Years before Jennifer Stukey became a licensed acupuncturist and wellness practitioner, she embarked on her own personal quest for healing.
“I was in a car accident in high school and had a herniated disk,” recalled the CEO of Awaken Wellness, a holistic wellness center in Columbia. “I was in quite a bit of pain, and even physical therapy didn’t help.”
Soon after, Stukey entered college and the aches didn’t subside. She learned about acupuncture and decided to give it a try. Her initial treatment proved a revelation.
“The pain lessened after the first session,” she said. “And there were other benefits to my sleep, and menstrual system. Emotionally, I felt more even-keeled.”
Acupuncture, which is part of traditional Chinese medicine, dates back thousands of years. The ancient practice involves the insertion of thin needles through the skin on specific anatomical points of the body. The goal is to clear blockages and increase flow of Qi (pronounced “chee”), often defined as a life force and “vital energy” tied to one’s health.
For Stukey, experiencing acupuncture opened up an unexpected career path. In 2009, she co-founded Awaken Wellness, which focuses on women’s health with offerings such as acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, therapeutic massage, holistic skincare, and nutrition.
“I am dedicated to helping women live a life of joy and ease,” said Stukey. “It’s always been important, but the pandemic placed even greater emphasis on health and wellness and how we care for ourselves and each other.”
Data suggests more Americans are turning to acupuncture to help treat a variety of conditions, ranging from back, neck and knee pain, to osteoarthritis, migraine headaches, and certain symptoms associated with cancer treatments.
Johns Hopkins Medicine offers acupuncture at some of its Howard County sites, including the Johns Hopkins Musculoskeletal Center and the Claudia Mayer/Tina Broccolino Cancer Resource Center.
“Acupuncture can be useful as a non-invasive adjunctive therapy in pain management,” said Dr. Tina Tuong-Vi Le Doshi, an assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine. “It’s not often used as a sole treatment, but it can definitely help patients as part of a more comprehensive treatment regimen that may also include things like procedures, medications, physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications.”
Doshi, who specializes in treating chronic pain, said more patients seem willing to explore acupuncture.
“I think more patients are interested in and accepting of acupuncture as a safe and effective treatment option,” she said in an email. “One barrier to acupuncture has always been insurance coverage, but I think more insurance carriers are covering acupuncture services. Not a lot, but more than they have in the past.”
Among the schools preparing students for careers in acupuncture is the Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH), which combines medicine and science teaching with the consideration of physical, mental, spiritual, and lifestyle influences.
Stukey received a Master’s in Acupuncture from the school when it was known as the Tai Sophia Institute; the name change came in 2013 after the Maryland Higher Education Commission awarded the institution university status.
Located on a 12-acre campus in Laurel, MUIH is the oldest accredited acupuncture school in the nation, and has established itself as a leader in the study and practice of integrative health and wellness.
The university has seen its enrollment increase, and academic programs grow. Today, MUIH offers more than 20 progressive graduate degree and certificate programs in a wide range of disciplines, ranging from herbal medicine and nutrition, to acupuncture.
Rooted in a holistic philosophy, instruction is grounded in both traditional wisdom and contemporary science. Faculty tout what they describe as a relationship-centered, whole person approach to health and wellness.
“We’re training the next generation of healers,” said Sharon Jennings-Rojas, chair of the Department of Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine. “One is called to do this work. It’s really a spiritual mission.”
Jennings-Rojas holds a Master of Acupuncture, and a doctorate of Oriental Medicine from MUIH, as well as a B.A. in Eastern Philosophy from Vassar College.
To prepare students to achieve full clinical competency in acupuncture, she and her colleagues aim to provide an understanding of the classical and theoretical foundations of the field. Courses incorporate a mix of what’s known as Constitutional Five Element Acupuncture, which is related to the traditional elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water; traditional Chinese medicine, which includes tai chi and Chinese herbal products; and contemporary science.
Moreover, students receive supervised hands-on clinical experience. In the on-campus Natural Care Center and community outreach settings, student interns and professional practitioners deliver thousands of treatments and consultations annually.
For instance, there’s a free ear acupuncture clinic where the public can walk in, several days a week. In the field of acupuncture, the ear is viewed as a map of the whole body, which can help spur healing emotionally and physically.
“In this day and time, this new level of compassionate care is calling us all to take action by making integrative health, inclusive of acupuncture and other forms of world medicine, accessible to all people, including marginalized populations,” said Jennings-Rojas.
Her own career of three decades and counting has placed strong emphasis on grassroots community outreach. Since 2001, she has maintained a private practice providing care for individuals, families, and communities. Among her roles is serving as an acupuncturist and educator at the Howard County Detention Center; she treats the population as well as corrections officers and other staff.
Her work has also run the gamut from directing a maternal substance abuse acupuncture program as part of the University of Maryland Medical Systems, to wellness advocacy for wounded warriors within various military installations.
“Education and access are the keys,” said Jennings-Rojas. “Once communities, and the people within them, know their natural healthcare options, and holistic ways of bolstering their health, they are more empowered to take their healthcare and wellness into their own hands.”
Stukey agrees. She brings not only a passion for elevating the health and wellness of her clients, but extensive training.
“Before taking any acupuncture classes, I took prerequisites in anatomy and physiology,” said Stukey, a licensed acupuncturist, who is board certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.
In addition to her acupuncture degree, she completed a Chinese Herbal Medicine program at MUIH and also holds a Master of Oriental Medicine, plus certification. And she completed a yoga teacher-training program at the Columbia Yoga Center.
Her education has been at times “challenging,” she said, likening acupuncture to learning a foreign language. “The body has thousands of meridians and channels. It requires study, lots of memorization and much like doctors’ training, hands-on clinical evaluations of patients.”
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Stukey said she strives to ensure that the environment at Awaken Wellness evokes peace, kindness and compassion. The center, which Stukey launched with her husband and business partner, Brian Bieda, boasts 14 practitioners “trained in the healing arts.”
Among them is wellness trailblazer, Dianne Connelly, who in 1975 co-founded with Robert “Bob” Duggan one of the first U.S. acupuncture clinics in Columbia — the College for Chinese Acupuncture , which evolved into the Centre for Traditional Acupuncture, then Tai Sophia and eventually MUIH.
These days, Connelly, lends her sage wisdom to the group and speaks highly of her protege. “Jennifer leads with love.”
Indeed, a loving approach, sensitivity and discretion are important because the center’s treatments for women may address infertility and gynecological issues, or headaches, back pain, insomnia and emotional disorders.
“We really look at the health history and the whole person because what’s happening in the body is all connected,” said Stukey. “The conversations we have beforehand are just as important as the treatments themselves.”
Heléne Kass, a longtime acupuncture enthusiast, concurs. The Columbia resident has worked with Stukey for about 14 years and describes herself as a “strong, healthy woman” who considers regular treatments an essential part of her overall health.
“I can tell when my energy is stuck and not moving freely,” said Kass, a mother, grandmother and semi-retired leadership development professional. “The thing that amazes me about acupuncture is it feels like opening a gate that’s been rusted for a 1,000 years. You feel better.”