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Free Needles

Working from a makeshift clinic in his van, a retiree offers acupuncture to the homeless.

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On a recent Friday morning just past 11, Myung Paul Lee wheeled the House of Brightness Free Acu-Clinic for Homeless People into the parking lot of the McDonald's at Sheridan and Wilson. He parked in the far northeast corner of the lot, got out, and threw open the back and side doors of the late-model Dodge panel van. He was removing a tenor saxophone from its case when Chuckie Schenkel arrived and greeted him warmly. Then the two men got down to business.

"Every day when I open my clinic I praise the Lord with prayer and song," said Lee as he led Schenkel to the side of the van that faced Sheridan. Letting the sax dangle from its neck strap, Lee clasped his hands and bowed his head. Schenkel followed suit. After the amens, Lee put the reed to his mouth to play a somewhat halting rendition of "Nearer My God to Thee." From the seventh-story window of an adjacent apartment building a man shouted, "Shut the fuck up!" but Lee ignored him. By the time he finished playing, hip-hop was pounding from the open window.

Putting the sax back in its case, Lee explained that the purpose of the music is "to get attention from people and give them God's love." When the 59-year-old Naperville resident began operating the House of Brightness last March, performing in public gave him "a feeling of shyness," which he dealt with by closing his eyes. "One time I opened my eyes and someone had left me a dollar bill."

The sax put away, Lee and Schenkel stepped up into the gleaming white van. "Take your shirt off, Chuckie," said Lee. Schenkel complied, then lay facedown on a cushioned table, above which hung Lee's diploma from the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. "Chuckie is number one patient," said Lee, pulling a rubber glove onto his left hand. Schenkel isn't technically homeless--he's a "resident worker" at Grasmere Place, a psychiatric rehabilitation facility across the street from the McDonald's--but this doesn't disqualify him from receiving treatment. "He's not rich," explained Lee. Schenkel shows up for treatment every day the clinic is open--Monday, Wednesday, and Friday--seeking help for a sore back and high blood pressure.

After swabbing the small of Schenkel's back with an alcohol wipe, Lee palpated the region attentively for several minutes. Reaching into a plastic storage container beneath the table, he retrieved a handful of acupuncture needles. "One time we use, we throw away," he said, peeling one from its sterile wrapper. He carefully positioned a needle about two inches to the right of Schenkel's spine. "Breathe in," he said, then pushed the head of the needle down with his right forefinger. "Breathe out," he said as he pulled away the needle's plastic sleeve, leaving it upright in Schenkel's flesh. "Are you OK?" he asked his patient, who answered with a nod. Lee repeated the operation three more times, creating a rectangle the size of a mail slot. Then he moved on to the areas behind Schenkel's knees, implanting two needles into each leg. "Behind the knees is master point for the back," explained Lee. "The needles on the spine tonify the kidney. Back pain is often caused by the kidney, we think."

Another of Lee's patients, Freddie Roberts, poked his head through the side door of the van. "Hey, you were away and now you're back," he said. Lee recently took a weeklong trip to California with his wife and daughter.

Roberts, who's 52, said he's been homeless for the last year and a half. "Mostly I'm staying at the Cornerstone shelter, sometimes at REST [Residents for Effective Shelter Transitions] on Lawrence," he said. "The 20th-century term for homelessness is 'on the trail.' I'm on the trail, but I'm staying positive, trying to go places. I'm in my fifth semester at Truman College, where I'm earning a high school teaching certificate." He also has a steady job doing maintenance at an Uptown apartment building. "But there's no place affordable I can rent around here. These yuppies aren't necessarily bad people, but they shouldn't wonder why they get stereotyped. The situation in Uptown has definitely gotten bad. Last week I was talking to some kids about what stuff was like when I was growing up, how we used to spend all our time playing ball in a vacant lot. Oh my goodness, that's where all the big games were played, in the vacant lot. And if your team was any good, the guys from the next neighborhood would have to come and play you. So these kids just looked at me and they said, 'Vacant lot? What's a vacant lot?'"

Roberts said he consults Lee twice a week for a bad back. "Oriental medicine is entirely different from Western medicine. It helps. I highly recommend it to anyone." He made an appointment for noon with Lee, whose hours are from 11 to 3, then left.

