On a Mission: Make Our World an Equitable Place for All
My journey down the pathway of advocacy began very early in life. I became a human rights activist at the tender age of 15, when my beloved gymnastics coach, Magic Moore, passed away from complications due to AIDS...after three days of being hospitalized. We were all devastated, and in our grief, the team that loved him helped organize events to honor his life. It was the first time that I realized that this wonderful man was not only having to hide who he was, but his status within the extremely marginalized gay community kept him from the healthcare he needed, and was part and parcel to his untimely death in his early 30's. I was incensed...and outside of Schoolhouse Rock, I had very little understanding of policy, politics, or the control these things exerted in our lives.
I engaged in federal policy for the first time at the age of 24. I had studied sign language and identified with a movement to teach signed English, rather than the European romance language structure found in American Sign Language (ASL,) in an effort to increase standardized test scores and expand college opportunities into mainstream environments for the Deaf community. I was at Gallaudet University for my first trip to DC when I learned a hard lesson in consensus building. I discovered that not all advocacy is considered welcome, especially when you ignore language barriers and cultural sensitivities. Ultimately, we met enough resistance to abandon the effort at the time, and that failure highlighted my need to dive deeper into understanding federal processes and learning how to relate to industries, associations, and groups of all kinds from their perspectives and with their considerable collaboration.
When the Student is Ready: The Master Appears
My only problem with my plan was that I was nowhere near DC. I was 26 years old, recently divorced, moving to Phoenix, Arizona with my toddler in tow. I was accepted into the Walter Kronkite School of Broadcasting at Arizona State University. And then my mother met this man on a plane. Mark Guimond grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and had been engaged in public policy all of his adult life. (More than that...he used to skip Algebra at 14 to go sit in the library and read Congressional documents.) At 23, he made a stunning federal debut, when his language was passed to remove federal highway funding ties to state speed limits, allowing the states to determine their speed limits, without punitive funding measures being applied for raising it above 55 mph. So...if you can drive more than 55mph on highways, you can thank my husband.
Mark had deep Republican credentials, but more importantly, he understood and loved shepherding federal language, knew the value and use of trade associations, and understood legislative and regulatory process, and consensus/coalition building better than any person I had met, or likely ever will meet. Regardless of industry or issue, I could not have had a better teacher in this field, nor a better partner in life. We raised two children together and advocacy has always been a family affair: we are ALL advocates within the LGBTQIA+ community and our children played instrumental roles in our associations and events from very young ages. They also learned how to successfully protest, counter-protest, and be allies to vulnerable communities and populations, and form coalitions around causes that were important to them. Mark's work continues to influence this family and US policy at large.
"I'll Sleep When I'm Dead": How I Found My Way to Traditional Asian Medicine
In 2003, at the age of 32, I began experiencing debilitating symptoms of dozens of hot flashes per day, vertigo, nausea, night sweats, extreme fatigue, and my hair began falling out in clumps. Conventional medicine, which is primarily diagnosed through deductive reasoning of symptom calculation and testing, set me on a path to be treated as someone with early-onset menopause; however, I was reluctant to seek hormone-replacement therapy this early in my life. As we were holding a convention in New Orleans, my doctor was trying desperately to reach me, but with a 5 week European trip ahead and a busy Fall schedule, I decided, unfortunately, to wait until I had more time to sit down with him. Both Mark and I were feeling unwell and in August of 2003, at the age of 38, Mark had a stroke. In October, at a meeting in Chicago, I could no longer walk without pain, and there was blood in my urine. The following week, my doctor confirmed the diagnosis I had suspected all along, and he had been chasing for a year: Stage 3 Cervical Cancer. His treatment plan included many things I had heard of, but had no experience with. Given that our children were 5 and 9 at the time, I threw my faith into my doctor and let him set me up with an integrative team: an acupuncturist, Chinese herbalist, Western herbalist, functional medicine nutritionist. He introduced me to yoga & meditation, and taught me how to sleep. The lifestyle changes made dramatic differences in me being able to handle my fear and stress, as well as seeing improvements in my physical health. But the acupuncture...that was magic to me. Out of all the various therapies we were deploying for my care--acupuncture is the one thing I could tangibly draw a direct, causal line to the relief I was feeling. For the record, though I was bullied by every single hospital administrator at the time that if I did not do chemotherapy, I would die very shortly, I am happy to say that I am a 19 year Stage 3 Cancer Survivor who did not go through chemotherapy at any point. My doctor did not feel it was necessary to poison my entire body in order to beat cancer. He was adamant that ancient and traditional therapies were less invasive and more productive at treating the root causes of disease. That man has since lost his hospital privileges for his unconventional methods (read: chemotherapy is big business for hospitals and you will struggle if you go up against the AMA.) This forever changed the course of my life. I would go on to study this medicine a few years later, followed by a Masters in Public Health with an emphasis in Policy and Administration: shifting my advocacy focus to healthcare as a basic human right, and working with integrative healthcare professions to expand access to their services federally.
