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Navy doctor treats Marines in a pinch

11 Jun 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

Marines with 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment look forward to getting the needle from their battalion surgeon.

Chinese healers have been using acupuncture therapy to treat injuries and diseases for more than 3,000 years.  Navy Lt. Kenneth Y. Son, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment surgeon, is using that same wisdom combined with modern "Western" medicine to treat the battalion's battle-hardened warriors.

"I get a lot of Marines in here that don't believe in acupuncture," said Son, of Los Angeles. "The first time they try it they get hooked, and then the word spreads like wildfire throughout the battalion."

So far, Son estimates he's treated almost 300 Marines and sailors for a number of reasons including the three most common: back pains, muscle strains and sprained ankles. About 20 percent of those who visit Son were injured during improvised explosive device explosions.

Son, a 12-year medical veteran, began studying the art of acupuncture in November.

After meeting a fellow Navy doctor who treated patients with the "Eastern" therapy, Son enrolled in acupuncture classes at the University of California. He completed half of the training prior to coming to Iraq and is using what he has learned to get injured Marines and sailors back into the fight quickly.

"Ancient Chinese believed humans were made of energetic points," he said. "We're not just organs put together but rather many energy patterns which control the medical problems we have."

Acupuncture was developed from the belief that if the body's incoming and outgoing energies could be controlled, the body could recover from injury and disease faster than through conventional methods.

"When Marines come in with muscle pains, I give them the choice to take Motrin for the problem," explained 34-year-old Son. "Or I can give them acupuncture. Some refuse to do acupuncture, but most want it."

He said he prefers acupuncture to sending Marines away with a few pain relievers because the therapy is more likely to have a long-term effect.

One of Son's satisfied customers, 2nd Lt. Bronson D. Makeeff, knows the benefits of the treatment.

"At (Officer Candidate School), a few Marines and I were doing training," explained Makeeff, the battalion's adjutant. "During the training, we fell about fifteen feet from a window. Ever since then, I've had lower back pain."

Makeeff, of Carthage, Mo., made regular visits to a chiropractor to correct his back problems, but nothing seemed to relieve the pain.

"It's funny," said Makeeff. "I had to come all the way to Iraq to get my back taken care of."

After six acupuncture treatments, 26-year-old Makeeff no longer suffers from lower back pain and is a firm believer in the therapy.

"At first, I was kind of hesitant," he added. "But now I definitely believe this is much better and more effective than medicine."

Although acupuncture is more successful than medicine, Son said the process takes time.
One treatment, depending on what part of the body is being worked on, lasts between 10
and 20 minutes.

"I try to make the patient relax," said Son. "Then I can begin."

The doctor uses needles and a moxa combustion stick, which is made of herbs from the moss family. The herbs burn slowly and produce ashes that do not fall, making it suitable for acupuncture, but some people mistake the moxa's scent for a less-than-suitable substance.

"When I first started doing acupuncture out here," Son explained, "some people thought someone was smoking marijuana, but the two are not the same. I have to assure people of that."

The needles are 4 centimeters in length and are as thick as a strand of hair. They are inserted and twisted into trigger points until the patient feels a dull aching pain in his muscle.

Then the patient is left to relax for 10 to 15 minutes. After relaxing, Son heats the needles with the moxa.

"Muscles are made of protein, and the heat that goes from the moxa through the needle causes the muscles to relax," explained Son. "After two or three treatments, they're usually completely healed."

Son's successes are a thing of battalion legend and almost everyone - from the lance corporal fresh from a firefight to the battalion commander - wants a piece.

And so Son has begun soliciting assistance from the corpsmen under his charge.

"It's such an intense method of treatment," said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael L. Dobec, of Wooster, Ohio. "It goes directly to the source of the problem to heal patients."

Dobec has watched how quickly Marines respond to Son's treatments and developed an interest to learn what he could from the doctor.

"It's pretty easy to learn when you have someone who knows what they're doing show you and tell you what to do," the 27-year-old said.

Both Son and Dobec have been pleased by how effective acupuncture has been.

Where a Marine with a sprained ankle would have taken a few weeks to heal through traditional treatment, that same Marine can be up and walking within a few days after acupuncture.

"It's just incredible," Son said. "That's the only reason I do acupuncture - to see the smiles on the Marines and sailors faces when they get better. It's a great feeling."