This March, a small and mighty delegation of Yo San students – Shareef Von Reitter, Dawn Webster, and myself – joined Dr. Qiwei Zheng and two students from South Baylo University on a learning trip to Beijing, China where we observed TCM doctors in clinical settings, mainly at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences’ (CACMS) Hospital of Acupuncture and Moxibustion.
For two weeks, the ancient practices of TCM we learned in our textbooks came alive in a highly modern context and within an infrastructure of unparalleled scale. In contrast to our tidy, systematic clinic at Yo San University, hospital wards in Beijing house anywhere between six to twelve beds, sometimes, but not always, separated by simple cloth partitions. Rooms are filled to capacity with patients, staffed by one or two doctors who routinely administer both front and back treatments, and persistently seek out Qi on each and every point. Multiple clinic interns run from bed to bed, hooking up e-stim machines, monitoring moxa boxes, removing needles, and administer cupping, bleeding therapy, and ear seeds for each and every patient. Entire divisions of the CACMS’ Hospital of Acupuncture and Moxibustion are dedicated to pain management, neurology, dermatology, fertility, weight loss, herbology and even Tui-Na, offering patients specialized care depending on their presentation. Even the Beijing Hospital, a first class Western institution, has a TCM wing with a lively herbal pharmacy more closely resembling a bustling train station than a medical establishment.
Undoubtedly, the infrastructure and scale of TCM in Beijing was vastly different than anything we had experienced in Los Angeles; however, my classmates and I were surprised to find that the language of TCM spoken by doctors we shadowed was almost identical to what we learned back home. This, as many of you can imagine, deeply affirmed the quality of our educational background. Many of us American students, myself included, have the sneaking sensation that we are missing out on some secret knowledge attainable only in China. Rest assured that, as far as TCM is concerned, we receive an excellent foundation at Yo San, along with completely unrestricted access to research, innovative interpretations of classical theory, and explorations of the spiritual origins of the medicine that, for foreigners, and arguably many Chinese practitioners, are more readily available in the West than in China’s urban core.
So while the theory, diagnoses and even point prescriptions employed by doctors in Beijing did not particularly shift our paradigms around TCM, the treatment methods and techniques certainly did. I will never forget the look on my classmate’s face when we witnessed the totality of a 4-cun needle being inserted directly into Du 3 (a jaw-dropping and deeply concerning experience); the time I almost fainted at the gory sight of bleeding cupping for cystic acne; or our collective feeling of confusion when doctors injected pieces of what looked like fishing line into adipose tissue, to which our translator simply declared, “Cat gut.” It turns out, a popular and effective technique for weight loss in China entails inserting 2-inch segments of processed, sterilized feline intestinal lining into fatty areas of the body, to much clinical success – all of which was, at once, fascinating and disconcerting.
Indisputably, we found that, at this stage in the game, legally and culturally, doctors in China have an advantage in terms of the techniques, resources, and infrastructure available to them, but to witness the possibilities of where we one-day could be headed as TCM practitioners in the West was invaluable as a personal and professional experience. We are at an exciting juncture in history where we are actively co-creating and expanding the opportunities for our profession in this country and abroad. With the advent of Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act, it may be too early to predict where this proverbial ship is headed, but it serves us as members of a rapidly budding profession to open our minds to the potential role of our skill set and to realize the value that we, as primary healthcare physicians, provide to patients and the medical field as a whole. Furthermore, it is worth noting the importance of continuing to educate ourselves regarding the extensive research coming out of China and the U.S. validating the effectiveness and relevancy of our medicine, which we have the responsibility to generously share with our patients and fellow medical professionals. We, as practitioners of TCM, are vital players in the emerging field of integrative health care and, without a doubt, are cultivating a precious jewel in our hands and in our hearts. The Chinese happen to have a historical head start, but, at the pace we are going, we are not far behind.