During these years, my little brother was struggling with schizophrenia and medicated to the point of not being able to function. I began seeking information within this new paradigm of medicine for answers that might resolve his medication side-effects, and perhaps offer better solutions for treating the disease, in general.
I started my acupuncture practice in 2014 as I continued to pursue my doctorate, and believed my days of government affairs were long behind me. Life had other plans. On December 5, 2016, with only one case study left to present to my review panel, my sweet brother attempted to get off the medication he was prescribed, became delusional, and attacked my parents. My mother would spend the next six weeks in a coma, and will require 24/7 care for the rest of her life as she deals with life with a traumatic brain injury. This would kick off a series of tragic events that would draw me back into the legislative arena.
Unable to be in the treatment space and needing to work remotely to handle family issues, I joined the board of the American Society of Acupuncturists in April of 2017. I began representing them at CPT meetings and planned their first health fair and Congressional briefing regarding acupuncture in the midst of the opioid crisis in November of 2017. Mark and I joined forces over the next few months to present the IHPC Congressional briefing, the ASA Counsel meeting in Denver, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians Annual Federal Legislative Initiative (AANP FLI,) and had begun scouting DC hotels for ASA's first public meeting, Congressional Fly-In and health fair.
The evening before I was to leave for the ACAOM meeting and CPT meeting in Texas, our little family's world was shattered once again, when Mark passed away suddenly from a massive heart attack at the age of 51. I realized I could no longer work in the treatment space, and from that moment on, my focus has been on uniting industries around advocacy initiatives and teaching grassroots mechanics and coalition building. I developed the advocacy curriculum that we currently use to train advocates in both basic and advanced techniques and, after receiving our IRS determination letter a few weeks after Mark's death, was named as Mark's successor as Chair of the Health Policy Advocacy Institute. I worked with state acupuncture associations, integrative medicine practitioner groups, patient organizations, and coalitions focused on providing solutions for the opioid crisis. In 2019, I organized the ASA's inaugural "State of Our Union", first live fly-in, and second health fair in Washington, DC. We followed a week later with the AANP FLI and continued my work in the pain management regulatory world working on regulatory policy within the Food & Drug Administration (FDA,) Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), CMS, HRSA, AHRQ, NIH; integrative healthcare and opioid legislation, and teaching process to state and national practitioner group associations in healthcare.
I was consulting for the Acupuncture Society of New York when lockdown began in 2020. It is during this time that we all showed the world how quickly we could organize and mount a successful regulatory campaign. We added New York L.Acs to the Essential Services list (unrestricted) in ten weeks. We produced Reopening Guidelines for our practitioners to return to practice. We responded to Justice Gorsuch's concurring opinion regarding free exercise of religion and Essential Services when he referred to acupuncture as "secular convenience", rather than the valuable services we provide that are essential healthcare operations. Our response was picked up and published in more than 135 news outlets globally.
