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The point of hope

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

After waking up from surgery in a French hospital, Deavon Tabish-Moran was told he had a 1 percent chance of ever walking again.

The Albuquerque native was snowboarding in the French Alps in March 2017 when an issue with one of the jumps sent him flipping out of control. He landed on his back on an ice patch, crushing his eleventh thoracic vertebra. The bleak prognosis came after a three-level spinal fusion he received at a hospital in Grenoble.

“And I think that 1 percent was them trying not to be jerks, you know?” said Tabish-Moran, now 29. “In their mind, they were convinced there wasn’t even a 1 percent chance.” He also recalled the neurosurgeon also saying he’d probably never have feeling in his legs.

He regained feeling shortly after the accident. Upon his return home, he began attending physical therapy two to three times a week. After a few months, he saw bits of motion with his right leg, but not much strength. When he tried walking, it was with large braces attached, sometimes with a harness strapped around him or a walker, and with several helpers holding on.

Several months ago, a family friend gave Tabish-Moran her appointment time with Dr. Linda Hao, a New Mexico-based acupuncturist who, along with her husband, Dr. Jason Hao, has spent years developing techniques to treat neurosystem issues.

And, yes, that means putting needles into your scalp.

For Tabish-Moran, the change in leg strength was immediate. After his first treatment, he and his dad stopped at a local sandwich shop for lunch. Getting out of the car, he decided to try something he hadn’t been able to do since the ski injury.

“I just lifted up (my left leg) and brought it right out of the car,” he said. “Until that point, it was like a dead piece of meat.”

Dr. Linda Hao watches as Deavon Tabish-Moran uses a walker to make his way down the hall. Tabish-Moran, who hurt his back snowboarding, had been told by a surgeon that he had a 1 percent chan (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Linda Hao watches as Deavon Tabish-Moran uses a walker to make his way down the hall. Tabish-Moran, who hurt his back snowboarding, had been told by a surgeon that he had a 1 percent chance of walking again before he underwent neuroacupuncture. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

During a recent visit to the Haos’ Albuquerque clinic, he used a walker to get from a treatment room at the end of the hallway to the front lobby and back. It’s now something he’s able to do at home to get from room to room, he said.

Though he was making steady improvements with the traditional physical therapy, Tabish-Moran said the acupuncture caused a “parabolic curve up.” His doctors reported unexpected improvements in his strength tests and a friend who came along to a treatment was moved to tears.

Now, he says, he’s back to working full-time at a charter school and attending classes at Central New Mexico Community College.

Linda Hao has given him “the peace of mind and the freedom to allow myself to invest in the hope for the future that I want as a reality,” said Tabish-Moran. “Walking again is something that can happen, not something I hope can happen,”

Tabish-Moran’s ultimate goal is to walk without assistance. He envisions a day when he can hang his wheelchair upside-down in his home, similar to what cyclists do with their bikes, and walk past it each day.

“I’m a stubborn person, and I like proving people wrong,” he said. “I’m counting down the days to walk into that hospital in France and showing them what 1 percent means.”

Working together to help people

The Haos specialize in what they’ve named neuroacupuncture, an evolution of scalp acupuncture that focuses on neurological disorders by placing acupuncture needles into the patient’s head, ear and body. They describe it as a combination of traditional acupuncture techniques and Western medical knowledge.

Though acupuncture has been used in China for 3,000 years, scalp acupuncture has only been around for about 50 years. The Haos, who have been living in New Mexico for close to three decades, studied scalp acupuncture while attending college in their native China. In those early years, they said it was being used to treat conditions like strokes. Over the past few decades, Linda said, she and her husband have further developed it to tackle “different, more difficult situations.”

“Traditional Chinese medicine, we treat patients based on theory of ying-yang, qi (life force), energy, blood,” Jason Hao explained. “In neuroacupuncture, we base it (on) neurology, neuro-anatomy, neuroscience.”

Today, patients come to them with conditions including multiple sclerosis, autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s Disease.

The Haos opened their first acupuncture clinic together in Santa Fe about 25 years ago, according to Linda. Jason still shares a clinic in Santa Fe with another acupuncturist.

Linda now works out of their Albuquerque clinic that they’ve operated for the past 15 years. Jason Hao originally came to Santa Fe to teach at the Southwest Acupuncture College in the early 1990s. Linda followed a few years later with their son.

The two have been married for 36 years.

“People ask how you can work together,” Linda said about their being a couple and business partners. “I think we have same dream: work together to help people.”

Their work has garnered significant attention over the years. News reports have highlighted Linda’s treatment of country musician and stroke victim Randy Travis and a short film was made about their work by Tony Award-winner Mark Medoff of “Children of a Lesser God” fame. They also published a textbook about Chinese scalp acupuncture in 2011. Santa Fe mayor Javier Gonzales proclaimed Feb. 16, 2018, Drs. Jason and Linda Hao Day.

The Haos say people of all ages from across the country and the world come for their treatments, noting that one patient recently visited from Australia. But even so, Linda Hao said, their treatment options may not be as well-known within the local community.

First set of grads

According to Jason Hao, when inserted into specific areas on the scalp, the needles can help stimulate parts of the brain. Placement of needles corresponds with what functions the practitioner is trying to improve and what areas of the brain handle those functions, he said.

Issues like movement, sensation, learning comprehension, coordination and emotion can see improvement, according to the Haos.

Neuroacupuncture can “start to restore the damaged functions or make new connections, or we can stimulate that area (and) let the normal area (of the) brain take over the damaged area,” Jason said. Linda listed the “five Rs” associated with their treatment: “remap, recharge, rewiring, reprogram and repair.”

Jason Hao said 50 percent of their patients have some type of response after the first treatment. After three, he said, the rate is around 80 percent.

