Dr. Jing Wu walks softly in Chinese slippers and carries a small needle. Wu is an acupuncturist, and he thinks he may have what it takes to beat AIDS.
"I go about treatment with the idea that the virus is a natural substance, so there must be a natural antagonist," says Wu, who studied acupuncture and herbal medicine in Hong Kong before setting up a practice in Washington 15 years ago. "I feel that the right combination of herbs will provide that antagonist. We already know that acupuncture stimulates the immune system, so we believe that medical help can be found in using these things together."
Laugh at Wu if you want, but some of the leading AIDS researchers in the country think he may be on to something. Just last week, Chinese authorities announced that four experts in deep breathing and acupuncture will be sent to the United States to study and treat AIDS patients under an agreement with the Harvard University Medical School.
It's the same kind of work that Wu has been doing here in Washington for six years.
Wu is treating 20 patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome at his clinic, called the Green Cross, at 1512 U St. NW. Most of them are people for whom nothing else has worked. While it is difficult for a layman to understand acupuncture and herbal medicine, Wu's case files contain testimonials from patients who say whatever he is doing has made them feel better.
"They come straggling in here like it was the last saloon in town," says Mary Gaskins, Wu's assistant. "They just figure, why not try this? Then, when they start feeling better, they wonder why they didn't come here in the first place."
Wu, 54, is chairman of the advisory board on acupuncture to the D.C. Medical Board. He hopes to enlist the financial support of Washington's gay community in his effort to keep up with the demand for services. His clinic is a nonprofit community medical center, which he says needs about $120,000 to purchase needles, herbs and AIDS monitoring equipment in order to continue providing care at a cost that anyone can afford. No one is turned away, he says.
But costs already are rising, Wu says, because he must use disposable needles to quell fears of contamination from them. Still, he notes, the needle phobia continues and eventually may lead him to adopt even more expensive laser acupuncture methods.
Meanwhile, Wu continues his work with alcoholics and drug abusers, which is what brought him to the U Street neighborhood in the first place. This is how he began to see people with AIDS.
With one acupuncture practice on MacArthur Boulevard serving more affluent patients in Northwest Washington, Wu said he wanted to do something that would serve people who could not ordinarily afford his treatments.
He opened the U Street office three years ago, and as a result has become one of a few pioneers in the use of acupuncture to treat "crack" cocaine addicts suffering from the pain of withdrawal.
A large part of Wu's treatment involves changing attitudes, which starts the moment a person enters his office. With the soothing music of Chinese flute duets wafting from wall speakers, Wu reassures his black clientele that they may find some of his herbal concoctions familiar, "the kind of stuff your grandmother may have given you. We have the same roots," he smiles.
For the hard-core "crack" addicts or PCP users who come through the door, Wu used to hit them with a challenge: If you want to live, stay; if you want to die, goodbye.
"That started to sound too negative for what we were about, so I changed it," Wu said. "Now I say when they walk in, 'Assume you have already died, and every breath you take is a gift. How will you use that gift?' "
As a Taoist, he does not believe in advertising, or "proselytizing," as he calls it. Instead, he just waits with patience that comes from knowing that desperation will bring the business to him, and that his medical practice rooted in more than 2,000 years of tradition will eventually speak for itself.