“How I Found TCM” with Mary Lyell, L.Ac.

Mary is a faculty member at the Santa Cruz Campus since 2007, practicing Five Element Acupuncture along with TCM. During her time here, Mary also founded the Veterans’ Clinical Externship, which provides complementary treatments to veterans.

“I got my law degree and was practicing law for several years.  It seemed that I went straight from undergrad to Law school and then right into litigation….  In my first job, I was not even working for a month when I tried my first case… Two months later,  the judge made a decision on my  first case, but by that time, I had  been in court so many times that I forgot what my first case was about”… She recalls.  

“I loved what I was doing but I could see myself aging very quickly if I continued with this work.  I was 30 years old, and I was ready for a change; career change and geographic change… I wanted a big change!”  She explains.

“I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and what skills I had acquired….  At first, I was contemplating  getting my master’s degree in education, because when I first moved to CA, I began working as a substitute teacher….  However the universe probably had other plans for me,” she guesses.  “During my first rainy winter in Santa Cruz, I developed a series of sinus infections which did not respond at all  to conventional treatment with antibiotics.  Somebody suggested that I try acupuncture, and I came to the Five Branches clinic and got a treatment and a bag of herbs from Joanna Zhao.  When I came for my follow up treatment, I began talking with Joanna about Chinese medicine.  Joanna told me: you can do what I doand I said, no way I cannot do what you do.  I remember this conversation as if it was yesterday.” She said.  “I went home and thought about it; about my interests and skill sets  and I realized that Chinese medicine was very appealing to me on many levels ranging from the philosophical and cultural aspects to the fact that you need to have good analytical capabilities to discern patterns, diagnosis and treatments”.   

“The rest  is history… While I was attending  Five Branches there was a relatively  new elective offering called Five Element Acupuncture.  The Five Element theory really appealed to me from an archetypal perspective as well as the philosophical  perspective.  Both TCM and Five Element Acupuncture have their roots in the Classical Chinese texts.  I think they complement each other really well.”  She explains.  “I believe that having the knowledge of both  helped me become a better practitioner just walking out the door.  Five Element Acupuncture taught me to have the “long view” on patterns and to watch for subtle changes in patterns.     I think it also afforded me an opportunity to sit in the unknown and to have that be ok.  What I mean is that”… she explains… “sometimes, we are too quick to make decisions or diagnose without really having the patience to take the time and watch how things unfold, and learn  to adapt to the unfolding process.”

After passing her California Acupuncture Board licensing exam, Mary moved back the East Coast, to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where she worked in an Integrative Medical practice.  “Never in a million years,  did I think I would work in an integrative practice… because I was never a big fan of  corporate healthcare type of practices… and to my surprise,I could not have met a more open minded group of people”.  

“There are a lot of very competent practitioners in Santa Cruz, which makes it really hard for a beginner to have a thriving practice.  However, here in Santa Cruz, people at least know what acupuncture is.  In a small community in Pennsylvania, in order to build my practice I had to work hard to market my vocation and myself by giving educational lectures at health fairs, woman conferences and give lectures at the YMCA.  I once was even invited by the head of a  local book club to give a talk about Chinese medicine.  I got a nice round of applause,  but I did not get any patients”.  She laughs.  

“When I interviewed with the Integrative Health Center, I needed to distinguish myself from other applicants for this position.  I used my background as a graduate from a CA based acupuncture school. CA has higher requirements for practice which include not only acupuncture, but also an extensive herbal medicine education as well as being very well versed in Western medicine.  The MD on the review committee was aware of the differences in the level of education between the CA and other states TCM education, and I believe this worked on my favor”.

After several years of work with the Integrative Health Center, Mary became homesick for the west coast, and came back to her beloved Santa Cruz.  Here she was accepted into the Resident Program at the Five Branches Clinic, and a couple years later  became a clinic supervisor for students in the Master’s degree.  

“After my return I became very passionate about community outreach to veterans.  Together with the help of Joanna Zhao, Five Branches began offering services to veterans in 2008”. She recalls.

From its inception, the clinic setting has offered vets full treatment in a community style setting free of charge. Clients are offered acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, tui na (massage) and moxa therapy. Herbal prescriptions are available at cost. In one three hour clinic setting, interns will treat between 12 and 15 clients. Five Branches interns are proudly treating veterans from World War II who are in their 80s and 90s to those combat veterans of the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Each semester, the class is usually always full with the maximum of four students. This clinical option is primarily for senior  level students as they have to have ability to treat 2-3 patients per hour while engaging in various modalities of treatments such as Five Element, “Keiko style acupuncture” pain management treatments, and so on. Several students have enrolled in the internship more than once and most state it is among their favorite clinics. The veterans seem to benefit from their treatments and are always most appreciative of the students and the level of care shown to them. This clinic is open to senior interns who want to demonstrate a commitment to community style treatments, a faster pace of treatment and who are capable of working with some independence.

“Sometime when I look at the mirror, I cannot believe my luck….  I am doing what I love, in a place that I love, surrounded by people who are amazing… that’s what good life is all about!” She summarized.