Gidon Levenbach, MAcOM 2007, LAc is a man on the move. Since graduating, he spends half the year traveling and working in the U.S., and the other half running the Flying Needle Project, the acupuncture clinic and public health initiative he founded in South Africa. Serving a patient population with serious medical concerns and with very few resources, Levenbach’s work in South Africa is inspiring.
OCOM spoke with him about his activism, his passion for public health, and the path back to his home country.
OCOM: What is your background and how did it lead you to OCOM?
Gidon Levenbach: I grew up in South Africa and my family moved to Los Angeles when I was 13. After high school, I moved to San Francisco and became involved in grassroots activism. I read a book on acupressure and attended a 150-hour certification program at the Acupressure Institute. That’s where I was introduced to Chinese medicine, and several years later I was ready to start at OCOM.
OCOM: Where did your focus on HIV and public health develop?
GL: I began volunteering in the Quan Yin Healing Arts Center in San Francisco, doing acupressure, moxa and changing sheets. The center focuses on treating HIV, hepatitis and cancer in low-income patients. I saw the difference acupuncture could make in patients’ lives, like helping with the side effects of AZT.
In my OCOM interview, I met Nancy Grotton, who had also focused a lot on HIV and had traveled in South Africa. I knew I wanted to focus on treating HIV patients and I knew I wanted to give something back to South Africa in some way. Public health (rather than private practice) fits with my philosophy that acupuncture shouldn’t be an elitist medicine. Acupuncture is very inexpensive to practice. When I graduated from OCOM, there weren’t any public health jobs available for acupuncturists, so I felt I had to create my own.
OCOM: Describe a typical day at the clinic.
GL: We’re open one day a week with two acupuncturists on duty. We serve 6-18 patients in a five-hour day. Patients usually get 30-60 minutes each, depending on how busy we are. They usually get a hot meal as well—the nonprofit whose space we use has a soup kitchen.
OCOM: What were some of the biggest obstacles to starting Flying Needle Project?
GL: In South Africa, HIV is very political. HIV advocacy groups can be very anti-alternative medicine. That is partly because, in the past, vitamin salesmen and traditional healers told HIV patients that their medications were toxic and not to take them, so the patients got sicker and all alternative practitioners took the blame. The advocacy groups began telling patients that acupuncture would counter the effects of their medication—they didn’t realize that some practices are complementary to HIV treatment. They touted acupuncture and alternative medicine practices as quackery that provided false hope.
It also took me a long time to get my license in South Africa. They reviewed my acupuncture education by years of school rather than by credits, and I had taken the three-year track instead of four years. When I began working on starting up the clinic in 2009, I practiced under a doctor, and I performed a more administrative role in the clinic. When I got my license in March 2011, I was able to practice.
Money is another challenge. I spend most of my time in the U.S. raising funds for the clinic, catching up with people, and working on building the infrastructure of the clinic. We’ve held a few fundraising events and raised about $18,000, which has kept the clinic open. We have a very small budget. I also work to raise money to live on.
OCOM: What do you enjoy most about your practice?
GL: The population I work with. They are very poor; many are refugees who have suffered huge amounts of hardship and trauma. It is very rewarding, especially to see their lives transformed through treatment. They have so much gratitude; often no one has ever really been kind to them before.
I find that the patients in South Africa respond better to treatment. For example, many patients are deficient in diet due to poverty, and small changes can make a big difference. I find these easier to treat than the diseases of excess that we have in the west.
OCOM: Where do you see the clinic in 10 years?
GL: I want to see many more treatment sites and to hire more acupuncturists. We are opening another site in a township in February. We’ve also worked in mobile clinics with another organization that runs a battered women’s shelter. I’d like to open a detox clinic and a PTSD clinic. I’d also like to begin collaborating with the government; the public health system in South Africa is overtaxed. I am taking it slowly and seeing how things go.
While the name “Flying Needle” is a technique, it also refers to the idea of transporting medical care to those who need it.
OCOM: What can you share with alumni who are still seeking their calling or who want to follow in your footsteps?
GL: Don’t worry as much about the financial concerns and student loans. Follow your passion and things will work out.