New hopes in the cardiology department

Spring rolled through with thunder and lightning, cold and heat – just like they say in the classics – and now, on the hazy horizon, the summer heat slowly starts to pick up.  I think about old times in Beijing – five years ago – when it was normal to change shirts around midday after the morning shirt was soaked in sweat.  It could get like that here in Zhengzhou, though a part of me is ready to melt, ready to limit my worries to watermelon and shade.

Speaking of worries, they’ve appeared to settle some.  For a while there, I had a lot of fear that this trip would be a kind of look-but-don’t-touch field trip through the hospital petting zoo.  Sure, we were stimulating needles.  Sure, we were seeing tons of treatments.  But there’s that part of me that – dare I say it? – is a true blue, tree-hugging, cauldron-stirring Herb N3rd.  I worried that I’d see all these needles and protocols and have to wait, wait, wait for someone to talk herbs.

The good news is that a Taiwanese friend also shared the same worries and was able to get in the cardiology department.  This past week, he invited me along and – to say the least – I’ve been very satisfied with the change of pace.  Lots of pulses, lots of herbs, lots of talk of east meets west.  The doctor is a pretty brilliant guy with tons of clinical experience and a desire to talk and share his opinions.

For example, the first day I asked about one patient’s pulse.  The patient had no pulse on his left wrist and a kind of superficial, strong pulse on the right wrist.  Why no pulse on the left?  The doc started talking about phlegm and blood stasis and treatment principles and clogged vessels in the brain and then I lost him.  I couldn’t keep up.  I asked my Taiwanese friend about what he said and it was about blood cells.  Blood cells?

“He said they’re finding that the cell membranes are really important.  They used to think that the nucleus was the most important part but new research is saying that the membrane is also important.  When we get older, the cell membrane gets more rigid and less flexible.  It doesn’t go through the vessels as easily.  They’re theorizing that blood moving herbs like Tao Ren and Hong Hua may make the membranes more flexible.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Pretty fascinating stuff.  Of course, he uses a lot of blood movers but he also likes things like rhodiola, huang qi, di long, and others.  His patients are typically hypertensive with a history of dizziness, stroke, and irregular heart beats.  Tongues are purple.  Ages vary.  Besides prescribing raw herbs, he’ll also use granule powders or will prescribe four or five different pills for a combination effect.

It’s also common for him and other cardiology doctors to be very upfront with patients about the western treatment options versus traditional medicine options.  Typically, they say that western medicine works fast but will have side-effects.   Chinese medicine will take longer but there will be less risks and better long-term results.

Since being on this shift, I’ve also seen the life of a TCM in-patient.  From my perspective, this lifestyle kind of reminds me of a health resort.  After all, patients receive massage, foot soaks, acupuncture, and customized herbal medicine everyday.  It may lack the frills of a high class resort – it is still a hospital environment after all – but there is still that emphasis on physical medicine, individualized care, and a sense of professionalism.

I can dig it.

Anywho, I’m definitely feeling much more satisfied with the experience than I did a few weeks ago.  A few weeks ago, there was more anxiety over what exactly I’d be able to take home.  I had expectations of exposing some kind of BIG SECRET in Chinese medicine but – as my classmates and I often joke – we actually received a good education in California!  All the books, all the classes, all the theories, it’s all actually being put in practice here in China.  So yeah, it’s good to know that we weren’t getting some watered-down, Americanized version of TCM.  However, at the same time, I did have this anxiety that the whole trip would be in vain, that I could come home in a week and not have much to show for it.

Now that I’m letting go a bit more and following this new doctor, I feel like I may return with a newfound sense of confidence in this medicine as well as a stronger sense of what it’s capable of doing and what it’s not capable of doing.  I also think this doctor is a good role-model for me because he works hard, he jokes with patients, he loves the philosophy, he loves the qigong, and he eats plastic-wrapped pastries with instant coffee for breakfast.  Like, thank god!  A human being who loves this health stuff and isn’t some over-the-top, Bay Area, paragon of purity and wellness.  I love it.

That’s all for today.  I think the next post will be more culture-y.  There’s definitely a lot of craziness in this city and I’m pulling in more than enough material for a goof-ball China Life blog post.

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