March-April 2020 | Health

Needle work

After a career as a TV news producer, Robin Gellman shifted gears and became an acupuncturist

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Photo by Liz Lynch

Before any needles come out, Robin Gellman does a check-in.

“How are you doing? Anything talking to you today?” the Bethesda-based acupuncturist asks her patient.

“I’m doing mostly OK,” says Wendy McGrath, a yoga instructor who has been seeing Gellman weekly for a year and a half.  “My left shoulder is a little bit unhappy. And my big toe, you know, I have some arthritis.”

They discuss diet, sleep and energy level before Gellman takes McGrath’s pulse and looks at her tongue, which Gellman says reflects the health of the body’s main organ systems. “It’s a little swollen on the sides, which is a bit of stress maybe. Overall, the luster is healthy,” Gellman tells her. “You have good ying, you have good yang.”

As the sound of ocean waves plays in the background, one heat lamp is directed at McGrath’s feet and another over her back to create a warm beach feel. She lies facedown and draped with a blanket on the padded table as Gellman silently places 14 tiny needles from the back of her neck to her ankles.

“There might be a sensation when the needle goes in, but oftentimes I’ll start inserting the needle and people will say, ‘Oh, there’s a needle in me already?’ and I’ve already done five,” Gellman says.

After about 20 minutes of stillness, the needles are removed and Gellman performs the treatment on the front while McGrath lies on her back. The session ends with a short neck and back massage. “There are few things for me that are as relaxing as acupuncture,” says McGrath, 49, of Northwest D.C.

This is a second career for Gellman, 52, who is originally from Long Island, New York, and now lives in Chevy Chase, D.C., with her husband and two teenage sons. In the 1990s, she was a television producer at CNBC, covering politics during the early days of the 24-hour cable news cycle. She realized the intensity of the job wasn’t for her long term, and became intrigued by the philosophy of Chinese medicine.

Gellman attended the now-closed Maryland Institute for Traditional Chinese Medicine in Bethesda for three years to become a licensed acupuncturist, while also doing communications for an herbal products association. She learned how the ancient Chinese believed an energy system called “qi” (pronounced “chee”) circulates throughout the body along a network of acupuncture channels connected to specific organs.

“When the energy network is blocked, we start to have problems,” says Gellman, an acupuncturist for 16 years. “It’s like the needles are giving the body a little nudge to clear out blockages and help the energy flow more steadily.”

Lower back and neck pain are the most common complaints that bring people into her office, but Gellman uses acupuncture to treat everything from digestive issues and autoimmune disorders to insomnia and headaches. Her clients range from teenagers—often athletes recovering from injuries—to patients in their 80s. She says it’s rewarding to have a job that is stress-reducing, rather than stress-inducing.

“I was looking to contribute to society in a different way and was drawn to it as a way of serving as a catalyst for change,” she says.