Photo by Janet Hostetter
Photo by Janet Hostetter
Twelve years ago, Karen Nielsen stumbled onto her life’s calling when she accidentally walked into a room full of people getting acupuncture treatments while visiting a friend at Fairview Riverside Hospital.

Nielsen had no way of knowing then that the incident would change her life. At the time, all she knew was that at age 43 she had a lifelong fear of needles. Now Nielsen uses acupuncture to help others overcome trauma, including the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

It sticks

Nielsen met Bea Swanson in 1994 through St. Stephen’s Church in South Minneapolis. Swanson, a Native American elder, was dying of metastatic cancer. “Bea was in hospice,” Nielsen said, “and I knew her family would be needing some help.” One night when she was visiting Swanson, they went down to the hospital chapel and found it full of people “with needles in their heads.”

The women were invited to come back for an acupuncture treatment. “Bea was really nervous about it,” Nielsen recalled. “She said, ‘You’re going to have a treatment too, right?’”

Acupuncture is the ancient Chinese practice of inserting fine needles at specific points just under the skin to relieve pain and heal the body.

Despite her fear of needles, Nielsen agreed to have the treatment for Swanson’s sake. The next night they returned. “I was under a lot of stress,” Nielsen said. “And during the treatment I began to feel very calm and relaxed. In a group setting, the energy is amazing. There’s deeper healing. If you’re in trauma, there’s a tendency to be isolated. The connection of being in a group gives you a strength you wouldn’t have on your own and reduces the sense of isolation.”

Nielsen felt her stress lift and after a few more acupuncture treatments, she was hooked. She spent the next six years in college, ultimately earning a master’s degree in Oriental medicine, which included the study of acupuncture and the medicinal uses of herbs. “I had never gone to college, because I didn’t know what I wanted to be,” Nielsen laughed.

After graduation, she worked at a couple of different clinics, then settled into a practice at Three Rivers Clinic in St. Louis Park, where she currently treats people with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, gynecological issues, stress, allergies to medications and complications from surgery.

Last year, she cut back on her practice and she and her husband Mac McElroy relocated to the town of Clear Lake, near St. Cloud, to a small home on Briggs Lake that was handed down through her family.

Eyes on the storm

Nielsen and Mac had just moved to the house on Briggs Lake when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Like many others, Nielsen wanted to help. She heard about a group forming in response to the disaster, Acupuncturists Without Borders (AWB), and joined them. Beginning last October, the organization sent rotating groups of licensed acupuncturists to New Orleans to offer free treatments to evacuees, displaced residents, relief workers, emergency responders and others.

“I desperately wanted to get down [to New Orleans],” Nielsen said. “I had friends down there and didn’t know how they were doing. There was the opportunity to go down and work, not get in the way. Meanwhile, the government was saying stay away, we’ve got things under control. That was a lie. A few people who went told us it was a nightmare.”

Nielsen traveled to New Orleans with a group of three AWB volunteers on February 11. They stayed for eight days, traveling around the area providing acupuncture treatments during the day and sleeping nights in a FEMA tent city. “It was challenging, amazing, rewarding, horrifying, and I’m still reeling from a lot of it,” she said. ”The human spirit is a pretty amazing essence. That people have survived down there is incredible; how they’re being treated is a crime.”

Nielsen’s friend Reggie, a New Orleans firefighter who lost his home when floodwaters swamped the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, is a prime example, she said. Reggie bought his property in the 1980s, right after he got out of the military. He was the first member of his African American family to own property, but now he may not be allowed to rebuild.

“If the government can’t get 100 homeowners in an area to say they’ll rebuild, [the government] will bulldoze the area. People have left the area, they don’t know how to get a hold of their neighbors,” Nielsen said.

Nielsen was stunned by the stories of the city’s firefighters, many of whom had to move around in makeshift quarters because their firehouses were destroyed. “They had metal chairs to sit on, metal cots to sleep on,” Nielsen says. The firefighters themselves had been traumatized: “These firefighters had watched the bodies of their friends and neighbors washed out to sea, that’s why the numbers [of those missing and dead] don’t match up.”

Like many who have experienced the horror of the aftermath of Katrina, Nielsen sees things in black and white. She thinks that endemic poverty is “a huge racial issue” and found it ironic that New Orleans natives had to leave their city, where the black kids attended public school and the white kids attended private school, to settle in cities like Baton Rouge, where the schools are integrated.

Along with providing acupuncture, Nielsen provided a listening ear for those she treated. One story Nielsen will never forget was told to a fellow acupuncturist by a woman named Annie who came to a health fair at Audubon Zoo.

“[Annie] did what the city told her to do—she and her husband went to the Dome, but standing in line her husband was having horrible back pain. They went to the hospital and waited for eight hours without being seen. They didn’t know what to do; they couldn’t go back and stand in line again [because her husband couldn’t physically stand it]. They felt the only thing they could do was go back home. They thought they’d made it when the levee broke in the middle of the night. Annie survived but she couldn’t save her husband.”

Nielsen also heard about the lack of translation services for non-English speakers during the evacuation. AWB provided acupuncture treatments to residents of two Vietnamese communities. During their time there, they learned that a fishing village of 500 Vietnamese had perished in the storm “because they didn’t speak English and there was no translation” for the evacuation orders, said Nielsen.

Nielsen would like to go back to New Orleans to help again, but things have gotten more complicated. Although AWB provided more than 4,000 treatments in and around New Orleans, the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners in late February denied their request to continue to allow out-of-state acupuncturists to provide treatments. Disregarding the supportive comments from therapists, ministers and even FEMA and Health and Human Services Administration workers, the State Board of Medical Examiners stated, in their denial letter, that there wasn’t a need for AWB’s services.

At home, Nielsen is working to build her central Minnesota practice. “One of my teachers told me that we come into this world with a certain amount of energy. Each person has a unique gift and purpose to give to this world. Chronic pain or illness depletes this energy, deprives the world of these gifts. I look at my role as to help conserve that energy, help that person deliver their gift to this world so desperately in need of it.”

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