Pam Olton, L.Ac., CLS, MT (ASCP)
ACTCM Positions: Chair of the Acupuncture Department, ACTCM Professor and Clinic Supervisor
Other Positions: Laboratory Manager and Director of Complementary Care and Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic, Private practice
Clinic Specialty: Pain Management, Auricular Acupuncture, Empowering People to Heal Themselves
Years at ACTCM: 15
Clinic Hours: Wednesday: 9 – 11:45 am (Supervising Interns at Ear Clinic), 5 – 9 pm (Supervising Trainees and Observers)
1. When did you start working at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM)?
In the fall of 1997, a friend I went to acupuncture school with, Evelyn Robert, was teaching an acupuncture technique class at ACTCM, and she had a large class and needed an assistant that had their acupuncture license. She called me, and said it would be fun for me to come over, become her teaching assistant and see if I liked teaching. That winter, I started supervising students in the Clinic. I started working on Saturdays and eventually was assigned a Wednesday evening shift which I still have today. I have taught needling lab class, acupuncture techniques I, II and III and developed the auricular acupuncture class after I attended a conference in 2000. I got really interested in teaching needling, and I love needling. I teach needling at my other job. I teach people how to take blood. I am very comfortable with teaching new comers how to give and receive needles. The same techniques apply.
2. Why did you decide to study TCM and where did you receive your training?
I thought I wanted to go to medical school. I first became a medical technologist. I did a year program after college, took the national boards and was licensed and certified to work in clinic laboratories, and I held several jobs in the field. I fell in love with medicine and pathology, and thought I would go to medical school.
I was apprehensive about that because I was living on the East Coast, I am form New York, and I really felt like I needed to study something about health before I wanted to study anymore about sickness. I was interested in health food; I was doing a macrobiotic diet, but I was also having a busy New York City crazy lifestyle and had a biotech job that had me traveling constantly, so I felt like I needed health in my life. A whole bunch of my friends I went to college with were moving to the West Coast and settling in San Francisco, so I ended up driving out here with a boyfriend in the summer of 1975 with the idea of checking out San Francisco and seeing if this is somewhere I’d like to live. I came out and got settled; I had to wait for the paperwork to go through, so I could get my state license to work in a hospital.
During that time, I helped my friends open a martial arts school, so I got really busy practicing and getting strong, and I loved it. I started working at Davies Medical Center, practicing martial arts, and then I started working at the Haight Ashbury Clinic as a volunteer. I thought I should be doing that because there were a lot of pre-med students at the clinic, and I was thinking of myself as a potential med student, but the more I watched western doctors and med students, the more I saw they were unhappy people, and I didn’t want to to be like them. The years just kept going by and I kept getting stronger and doing martial arts.
I had a chance to go to Japan and live in Tokyo for a few months to study martial arts. It was there I meet a few of the teachers that were also acupuncturists. Also, living in San Francisco and walking by herbal shops on Clement Street, seeing all those herbs through the window and thinking “Wow; what is all this weird stuff.” At the same time I was feeling guilty about blowing off taking the MCAT and not applying to medical school. I was getting older and older and just felt like I didn’t want to jump into a program that could ruin my health.
One of my martial arts friends was in the program at ACTCM, and I watched her for a couple of years, and I would ask her what she was learning and what was the program like and if she was happy, and she was happy. She opened up a little practice, and she would give us some acupuncture. The next thing that happened is I befriended a group of people who were a part of a shiatsu school in Japantown, and I ended up going through their training program.
Part of the program required that we spend three weekends studying the ABC’s of Chinese Medicine, and I fell in love with Chinese Medicine. I wanted to diagnose and treat people, and it seemed like this was a good fit for me. In 1985, I jumped in to the program at the San Francisco College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, and it took me two long years to graduate with working weekends at the hospital while going to school. I really had a great time.
3. Your clinic shift at the Haight Ashbury Clinic is always popular with the students. How did you get involved with the Haight Ashbury Clinic and start the CAP site?
In 1976, I was volunteering in the lab, and the manager suddenly died, and I was the only volunteer with a license, so they asked me to take over managing the lab temporarily. I said I was only going to do it for 6 months, and I still have the job today. Of course it has evolved over the years. I met my husband at acupuncture school, and in 1988, we started the Haight Ashbury Free Acupuncture Clinic with a group of people we went to school with, and it stayed there until 1993. We had about 8 to 10 volunteers, and we saw patients 3 to 4 mornings a week. It was great starting a practice with our peers, and we were all learning from each other.
