Medicine Without Borders

A Berkeley acupuncturist expands access to traditional Chinese medicine in the Navajo Nation.

thuy nguyen, berkeley community acupuncture

At Berkeley Community Acupuncture, Thuy Nguyen inserts a needle into a patient’s foot to stimulate one of the body’s 2,000 points connected by neural pathways. Blocked pathways can cause pain and disease.

After leaving Berkeley and driving south to Bakersfield, then east through the Tehachapi Mountains, the Mojave Desert, and, eventually, Flagstaff, Arizona, then north on Indian Route 12, two rental vans reach St. Michaels—an Arizona town of 1,125. They follow unmarked roads through a windswept landscape of dun-colored fields and long mesas, under a vast sky, and finally come to rest outside Robert Yazzie’s house, a low-slung building with a hogan out back and a patch of bare earth to one side.

It is a brisk, clear morning in the fall of 2020. Out scramble a team of 10 volunteers, stiff from a 16-hour journey that started after work on Monday and continued through the night. After exchanging greetings with Yazzie, the crew empty the vans—hauling out tents, tables, pots, pans, chairs, blankets, and boxes and boxes of herbs. They have come to deliver traditional Chinese medicine in a community ravaged by COVID-19.

Leading the group is 48-year-old Thuy Nguyen, the founder of Berkeley Community Acupuncture and the visionary behind the four-day visit. Her idea is to offer—for free—acupuncture, bodywork, herbs, nutritional guidance, and personal protective equipment to members of the Navajo Nation, the 27,000-square-mile tribal area that, by the middle of 2020, had a higher COVID infection rate than any state in the U.S. (By this spring, however, more than half of the 170,000 residents there were fully vaccinated.) This is the Berkeley team’s third pop-up clinic under the auspices of the Navajo Healing Project and their first since the pandemic began. (Nguyen made two other trips in 2020—one in April to treat a medicine woman and her family who were sick with COVID and one in July to follow up and to bring herbs and PPE to the community.) Another pop-up clinic will take place in April 2021. The project’s ultimate goal is to build a hogan for traditional Chinese medicine and to train Navajo people to be their own practitioners.

thuy nguyen
Nguyen, the founder of Berkeley Community Acupuncture. Her approach to wellness focuses on interconnectedness.

By Wednesday morning, Nguyen and her team have set up a station with hot coffee, fruit, tortillas, and frittata with squash, corn, onions, cilantro, and spices. They welcome their first patients—they’ll see as many as 10 per hour and about 80 total by the time they pack up on Friday. People come to eat, tell stories, and receive treatment. They report ailments ranging from diabetes to depression, hobbling pain to hypertension, lung cancer to unbearable loss.

Some recline in lawn chairs to receive as many as 15 needles at a time. The acupuncture practice relies on stimulating a dozen or so of the 2,000 points connected by pathways, or meridians, and creating an energy flow (qi, pronounced “chee”) through the body. Disruption of the flow can cause disease; enhancement improves health.

“My leg was sore,” says a patient named Shandiin after acupuncture treatment. “When she took out the needle, it felt like it opened up and then whoosh.”

This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

Other Navajo lie on tables and submit to tui na massage, which Nguyen describes as “an ancient therapeutic system aimed at balancing and harmonizing the body.” Tui na removes blockages and works with the positive energy of the body through the use of rhythmic, strategically applied pressure. The hand and foot massage, says Henry, was “better than mutton and fry bread.”

thuy nguyen, navajo nation, pop up clinic
Patients recline at Nguyen’s Navajo Nation pop-up clinic in Window Rock, Arizona, in April 2021.
Eric Draper


When Nguyen founded Berkeley Community Acupuncture in 2007, she intended to offer traditional Chinese medicine at a low cost to as many people as possible. But she didn’t envision this.

Born in Vietnam, she left the country at three as part of the initial wave of boat people in 1975. Her family landed in Kankakee, Illinois, then lived in Kansas, Louisiana, and Texas before settling in California. Nguyen studied international relations at San Francisco State University and was set to pursue a PhD before taking a summer job at an acupuncture clinic. A longtime student of Taoism and Eastern religion, she felt called to the practice.

Lodged in a boxy 1970s-style edifice in South Berkeley, Nguyen’s clinic included five acupuncturists and two massage therapists before COVID unnerved the staff and widespread closings of similar businesses complicated their practice. Nguyen was the only one who kept coming to work—eliminating the receptionist, reducing the number of chairs, and doing exactly what, she says, “I signed up for.”

