Bastyr University students encounter a diverse range of patients in their clinical training, but $175-million baseball players are not typically among them. So it was a little unusual when two students of acupuncture and Oriental medicine (AOM) worked with All-Star pitcher Felix Hernandez and the rest of the Seattle Mariners.
Students Gracia Tharp and Rebecca Berkson spent a week at the Mariners spring training camp in Arizona in March, learning how the team incorporates acupuncture into its training. They got a firsthand look at the elaborate operation of keeping athletes healthy for a season of 162 games — the most in professional sports.
"It was a great environment," says Berkson, a third-year student in the Master of Science in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (MSAOM) program. "Here we were just interns, and everyone introduced themselves — the players, the general manager, the staff. They were really welcoming and open to our questions."
The two arranged the trip with the help of Masahiro Takakura, ND (’02), LAc, DC, a Bastyr alumnus and former core faculty member who recently became a Mariners assistant athletic trainer, massage therapist, acupuncturist, chiropractor and naturopathic doctor. Bastyr's Student Council helped supply funding for the trip through the Venture Grant fund for professional development.
Berkson and Tharp learned how the team uses a broad range of therapies to help players stay healthy, build strength and recover from injuries. They watched athletic trainers lead stretching, strength training and physical therapy, along with acupuncture, naturopathic manipulation and massage.
“They use a lot of treatment modalities, and it was great to observe them all," says Tharp, also a third-year MSAOM student. "We’re really grateful to Dr. Takakura and the Student Council — they made the trip possible.”
The Mariners were the first major league baseball team to embrace acupuncture, largely due to the influence of the Japanese players Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki. With Dr. Takakura, they are also the first team with a naturopathic doctor (ND) on staff. Players can choose to receive acupuncture for regeneration after tough workouts or for recovery from injuries. Berkson and Tharp said it was helpful to see acupuncture integrated with a range of therapies.
They were also struck by the athletic training staff's emphasis on avoiding injuries before they happen. Rather than waiting in the training room, athletic trainers spend much of the day watching athletes on the field, looking for slight changes in pitching mechanics or running form that might foretell an injury.
"Preventive medicine is just huge," says Berkson. "The name of the game in baseball is keeping players healthy through that long season."
"It's important to know the mechanism of injury when something happens," says Dr. Takakura. "You can get injured and not know how it happened, but sometimes someone observing you can see it. Especially someone with the eye of a medical professional."
Dr. Takakura will spend the season traveling with the team, though he hopes to teach at Bastyr during the off-season. Bringing Tharp and Berkson to spring training was a way to combine his love for teaching with his focus on working with the Mariners athletic training staff to support the players, he says.
The students spent two games in the dugout with the players and stood on the base path with the team during the national anthem. They say it felt a little bit like a dream — a warm, sunny dream.
"Every day we'd say to each other 'Is this real?'" says Berkson.
The two hosted a lunchtime talk on campus about their trip, and have another presentation to the Bastyr AOM Sports Medicine Club later this month.
As they graduate in June, both are considering career options and say working with athletes has a stronger appeal after the trip.
"The trip solidifies that sports medicine is something I want to pursue," says Tharp. "It's a population that wants to be well. It's their job to be healthy. That makes it a really positive working environment."
Learn more about studying acupuncture and Oriental medicine at Bastyr University.