We’ve spent more than a week in Zhengzhou and boy has this Herb Nerd been busy. Everyday brings at least two or three new stories with new characters, new locations and the occasional plot twist. Looking back on the week, I’m not sure where to start, so to keep things simple and continue with the theme, I’ll describe life inside the acupuncture clinic.
A typical day starts at 8am. We put on our lab coats and clip on our ID tags. Patients slowly trickle in, choosing a bed to their liking after saying hello to Doctor Shao – the acupuncturist in charge. After a time, Doctor Shao makes her rounds and we all crowd around to watch. She does a little small talk with the patient, asks about the low-back pain or trouble sleeping, and then instructs the patient to lie on their side, back or stomach.
The needles go in quick. No hesitation. No guide-tubes. If the patient complains, she’ll frown and tell them to relax. Then she’ll do some extra stimulation. Nothing fancy – just some even twisting or a few rounds of lifting and thrusting. It all depends on the point and the patient.
Most patients will have at least 15 needles. This is because she likes to treat the local area of pain and then light up the associated channel. She uses a lot of her own protocols that she’ll make small modifications to depending on the day-to-day symptoms. She’s not afraid to needle the spine.
Each treatment is thirty minutes. Undergraduate and masters students keep time and stimulate the needles every ten minutes. After removing needles, most patients get a cupping treatment for another ten minutes. This goes on until 12 o’clock, then we take a break for lunch and return at 2:30 to start all over again. We finish the day around 5:30.
The days are generally quick and busy. Doctor Shao is the daughter of a famous physician who actually helped found the school in 1958. Her reputation pulls people in and she works with a confidence that’s hard to second guess.
That said, I don’t see myself getting a treatment from her. It’s not that I don’t trust her ability; it’s just that I know it would probably be fairly intense. Here is where we get into the call-it-what-you-want of acupuncture. For me, it involves a kind of medical power dynamic that I’ve boiled down to three points. One, the patient has to come to the doctor and ask for help. Two, the patient has to trust that the doctor is helping them. Three, the patient has to accept the doctor’s help.
Everyday, I see all three of these elements while working with Doctor Shao. Patients will occasionally resist her or be too nervous while on the table, and she’ll tell them to relax. “If you relax,” she’ll say, “the needles will go in easier.” I’ve also heard her say something like “I’m not going to do your body any harm,” which shows her confidence and understanding of the situation. I don’t think an acupuncturist or even an MD can say that in America, but think about that kind of confidence. The patient came to be treated. Doctor Shao is an expert. Everything will get better if they let go and let the needles work.
If that doesn’t make sense, then let me compare it to the relationship between a dog and it’s master. For the average happy-go-lucky, tail-wagging, man’s-best-friend that wasn’t kicked or beaten as it grew up, the dog will roll over on it’s back as soon as you start petting it. We all know that dog. Maybe it’s a lab, maybe it’s a mutt, maybe it’s some fancy pomeranian. Regardless, that kind of trust is hard to find when we’re talking about people. However, it my experience, it’s that kind of trust that makes a lot of medicine happen. Of course, a certain percentage is physical and has to do with the doctor’s expertise, but powerful medicine must have both of these elements.
To get a little political, this is a fundamental problem with the culture of modern healthcare. In our pill popping society, many doctors are just a link between patient and pharmaceutical company. They don’t make the medicine – they sell it. Diagnosis is important, but it’s based on standards and protocols rather than individual reasoning (a legal liability). For these and other reasons, our expectations of doctors have shifted. After all, a doctor’s care and a patient’s trust are nothing more than placebo – some fluke like spontaneous remission. If it can’t be quantified, analyzed and seen underneath a high-powered microscope, it must exist outside the realm of hard science. If it doesn’t exist as a hard science, then it doesn’t have a place within evidence-based medicine.
To close, I’m going to pull back a little and show a picture of my new buddy Mr Fu! Mr Fu owns a tea shop just outside of campus and loves to share free tea and conversate about all the foreigners that have come by his little shop. He’ll tell you about this tea and that tea. Where it’s from and how it’s made. His wife will come by with his daughter and we’ll all chat about different ways to cook noodles.
The other night I treated him to beers, lamb chuanr, and some super yummy, spicy fish hot pot. The picture below is from that night.