Several times an hour, she greets a patient who might hail from any of a dizzying number of demographic groups. It might be an elder with arthritis. Or a young Turk who has suffered a head injury. Or a professional recovering from knee replacements. She asks probing questions, leads the patient to a chair, takes their pulse, inserts needles, and then returns 20 to 40 minutes later to remove them. Her patients pay according to a sliding scale, starting at $30.

Nguyen, a single mother of three, is focused, with a flat affect, a deep-voiced laugh, and a one-of-a-kind flair. A thrift store enthusiast, jeweler, and seamstress, she has made colorful masks throughout the pandemic, and she wears them while she works. They fit right in with her eclectic outfits. Before COVID, she would paint her face for occasions like Day of the Dead. It may have been strange for patients to open their eyes after zoning out during a treatment only to see a skeleton, but that’s just one way Nguyen has defied healthcare conventions.

Five years ago, she found herself wanting to reframe the idea of traditional Chinese medicine. “We can plug Eastern tools into a Western paradigm,” she says, “but the true traditional paradigm must be different.” She wanted to connect health and healing with people’s inner lives, the outer community, and the natural world, while acknowledging how a modern life of wars, wildfires, poverty, and injustice undermines our sense of well-being.

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Nguyen administers traditional Chinese medicine to a patient. She and her team of volunteers often treat as many as 10 people an hour.
Eric Draper


Nguyen’s search took her to the Navajo Nation, where she gave a talk on the worldview of traditional Chinese medicine. In attendance was Yazzie, a chief justice emeritus of the Navajo Nation. From the back of the room, he seemed to challenge Nguyen with a koan-like question: “What is the value of disconnection?” They started talking, he invited her to an all-night peyote ceremony, and he slowly became her main connection, mentor, and partner in the Navajo Healing Project.

Nguyen says that she “had yearned for a teacher, a culture,” and that she found it in Yazzie and the Navajo concept of hózhó, which can be translated as “peace,” “beauty,” or “rightness.” As a wellness philosophy, she muses, it stresses interconnectedness over dualistic thinking. Value comes, she says, from collective well-being and from putting down “the measuring stick of personal gain and security.” Native prayer, she adds, asks us to consider the connection to all our relations.

“Navajo people are used to Western medicine,” Yazzie says, though there are few facilities in the vast territory. One benefit that he sees in the pop-up clinics is that they offer a different notion of how to heal. “For some people who face illness, medicine is a revolving door,” he notes. “But trying a therapy that comes from a different mindset can allow them to look at their ailments in a different way. It can give them a new way of seeing their own mental ability, their own spirit. It allowed a real turnaround for some.”

Yazzie adds that the old Navajo way of healing, whose practitioners are harder to find today, allows for a spiritual dimension. At the pop-up clinic, patients’ comments underscore their openness to the more-than-medical.

“My wife kicked me out, and I lost two brothers this year—one to cancer and one to COVID,” says James. “I had no time to grieve. I am still doing some Navajo traditions, but it’s harder with COVID. I noticed a lot of tension during my massage, but I feel better afterwards.”

And Carolyn says, “I was connecting with people who have passed on. My nephew died by suicide four years ago. We had a long talk without words. He looked happy, like he was on another adventure.”

Such responses are, of course, gratifying to Nguyen: “Every time I go, I leave feeling more rooted in a true holistic form of medicine.” She adds that she still has to listen to her Western mind—“to be on track, follow protocols, be exacting.” But she laughs at ways in which her advance planning has often been mooted: “Robert Yazzie told us, ‘Don’t have a clinic if you’re not going to feed them.’ ” Many of the prospective patients live in a food desert.

How, then, to bring, cook, and serve healthy meals more than 900 miles away? Nguyen turned to a Berkeley patient, Rosie Ueng, the academic director at Bauman College, a center for holistic nutrition. In addition to the breakfast frittata, Ueng cooked a “later meal” of lamb stew, cabbage slaw, black beans, and cornbread, and she made a diabetic-friendly snack: low-sugar granola bars.

Nguyen celebrates the exchange of humanity possible with her Navajo patients. She says she receives as much from them as they from her. “They don’t have much healthcare. So any care is profound,” she adds. “But their comments about how our practice affected them—after just one treatment—blew me away. One person said, ‘I feel like I was just let out of the cage.’ ” •

Constance Hale is a California journalist and the author of six books, including the writing primer Sin and Syntax.
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