Birth of a Clinic: POCAFest Presentation, Friday May 31st

I’m going to start by telling you how nervous I am, and that I might talk too quickly. If I’m going too fast, give me a signal, please, and I’ll try to slow down. I need to acknowledge that we’re on the traditional territory of the Narragansett people, and that I’m a visitor here.  And, I want to say what an honour this is to be an opening act for one of my favourite writers.

I was asked to give a presentation on Guelph Community Acupuncture and POCA. I opened Guelph Community Acupuncture in Guelph Ontario, an underserved area, at the end of January, with the help of a $7500 low-interest loan from POCA. Let’s just notice that although we’re calling it a micro-loan, $7500 goes pretty far, especially as I had no savings, and didn’t get the amount I applied for from the other loan agency. And POCA has been a huge ongoing support in other ways which I’ll get into shortly. So, this presentation is me sharing with you what we are doing. In Guelph.

I signed a lease in December 2012. I got lucky out with the location. We’re in the Guelph Community Health Centre building, right downtown. There are a few other service providers in the building, including Guelph Midwives, the Early Years Centre (for kids and their caregivers) and a walk-in medical clinic. Folks using the drop-in centre across the parking lot can come to the health centre for access to clean needles, showers, and foot care, from staff who give a shit. I notice that it’s becoming fashionable among service providers to talk about the social determinants of health. The staff at GCHC seem to do more than pay lip service to things like Dignity and Access. I’ve been profoundly reassured while witnessing front desk staff interact with the public. They are respectful and kind, and they listen – didn’t bat an eye when I approached them about sorting out access to a gender-neutral bathroom on the main floor.

Even more good news: community qi in Guelph is just as good as anywhere else. Not that there was any doubt. But I can’t tell you about GCA without saying how lovely our patients are. Acupunking in a small city is good way to fall in love with a new home. To see your new neighbours at their raw and humble best. We’ve got regulars who initially had no idea they could feel so good, and now they count on their maintenance treatments to keep on feeling good. And we’ve had people stagger in desperate for help with a spasm or a flare up and the referrals keep coming in. Word spreads fast in Guelph. I’m noticing the difference in attention span in a much smaller city (120,000 instead of the six million I’m used to in Vancouver.) People in Guelph hear about something new & interesting like affordable community acupuncture, and they’ll often follow up on it within weeks, rather than months. A lot of Guelphers “get” community acupuncture. They like that it’s affordable, they like their acupuncture dates, they are all over the bring-a-friend-for-free stat holiday specials. I’m treating a lot of families. So I’d say that the rebranding of acupuncture as something ordinary and useful, rather than an exotic appendage to your countercultural identity, is well on its way in Guelph.

I will add that we haven’t really reached folks who work in factories on the outskirts of town. I’m treating a lot of farmers, but of the thousands of people who work in factories around Guelph, we’ve seen very few. So my postering and flyering efforts there are missing something. 

I don’t know that I’d possibly be able to convey, in 10-15 minutes, how important POCA has been to the founding and functioning of GCA. The money was huge, but it goes way, way beyond the loan. This project of making effective healthcare available to as many people as possible is a beautiful, rich experience, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, but it’s also a heavy weight to carry in the world sometimes. I was thinking about this the other day when I was filling out the status report required by the other funding agency I got some money from. They wanted a lot of numbers and ‘was I on plan or behind plan’ and there was of course no room atall to talk about the real people whose lives have changed in big ways because affordable acupuncture is happening in Guelph and I had the thought again: Thank god for colleagues who have a critique of capitalism.

It’s a hard thing, being a gatekeeper.  Once in awhile the community acupuncture treatment room just isn’t appropriate for someone, for a variety of possible reasons. A small handful of times at GCA I’d had to say, regretfully, No. Each time I’ve done that, it has absolutely been the correct decision, but it’s been hurtful, and my own pain around making these decisions goes a lot deeper than guilt. I’ve made these decisions because yeah, I need to make the sound business move and I need to pay bills and rent and loan payments and myself. But I’ve also done it for the value and the motive beyond money — to make acupuncture as available to as many people as possible.

There’s a distinction there, and I see that reflected in you people. Something I saw on the WCA website once comes to mind: we’re doing capitalism with a twist. A very deep, very structural twist. It has been good for my sanity to have colleagues and comrades in POCA who have a critique of capitalism, and a language to talk about how power dynamics work, and how they impact real people we care about – like our patients – even as we engage with things like marketing and interest rates and when to turn someone away.

I’m glad there’s a lot of good news from Guelph to share today. Because it’s been a tough 10 months since I moved to Guelph. Rewarding, regularly wonderful, but tough. When I lived in Vancouver I worked full time at Poke Community Acupuncture. Poke employs 3 full time punks, giving about 200 treatments per week. Up until recently, I was referring to the loss of that job/community/anchor as the hole that will not close; absolutely the hardest thing about uprooting my whole life and moving to the other side of this landmass. Lately, that ache is subsiding. Next Sunday Stacey, GCA’s new punk (who found us and messaged us through POCA) is starting regular shifts. (She’s in Toronto getting Dr Tanned for the first time right now.) I am looking forward to sharing patients with her, to being open 6 days per week so our patients can fulfill their treatment plans, but honestly, most of all, I am looking forward to regular community acupuncture treatment in my life again. When I was punking in Van I thought for awhile that I was cured of chronic pain. It kinda almost broke my spirit, to leave Vancouver and my acupunk friends at Poke and find out that actually, that chronic pain was just really well managed. With frequent, simple acupuncture treatment.

So it’s been good for my sanity to be in contact with you, with this ongoing reassurance that community acupuncture is spreading like dandelions, that dandelions will come to Guelph – it’s just a matter of time.

So thank you for being so generous with your opinions and enthusiasm and honesty, and for being so excited to lend me thousands of dollars. Thank you for telling me how you’ve fucked up, what you’d do differently. Thank you for providing space for me to say how I’ve fucked up. (This culture of shared error on POCA is magnificent. Every time one of us says “I screwed up here,” it opens up even more space for someone else to do the same.) Thanks for getting into the nitty-gritty of recliner placement and how to promote a slow shift and how to find good volunteers and holding my hand as I try to figure out if online booking is a good idea (it is) and how to deal if someone pees on a chair and for disagreeing with each other in such interesting ways and being so boisterous and opinionated and wise. Thanks for continuing to provide me with acupunk community after I left Poke. My heart would have been a lot more broken about all that if it wasn’t for all of you. POCA has helped keep me strong enough to do what I'm doing now. I’m so stoked to hang out with you all this weekend. Thanks for listening.

Addendum, 11 days later: Vicky covered for me while I was away at POCAFest. About 10 of the people who came in to see her have made a point (haha) of telling me that “She was really great.” And Stacey’s first regular shift was yesterday; she gave 13 treatments and several of her patients came up to me afterwards to whisper “She’s great – she has a lovely touch.”
So it’s official. The punks at GCA have smooth insertions and know where to stick it, and acupunk community is definitely growing in Guelph. As Andy says: “Onward.”

Lisa Baird
Author: Lisa Baird

Lisa prefers fireflies to fireworks, reverts to bluntness in stressful moments, would happily wear legwarmers year-round, and probably wants to be your friend.

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  1. I wish I had seen you do your talk, but am so happy you posted it. Thank you!!!!!

    You’re doing amazingly well; may yu inspire others to take ea risk 🙂

  2. I saw you talk at POCAFest and was moved by your honesty and open sharing. Love you get to be poked too!