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July 19, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Karen Villanueva, DAIM, LAc.

Filipina woman wearing a blue shirt and white and red scarf smiles in front of pink flowers
“When people come to us for help, they may not necessarily be their best selves, so how do we meet them where they are and do something that’s really with them, and not for them or in spite of them… that relationship is really a sacred one. I’m not doing anything for you, I’m just with you– I’ve had my own journey, and I can share with you my experience and I can share with you my experience with other people, and then together we get to figure out what works best for you.”


The “Reluctant” Healer

Before starting Acupuncture & Integrative Medicine school, Karen Villanueva was a nurse for over 20 years; she worked in the ER, ICU, prison system, and even at the ballpark. She had been called to work in the hands-on, helping field by an inner draw to make a difference in the world. “I had a sensibility of ‘I am a healer’– and that took many years to accept. I used to call myself in my 20’s a reluctant healer, just because… there’s a lot of responsibility that goes toward stewarding people and really honoring the sacredness of that task, and to do it really well.”

In her time as a nurse, Karen found herself curious about other systems of medicine and about finding more freedom and autonomy to really work with her patients toward their long-term wellness and health. She started to wonder about careers in health where she would be able to have more impact and freedom.

Getting to Acupuncture School

Karen was exposed to anthroposophic, indigenous medicines while doing volunteer work in the Philippines. Through that exposure, she had a deep understanding that wellness of the body, mind, and spirit are not separate from one another. Sometime later, she was gifted a free acupuncture treatment. After that first treatment, she remembers thinking, “wait a second, I feel really different after this one treatment.” She said the acupuncturist didn’t do anything particularly heroic or strenuous in the treatment, yet it profoundly impacted Karen inside and out.

It didn’t take much longer for Karen to start touring schools in the area and choose AIMC for its sense of community and its academic programming strength. She completed the Master’s program and was in one of AIMC’s first graduating doctoral cohorts.

Pediatric Acupuncture

Before starting the Doctoral Completion Program at AIMC, Karen didn’t know she was going to become a pediatric acupuncturist. It all started with her Doctoral project when Dr. Nishanga Bliss proposed a feasibility study with UCSF Children’s Hospital. She says, “because I had worked for UCSF years ago as an ER nurse, I thought wow this would be an awesome do-over, and it would be amazing to bring this medicine to young people.”

After completing her Doctoral Research project at UCSF, she stayed on collaborating with UCSF and is currently a Pediatric Acupuncturist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland in the outpatient Primary Care Clinic in addition to the Hematology/Oncology floor & Complex Care clinic. She can see that there is truly an intergenerational, community aspect to her work.

“I have a strong abiding interest in serving people who are underserved and particularly folks of color, and when you’re talking about making an impact on health… the ripple effect that you get from working with pediatric patients, children, kids, young people… you’re not just seeing that young person, you’re actually treating the whole family, then you’re treating the families that are connected with that one, and then those effects ripple out to the community.”

Of the five pillars of East Asian medicine: acupuncture, nutrition, bodywork, qigong, & herbs, Karen says she can use most of those things in her work at the hospital, while herbal medicine presents more of a challenge. “I have visions that one day we’re going to have our own integrative medicine outpatient clinic and I’m going to be able to decoct some wonderful herbal remedy & have that in the waiting room…we’re not quite there yet,” Karen laughed.

To supplement families that she thinks would be served well by working with Herbal medicines, she sometimes recommends topicals remedies to patients or sends them to AIMC’s free Telehealth appointments to get herbal prescriptions.

Ever forward-thinking, she says, “I’m hoping that what I’m doing with the hospital now is going to pave the way and make it easier for anyone who wants to come in after me.”

Advocacy & Activism

Karen is never thinking about her impact on the world in a one-dimensional way; she’s a systems-level thinker and is always working toward a better future in about a hundred ways. She works hands-on as a clinician in a hospital; she sits on the board of CSOMA, a state professional organization for Acupuncturists; and she is the Founder & President of a budding nonprofit, Kilusan Wellness.

“There are so many things that are interesting to me and there are so many things that are important to me… they’re so multilayered that you can’t just come at them from one way, you have to go at different levels.”

She says she’s inspired to sit on the board at CSOMA because of its work to bring East Asian medicine into the “modern” healthcare model (with as much integrity as possible) and to work with the legislature that regulates our field in order to protect its integrity and help it grow.

Her nonprofit organization, Kilusan Wellness, is committed to health equity and expanding access to East Asian Medicine care. The nonprofit recently received its first grant and Karen is excited to offer treatments soon. The organization’s vision is “to create liberatory spaces of health, wellness, and community.“

Decolonization & Indigenous Medicine

Karen remembers learning in the AIMC classrooms about how acupuncture went through a big growth phase in the U.S. after a reporter who was traveling with Henry Kissinger on a trip to China received acupuncture after an emergency appendectomy. She also remembers learning about the Black Panthers and Young Lords using acupuncture in their free health clinics. But of course, East Asian Medicine was in the Americas long before those events– it was in the East Asian communities.

Karen shared, “we also need to take it way back, to the 1800s when Chinese people were brought to this country to build the railroads & take up the work that enslaved Africans were doing… and they brought this medicine here.” For more of the complex history of Chinese immigration & the history of Acupuncture in the US, Dr. Simel Bey has an excellent article to dive into.

“Decolonization is an undoing of harm that has happened. It is a remembering & uplifting of indigenous ways…This medicine is an indigenous medicine. [It’s] roots in Taoism, those are indigenous values: live in accordance with the cosmos, don’t try to do too much in the wintertime, don’t get too cold and don’t get too hot. These are all indigenous sensibilities.”

Karen encourages students and patients who don’t know their own indigenous lineages to explore them. She loves moments in the treatment room when she offers a teaching to a patient and they say, “Hey, that’s what my Abuela used to do!” or, “my Grandfather was always rubbing his ears right there!”

As for practitioners of East Asian Medicine, she thinks it’s even more of an imperative: “our medicine is so rich and deep, but you really need to do your work to figure out your location in that history and lineage…When you bring this medicine out into the world you are going to be affecting bodies who belong to people who belong to families and communities so to really steward that carefully. And, if you have not done your own work, there’s potential for harm and damage and disrespect.”

The Final Word

By way of beautiful final word, we’ll leave you with this powerful quote about how we can each find our way in the world:

“What I was very clear about was what was important to me and how I wanted to leave my mark on the world, and so when I was able to be really clear about that, then all these different opportunities presented themselves… I’m always trying to make connections with people who have the same values and alignments that I do, and so from there, what can’t ever be solved?”

Thank you, Karen, for a wonderful conversation. Can’t wait to see where your journey will lead next!

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