When Linda Hao started inserting the needles in his scalp last week, Tabish-Moran explained that he felt a rush of warmth through his body and his left leg started having little spasms. In the beginning, he wasn’t sure if that warm sensation was just nerves or his mind playing tricks, but after three or four treatments, it became clear to him that the feeling came from the acupuncture.

“I like to prove people wrong, so I am a bit of skeptic,” he said. “But that got crushed immediately… after I whipped my leg out of the car without lifting it up, I was like, ‘I’m all in.’ ”

He said he brought along his medical case manager to an appointment and her skepticism was gone by the end. He said she told the Haos she was going to start referring patients

With a months-long waiting lists for patients, the Haos said they are passionate about teaching other practitioners their techniques. They travel internationally and they also founded their Santa Fe-based Neuroacupuncture Institute on Marcy Street three years ago.

So far, the institute provides three levels of five-day courses. According to Jason, 160 people have taken the Level 1 course and it will graduate its first group of Level 3 students, 65 people in total, this May.

Jason said that he and Linda are looking at different ways to move forward with the institute. He mentioned potentially partnering with a medical or other institute as a possibility.

Questions are evolving

As Tabish-Moran walked into the lobby after a treatment, Debbie Rhoads congratulated him.

Rhoads and her son, 31-year-old Cody Erwin, made their first trip to New Mexico last year for an appointment with Jason Hao. About two years ago, an anoxic brain injury left Erwin paralyzed from the neck down and non-verbal. He went into cardiac arrest after a choking incident and flatlined for more than 20 minutes, she said.

Today, he can move his arms up and down. And with his stepdad holding on and mom pushing his wheelchair close behind, he walked down the clinic hallway. Rhoads said he now can swallow well and verbalize a bit.

During Cody’s appointment, Jason Hao practiced counting to 10 with him in both English and Chinese.

“At the beginning, they give him zero hope,” Rhoads said, crying while talking about her son’s progress. “I mean, nothing. At all.”

After two appointments, seeing the spasticity in his limbs start to release, Rhoads said she and her husband, John, knew they would continue working with Dr. Hao. They bought a second home in Albuquerque several months ago to have somewhere to stay. They come for a week or more at a time, she said, having treatments each day.

“His legs are strong, and he stands up tall when we come here,” Rhoads said. “That coordination, to be able to move his legs, is really good.”

The emotional impact on the patients and families inspires the Haos, both doctors said.

“What we do changes people lives (and) transforms family life,” Jason said.

But he said it can be difficult for people among the general public and the medical community to believe the needles’ impact. To try to fix that, the Haos started filming patient testimonials about five years ago.

Over the past 20 years, Linda said, the perception of neuroacupuncture within the medical field has been improving. Some MDs will even refer patients to the Haos, she said.

But Jason said much work is still to be done for their practice to be fully accepted within Western medicine. Part of their Santa Fe institute’s mission is to conduct more clinical trials and studies, he said.

David Miller, a Chicago-based MD and licensed acupuncturist, and chairman of the American Society of Acupuncturists, said the practice of scalp acupuncture is widely used around the world, safe to try with an experienced practitioner, and accepted and taught among the acupuncture community.

But clinical research for treating neurological conditions is still in its “preliminary” stages, particularly for newer applications for issues like autism. Before specific health outcomes can be guaranteed, more scientific studies with larger pools of patients are needed, Miller said.

“The question is really how do you measure the efficacy, what can patients expect to experience and how would they choose to use it or not,” said Miller. “Those questions are in a state of evolution.”

Linda Hao said that depending on patients’ plans, some insurance companies in New Mexico, including Prebsyterian, Blue Cross Blue Shield and UnitedHealthcare, cover varying levels of treatment costs for in-state patients.

‘I love you’

When she booked her son’s first appointment with Linda Hao on the recommendation of a colleague last year, Monica Chavez didn’t know how acupuncture and speech improvement could go hand in hand. Her 8-year-old son, Zade, had always been nonverbal. Within the past few months, he has been diagnosed with autism.

Dr. Linda Hao puts acupuncture needles in the scalp of 8-year-old Zade Chavez as his mother, Monica Chavez, holds him still.

Dr. Linda Hao puts acupuncture needles in the scalp of 8-year-old Zade Chavez as his mother, Monica Chavez, holds him still.

During an appointment last week, Linda Hao explained that the needles were stimulating areas of the brain that handle learning ability, coordination and communication. The longest phrase Zade had ever said before came about a month into the needle treatments, Chavez recalled, when he told her “I love you.” During their recent visit, he was forming short words like “yes” and “mom.”

She credits this progress to neuroacupuncture.

Some days, he says words as “clear as day,” she said, and other days he doesn’t want to talk. But he has become more expressive and wants to talk now more than he used to, she said, which she said has also had a major impact on his confidence.

“He’s become a completely different child as far as his social abilities,” she said. “Before, he was very kind of reserved and was just self-sufficient, if you will, with playing by himself and whatnot … but as time’s progressed, I asked him what he wanted to do for his birthday and he said he wanted to go swimming. So we went swimming; there were other kids in the pool, and for the first time I saw him wanting to interact and play with those kids. It’s so refreshing.”

Dr. Linda Hao watches as Monica Chavez interacts with her 8-year-old son, Zade Chavez.

Dr. Linda Hao watches as Monica Chavez interacts with her 8-year-old son, Zade Chavez.

She refers to “when” Zade starts talking on a full level, rather than “if.” But whether it happens for him or not, Chavez said, she doesn’t foresee stopping their visits. She said the bond Linda Hao and Zade have goes beyond the typical patient-doctor relationship.

“It just warms my heart and makes me so happy,” Chavez said. “… I could never could repay her. Never.”