitches, and relying on crutches to get around. Terrified of needles, I was extremely skeptical when my mother said I should give it a try; she had just recovered from a tough year battling both breast cancer and Grave’s disease, and she claimed that acupuncture helped her immensely during this recovery.

    What is the biggest question you get asked about acupuncture?

    The biggest question I get is, “Does it work?” It can definitely be a frustrating question to answer, but most of the time people are genuinely curious. Usually I just smile and say, “Yes, for many people it does. Everyone responds a little differently; we’ll see how your body responds after a couple treatments.”

    The reality is that acupuncture doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s one area of research that still needs more investigation.

    How do you address the skeptics out there?

    Many people also ask if it is merely placebo, but I love getting this question, because I feel very qualified to answer it. Many of our studies at MGH involve investigating and teasing out placebo or patient-provider effects to isolate the effect of acupuncture. It’s important to educate the public that all treatments (including medications) have some element of placebo response, and that’s actually a great thing—it means we are tapping into your body’s natural ability to heal itself.

    Acupuncture’s effects, while distinct from placebo, are always going to be enhanced by the belief that the treatment will be successful, and so we should encourage that.

    What do you wish people knew about acupuncture and oriental medicine?

    At the top of the list is the fact that acupuncture is a physical medicine that has tangible, measurable, biological effects. Many people are clouded by the misunderstanding that we are tapping into and manipulating mystical energy in the body and in the universe. That is simply not true. There are many, many peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the effects of inserting and manipulating a needle, and how placement of that needle within the “meridian” system correlates with fascial planes, thereby exerting a larger physiological effect.

    The second thing I wish others knew about this field is that practitioners of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have received an extensive education in both Eastern medicine philosophy and principles, as well as Western anatomy, biology, and physiology. Many people are surprised to learn that in order to practice acupuncture, you need a Master’s degree. It’s a solid education, and I wish the public knew more about that.

    Tell us a little about your current role. What type of acupuncture and oriental medicine do you practice?

    I currently work in a neurosurgical office at Norwood Hospital treating patients with spinal injuries. Most of these patients are receiving treatment under worker’s compensation, and so this is their first exposure to acupuncture. While acupuncture certainly helps with these patients’ pain levels and mobility (often much to their surprise!), another key component to my treatments is stress management. Many of these people’s lives have been turned completely upside-down with their injuries, and their livelihoods are at the whim of lawyers and insurance companies.

    Because I work in a very fast-paced environment at Norwood, I tend to do more Chinese style acupuncture, although occasionally I will use Japanese techniques. Unfortunately I can’t use moxa because of the hospital environment, but many of these patients would be great candidates for moxa as well.

    I also work part-time at Mass General Hospital Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging where I am currently on three different acupuncture studies treating patients with lower back pain. We use functional MRI (fMRI) to observe how their brains change before, during, and after acupuncture treatment, and see if those changes correlate with patient outcomes.

    What is it like to help patients dealing with chronic pain?

    It means the world to me to know that I am making a difference in people’s lives. Many of my patients do not want to be reliant upon medication, especially opioids, and so to have an alternative to manage their pain makes a huge difference to them. I hear almost daily, “I could not WAIT to get to my acupuncture appointment today,” or “You know what? I really think acupuncture helps me!” And sometimes, even just being a listening ear can ease pain, stress, and the burden of their injuries just a little bit. I’ve had more than one patient tell me that just having an outlet to talk about the different stressors going on their lives really helps them cope.

    What does it mean to be a NESA alum?

    NESA is like family. It’s a tight-knit community full of incredibly compassionate and supportive people, from the students to the faculty and staff. A NESA education is grueling, with multiple exams on new material every week. Students form a bond over their blood, sweat, and tears that cannot be broken.

    After graduation, while this family is no longer a part of every day life, the bonds that are formed with fellow classmates continue to support us throughout our practices for the rest of our lives.

    NESA’s new home within MCPHS represents an unparalleled collaboration between eastern and western expertise. How is such a combination of expertise beneficial?

    When I work at Norwood, I see the benefit that a combined approach brings to patient care. Both the neurosurgeon I work with and I understand at a deep level that chronic pain is a complex condition that touches patients’ lives on a biological, psychological, and sociological level, and we need to provide care that supports our patients on multiple levels.

    Acupuncture brings with it the ability to not only help manage these patients’ pain, but is also able to balance other aspects of their lives. By bringing other aspects of these patients’ lives back to homeostasis, these patients are better able to heal and manage their pain, and are better able to withstand more aggressive treatment options if necessary.

    Finally, what most excites you about your career today?

    I love being in integrative medicine. I believe that the best patient care comes from collaboration, and so I hope to continue to educate others about how this medicine can enhance current allopathic treatment so that we can better work together to serve those in need. I would love to see an acupuncturist in every department of a hospital or clinic; I believe this medicine has a lot to offer our patients.

    Interested in a future in acupuncture and oriental medicine? Our Master of Acupuncture (MAc) program prepares students for meaningful careers through 33-months of full-time study on our Worcester, MA campus.