In 1996, they gave me 3 hours a week treat HIV clients, and at first it was just me, and then recent acupuncture graduates would volunteer. In 1998, ACTCM had extra funding from the Ryan White Program, so they funded 2 hours a week for HIV patients, and it got very popular. Due to its popularity in 2000, the Monday morning CAP site was created and is still in place today. We have recently made some changes to make the CAP site into a more integrative medical clinic by seeing patients from their medical homes that are being treated for pain and addiction. Our students are able to observe a western medical assessment by a medical doctor, and then they treat the patients with acupuncture. It is really fun.
4. What is your most rewarding patient experience?
An HIV patient had an appointment with one of my interns on a Friday afternoon septic with a temperature of 104 degrees and pulse rate of 132, and he wanted acupuncture, was feeling horrible, and I had never met him before. He also had giant boils under his arms.
I told him “Honey, the only way I am giving you an acupuncture treatment today is if you promise to go directly to the emergency room afterwards. My acupuncture will help you feel much better and maybe help them help you a little better, but Chinese medicine is not going to pull you out of this.” He said that he didn’t believe in western medication and that AZT killed all of his friends 10 years ago, and he wasn’t going to take it.
I asked him how long he had been diagnosed and the last time he had a blood test, and he said more than 15 years, and he doesn’t go to the doctor, so he didn’t know. I told him I knew enough about HIV and medicine that he might not be alive tomorrow if he didn’t go to the hospital. I told him, “you may die, you are septic, and it’s going to shut your heart down.” He went to the emergency room, and he lived. He came to the clinic and said, “Oh my god, you saved my life!”
I told him now I want you to meet our HIV doctor at the Haight Ashbury Clinic, and we are going to give you acupuncture every week and take some blood tests. It happened just the way I wanted it, and in a few months time made him realize he had to go on medication. Now he looks wonderful and his health is completely controlled. It was a great collaboration of the free clinic, CAP site and school clinic. It was really great.
5. What is your favorite herb?
I happen to love dang gui. It’s a blood nourishing herb. I often take a little of it in a tincture. It gently moves blood and nourished blood. It smells so good to me.
6. What is your favorite acupuncture point?
I just don’t want to pick one point.
7. What advice can you offer students to increase their success at ACTCM?
Accept that they should learn a little bit about this medicine the old fashion way and put their computers away. Not 100%, and I think it is a two way street. I think all of us faculty have to learn how to entertain using PowerPoint a little more than we do, but also I think that students need to turn that stuff off and sometimes just listen to us and close their eyes and really hear the stories we are telling them especially when we are telling students about case studies. Really think about the human beings that the doctors are talking about and let their imagination conjure up the real life thing because part of medicine is touching and hands on, and often they don’t do enough of that.
8. Outside of TCM, what hobbies do you have?
My favorite thing in life is live music especially jazz. I have a piano, and I play a little bit. I don’t play for other people; I am shy. I have a lot of music playing in my house especially when I cook. A couple times a month I go out to hear live music. I mostly go to Yoshi’s because they bring in world class jazz musicians and people I want to hear, but I will also go to SF Jazz. I love to see Stanley Clarke and some of the old school jazz players who are still alive when they are in town. I have been listening to live Jazz since I was a teenager in Greenwich Village, and I met a lot of jazz greats back in the 60’s. I have been listening to music and going out to live music shows as much as I possibly can. I like classical music too, but I love jazz a little bit more. I really care a lot about music, and I must say that I have trained my son well because he has great taste in music. Every time he is back in town from college we go out and listen to music together.
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About American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine
American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM) has provided affordable, quality health care to the public and trained professionals in acupuncture, massage and Chinese medicine since 1980. In addition to its graduate curriculum, ACTCM offers continuing education, public education, community outreach and clinical services in acupuncture and herbal medicine. ACTCM has been the recipient of many awards for its curriculum, faculty and clinic, and has been voted “Best of the Bay” by both the San Francisco Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. ACTCM is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and is a private, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.