Covid-19 affected all of us, and in 2021, I spent 6 days in the hospital, picked up MRSA while there, and spent the following year fighting bone infections that would lead to one scheduled amputation in July and a second amputation in December of 2021. During that time, AcuCongress initiated its first call to action upon introduction of HR4803 and set out to virtually train any member of the acupuncture industry in advocacy techniques. We would hold our live training sessions at Atlantic Symposium in November and follow that with our first virtual federal fly-in where we gained 3 "Day-Of" cosponsors and would add the rest of our Democratic cosponsors through various training exercises throughout the year. In that time, AcuCongress trained hundreds of industry members in process and relationship-building with their Congressional Representatives and Senators, and build district, state and regional relationships with each other.
Out of Great Tragedy, Comes Renewed Purpose
The Dual Roles of Advocacy in Professions: AcuCongress & Advocatemy
When I train members of any industry, we begin with what they value personally and in the field they practice or work in. Inevitably with Licensed Acupuncturists, I hear them talk about this medicine in the same way I do: life-saving, ground-breaking, soul-inspiring. They also say that it was like coming home and that you cannot separate who they are from what they do. They embody their role and accept the responsibility of advocating for and protecting it. In telling their stories, they convey what it means to be an acupuncturist and have a deep reverence for the medicine they studied.
I wanted to be that...I really did. And I do love this medicine and will say that it resonates deeply with me. At the end of the day, we can all agree that this medicine should be practiced by practitioners who study it and be accessible to all patients, everywhere. I cannot thank the practitioners who have gotten us this far and continue to inspire, heal, and EDUCATE their patients everyday. I relate, because I'm an advocate in my soul, first and foremost. I'm an activist at heart. There is no cause or issue that I don't immediately try to find a policy solution for. The truth is that policy, especially regulatory policy, is my religion. Grassroots procedures and coalition building is my church, my institution. It is my goal to educate EVERYONE on these tools and techniques to unite people around advocacy, because everyone is an advocate of something.
And all roads have led me back home. This potential advocacy ecosystem and how to make it easer for people to connect and participate in government process is what drives me. Out of the Health Policy Advocacy Institute comes the Advocatemy curriculum and processes, through my work with various state associations and the absolute need to provide training in this field comes the National Advocate Training Program" which will be used by AcuCongress and their Acuvists. And we are putting the finishing touches on the "Mark F Guimond Advocacy Training Scholarship" that we will make available to those who want to study policy along with the field they are in. What we envision is an entire world that allows people to engage in fun, educational and collaborative environments, free of hierarchy and barriers to access, incorporating all members of the industry working together. We want to help ALL individuals, students, schools, state associations, national associations, patient groups, regulatory agencies and legislators work together communally to achieve our goals together.
This is my journey, but it has not been alone. I am so grateful to the organizations that I have been able to work with in this industry. The medicine saved my life, but the circle of friendship, support and all the challenges along the way, helped me find my way back to the love I have for being an advocate and remind me that the best thing I can do for our profession may not come in the form of treating patients, but rather in training the industry members to protect their field, expand their scope and outreach, and be a supportive part of the connective tissue for the advancement of our profession. Advocatemy is a culmination of my entire 27 year career as a state/federal lobbyist, trade association executive, policy analyst and master of grassroots mechanics, infused with the inspirational legacy of Mark Guimond's work, all rolled into one. We envisioned policy camps...because, again...we all learned how to do this by watching Schoolhouse Rock. Our mission is to unite people around their issues and teach them how to advocate for themselves, find coalitions and associations or create them, while we engage, educate, entertain and empower them. Today, Advocatemy is on the brink of opening camps sooner than we envisioned, and AcuCongress will be in the hands of the industry it was created for. AcuCongress is my love letter to the medicine that saved me, and the industry that brought me back home.