TAMPA — Above the war-torn jungles of Vietnam in 1969, U.S. Marine Capt. Bob McHenry piloted a ch-53 Sea Stallion helicopter after completing another dangerous ammunition support mission.
When enemy fire struck one of his engines, McHenry spotted a bright reddish-orange flame rising from his cockpit window. A direct hit left McHenry in his crew in peril. A crash, or, maybe death seemed inevitable.
As the helicopter spiraled downward, the main rotor blades sheared and the tail boom separated from the aircraft.
Everyone miraculously survived, but McHenry has carried immense pain from the accident for 49 years.
"I'll never ever forget that day," McHenry said. "I survived, but because of it, I've been to more VA doctors than I care to remember. For years I've been seeking any form of pain relief without getting hooked on drugs."
In 2015, McHenry researched the world of alternative medicine and discovered the possibilities that came with acupuncture. Unfortunately, no doctors provided the treatment at Tampa's James A. Haley Veterans Hospital.
So, with the help of his VA primary doctor, he navigated the request through the proper medical channels and received authorization that same year to begin receiving treatment from an approved private provider.
Now the Veterans Health Administration has begun to open their eyes to the medical treatment.
The science of acupuncture involves the utilization of very thin needles that are inserted through the patient's skin at strategic points of the body with little to no discomfort. It's also a key component of traditional Chinese medicine that is practiced throughout the world. Research suggests it can help relieve pain, and it is used for a wide range of other health-related issues.
In the past, the VA pain management relied on traditional forms of relief, often dispensing powerful opioids. However, that use has resulted in unintended consequences.
According to a January 2017 edition of Psychology Today, the number of veterans addicted to opioid painkillers rose to 68,000 between 2010 and 2015, often leading to hospitalization, homelessness and even suicide.
The numbers have played a role in leading the VA to include acupuncture as an alternative health strategy, all in hopes of reducing dependence on addictive pharmaceutical drugs.
"We began approving acupuncture as one of our medical tools around 2008," said Charles Brock, the Haley chief of Neurology Services and associate dean of Veterans Affairs who also serves as a pain medicine specialist and certified acupuncturist.
"In the context of pain medicine, what appears to be most beneficial is interdisciplinary, and a truly multi-modal pain medicine delivery program. Pain management is not something where there is a medicine or specific procedure that will automatically cure a patient.
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"So, when we are treating our veterans with pain issues, we have to treat them with multiple modality fashions in order to achieve lasting long-term results. And acupuncture is recognized as one of those modalities."
Tampa's Su Thi Ho Campo is a licensed acupuncture physician. She has treated McHenry in her South Tampa clinic since he was approved.
Campo, like other licensed practitioners of the 2,600-year-old practice of Chinese acupuncture, was systematically brought onto the VA outpatient medical team to assist suffering veterans with issues such as chronic pain, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other various medical problems.
It's important to note that this modality is not designed to replace other forms of treatment or therapy, but is meant to offer veterans an alternative to traditional medicine.
"It's an honor to treat our veterans like Mr. McHenry, for the chronic long-term pain they received while in active military service," Campo said. "They are so grateful when they finally get some relief."
McHenry says he doesn't expect acupuncture to cure him, but he appreciates its impact.
"It gives me the physical and mental comfort to perform activities I can't normally do. Besides, throughout my military career, I've been stuck with needles of all shapes and sizes, and that makes acupuncture a breeze."
Contact Mike Merino at firstname.lastname@example.org.