Lee took a small black case out from under the table and opened it to reveal an electrical device festooned with switches and dials and connected to four insulated wires that terminate in small alligator clips. He carefully fastened clips to the two lower needles sticking out of Schenkel's back, then connected a wire to one needle on each knee. When Lee hit the switch, the four electrified needles began to twitch slightly. Schenkel remained impassive. "With the electricity the treatment is not only faster, it's much bigger," Lee explained, then moved to the end of the table and began sticking needles into Schenkel's ankles.

A native of South Korea, Lee immigrated to Chicago with his wife, Young, in 1975. While Young trained to become a registered nurse, Lee began a master's program in engineering at IIT. "But I never finished the degree because my babies came along," he says, referring to his daughter Susan and his son Christopher, both of whom are now medical students. Instead, in 1978--by which time the family had moved to the suburbs--Lee opened a dry cleaning shop in Schaumburg. The idea of providing free acupuncture to the homeless first came to him in the wake of the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. "I felt a lot of things when this happened," he says. "It made me want to help people from the bottom of my heart. Dry cleaning is useful, but it does not help people so completely as medicine."

Lee enrolled at the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine in Uptown in the spring of 1998. After graduating in December 2002, he filed for an acupuncturist's license from the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation and closed his dry cleaning shop. He chose to practice in Uptown because he knew it had a high concentration of homeless people. "Uptown was the first place I lived with my wife when we immigrated, and I remembered this community needs help." Originally he'd hoped to establish a regular clinic in the neighborhood but found the cost of leasing professional space prohibitive. "A clinic on wheels is cheaper," says Lee, who spent just under $50,000 to buy and outfit his van.

Because he regards a consistent location as key to keeping in touch with his patients, he always parks in the same spot. The owner of the McDonald's, Angelo Karavites, has given him his blessing. "Since it is a humanitarian cause and doesn't interfere with the business of the restaurant I gave him permission to park there, because it seems valuable to the people of the neighborhood."

Lee's family initially had some reservations about his retirement plans. "My wife and children said to me, 'Please stay easy from now on, because you have worked so hard so far,'" he says. "But I never changed my mind. I said, 'I'd like to live my dreams in the name of God.' And the Holy Spirit changed their minds, so now they are my number one supporters."

After counting his files, Lee reported that his practice comprises 19 patients to date. Most came to him with complaints of chronic pain, usually backaches or headaches: "They never say about drinking, but if they say about it I will try to help." The issue of smoking does arise, however. "Sometimes I tell them I can help them stop smoking, and they say, 'I want to stop smoking, but not right now.'" He makes his diagnoses by taking the patient's pulse, palpating the tissue, and examining the tongue. "A little greasy," he told me after looking at mine. "I believe you have trouble with your spleen."

Chinese medicine of the kind Lee practices hypothesizes that the body has 12 main channels through which travels a vital energy called chi. Illness results when these channels are blocked or otherwise compromised. But healthful circulation of chi can be restored by the application of acupuncture needles to specific points along the channels. Treating my disordered spleen, for example, might require the insertion of needles into a certain spot on my ankles--although Lee hesitated to make a definitive prognosis based on such a cursory examination.

None of Lee's patients so far has objected to the idea of being pierced with needles--"Acupuncture now is well-known to Western people, so there is no problem." But he has had patients recoil from receiving moxibustion, a therapy in which the cool end of a burning cone of herbs is placed on the skin in lieu of a needle. "One patient sees the fire and says, 'Oh, I'm scared, maybe later.' So for now I go slow, until people are more comfortable."

He proselytizes using the same low-key approach. "When I do intake with the patient I ask them, 'You go to church?' and 90 percent say yeah. That's enough for me. I believe them. After treatment I give them a pamphlet and write the time of their next appointment on it. When they come back they show me the pamphlet and say, 'See? I read what you gave me.' It's best not to push too hard. I put a seed in their hearts, that's all. But I need some more pamphlets, if you know where I can find some." Lee also encourages his patients to attend the weekly Monday-night fellowship dinner for the homeless at the Uptown Baptist Church on Wilson, where both he and Schenkel volunteer.

After uncoupling the wires from the needles in Schenkel's back, Lee removed the needles and disposed of them in a medical waste container. Schenkel put his shirt back on. The two men shook hands at length and agreed that they'd see each other again Monday. After updating his records, Lee sat down to wait for his next patient. "What I want from the bottom of my heart is just to serve," he said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea, Cliff Doerksen.

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