Devotees lend an ear to free weekly sessions. Voodoo medicine? It's anything but, they say.
Published Aug. 9, 2009|Updated Aug. 11, 2009

As Bob Linde deftly sticks five needles into Charlie Minnick's ear, Minnick lifts his chin and takes a deep breath. The needles pinch.

It's worse in one spot inside the top of his left ear. His mouth tenses with pain. It's the lungs' pressure point.

The 74-year-old military veteran had a pack-a-day smoking habit for 25 years.

Minnick doesn't believe in Tylenol. And he doesn't like shots. But for him, acupuncture works.

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JoAnne Lehrfeld, a licensed acupuncturist since 2001, runs the free acupuncture clinic as part of the Military Stress Recovery Project.

The local clinic is an affiliate of Acupuncturists Without Borders, a national organization formed in 2006. The clinic averages six people a week.

Every Thursday evening, a small band of veterans and family members gather in the sanctuary at Unity Christ Church on First Avenue N for free auricular acupuncture.

Lehrfeld said that many participants ask whether the treatment will help with certain ailments.

"We're not treating specific problems; rather, we're treating holistically," she said. "And through that, people are finding their specific problems alleviated.''

Those who return share their success stories with the sometimes skeptical newcomers.

One man says that the first time he had acupuncture was the last day he had a cigarette.

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Minnick, a Korean War veteran, was injured in 1986 after an incident downtown.

"Two kids wanted my wallet more than I did," he said. "With a lead pipe, they took it." He lay unconscious for 13 days.

He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, sinking into a blue chair.

"Wake me when it's over."

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Participants sit in a circle. A technician places five needles in each ear. After everyone is settled, the lights go off.

Then the real treatment begins.

Acupuncturists use the ear for these community-style settings, Lehrfeld said, because there are five universally proven points in each ear.

The points target the nervous system, liver, kidney, lungs and "shen men," or a person's overall well-being.

Lehrfeld said the points are known for treating insomnia, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. There are 300 pressure points in the ear.

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James Delgenio closes his eyes and doesn't move for almost 10 minutes until his head slowly slides backward, akin to a student falling asleep in class.

After a few minutes of struggling, heavy breathing suggests he has given in.

"I was out," he says sheepishly after treatment.

The 29-year-old medical student doesn't have medical insurance. He suffers from arthritis in his hips and lower back after hard runs and tough love in the Army. "I'm just grateful there are people willing to take time out of their day to do this," he says.

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Lehrfeld meets resistance to the age-old Chinese medicine from older veterans.

They tell her they fought against the Japanese, the Koreans and the Vietnamese, she said.

"'This is their medicine,' they say," she said. "'This is voodoo medicine.'"

In a study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease in June 2007, researchers determined that acupuncture may be an acceptable treatment option for PTSD.

Richard Hammerschlag, a researcher in the study, said acupuncture doesn't treat PTSD but addresses many of the symptoms.

"A lot of the behavioral therapies ask refugees and veterans to relive the experience," he said. "Acupuncture doesn't."

Dr. Charles Engel, a researcher who completed a separate study at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007, said soldiers with PTSD improved more quickly with acupuncture than usual treatment.

"I think this is really just the beginning of our understanding of acupuncture on PTSD," he said.

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Carolyn Sizemore looks around the room, smiles and talks to no one in particular.

"Everyone looks so relaxed," she says. "We all looked a little anxious before."

Ask about her life and the smile slowly fades. She spits out facts like a barrage of bullets.

Air Force, 1970-1974. Army, 1981-1985. Lives in St. Petersburg. Second week of acupuncture.

Then, "my son was killed in Baghdad," she says, her voice lowering with her head.

Staff Sgt. Garth Sizemore was killed by a sniper in 2006. She shoots out more facts.

Second tour in Iraq. Recently married a Russian bride. No children. Loved the outdoors. Loved being in the Army.

"That was my only child," she says. Sizemore has been in counseling to relieve anxiety. Acupuncture gives her a calm place.

The pain will always be there, she says, "but it's getting better."


St. PetersburgVeterans Clinic

Free acupuncture for veterans, family members and veteran health care workers. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Unity Christ Church, 6168 First Ave. N