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For D.C.’s next catastrophe, acupuncturists want in.

When David Vandenberg woke up to the news of Sept. 11, the D.C.-based acupuncturist says, he felt a rush of patriotism.

“My first thought when I saw the smoke [at the Pentagon] was, There ain’t going to be one person hurt in my city if I can do something about it,” says Vandenberg.

But in the weeks after the attacks, officialdom didn’t seem to want the acupuncturist using his thin needles to save anybody. He treated his own clients for heightened emotional stress—and his workload piled up after Sept. 11—but when it came to the rescue effort, his services weren’t wanted. One client, the former head of the Army’s psychological services, told him not to bother with the Pentagon, and when Vandenberg contacted the Red Cross, “they were very unhelpful,” he says. “I got farther with the U.S. Army than I got with the Red Cross.”

So Vandenberg decided to organize his fellow acupuncturists and present a united front to D.C. officials. In January, the D.C. Acupuncture Society was born, with Vandenberg its founder and president.

And the local officials heard them out. The D.C. Emergency Management Agency has agreed to have volunteer acupuncturists available on call if and when the next nightmare comes. “Some people don’t believe in [acupuncture], others do, and we didn’t want to limit ourselves,” says Steve Charvat, the agency’s director of planning, training, and exercises. “They are all licensed professionals,” he adds.

One reason for this turnabout was that in New York City after the attacks, more than 100 volunteer acupuncturists worked 24 hours a day in five-person rotations to treat rescue workers suffering from muscle pulls, fatigue, nausea, and mental stress. Charvat heard from his New York counterparts about the success of this operation and is now open to having acupuncture available to D.C. rescue workers who want it. There are approximately 35 licensed, practicing acupuncturists in the District and hundreds more in the suburbs, all of whom could potentially be brought in during an emergency.

Charvat says a memorandum of agreement with the society is in the works, but he adds that in whatever arrangement that results, acupuncturists will be authorized to treat only emergency responders who come to rescue-worker stations, not ordinary citizen victims.

Vandenberg imagines that things would play out differently in reality. Survivors would probably filter into rescue-worker stations, and it would be hard for officials to turn victims away from acupuncture if they wanted it, he says: “The fact of the matter is, if someone is rescued, they send them to the most immediate place.”

Traditional physicians tend to scorn alternative therapies such as acupuncture, but Dr. Daniel Ein, chair of the Emergency Preparedness Committee of the Medical Society of the District of Columbia, says in this case it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

“Trust me, I am not a big proponent of alternative medicine,” says Ein. “I have a very simple mantra, which is ‘Show me the data.’ But I think in these circumstances, people do seek out alternative practitioners anyhow, and it doesn’t do any harm to have them there. And in fact, if it doesn’t do any good, people stop using it.”

Retired psychiatrist Stephen Barrett, who operates the Quackwatch.org Web site, takes a harder line, relegating acupuncture to the healing status of palmistry or astrology. “In order to render an appropriate treatment, you have to render an appropriate diagnosis,” he says. “And the vast majority of people who graduate from acupuncture school do not grasp how to make a diagnosis….I think the idea is ridiculous. It’s just more people to keep track of.”

Although federal and local emergency-management agencies have yet to call them into action during Washington’s sniper-induced emergency, Vandenberg says acupuncturists can help out by de-stressing anyone “torqued out” by recent events. But we may have to wait ’til doomsday to see how emergency responders respond to the proffered pricks of relief. In the meantime, a poll of four firefighters of Rescue Squad 2 in Petworth turned up three skeptics and only one willing to take the plunge. “You don’t know where those needles have been before,” says firefighter Dan Poust. CP