Thursday, October 6, 2011

Chinese Medicine

It’s been a long few months. As much as I am enjoying graduate school, I have to admit that being obliged to prioritize all my activities has really forced me to acknowledge just how much I enjoy drinking. Boy oh Boy. Then again, people talk a lot about the benefits of recognizing and being mindful of your coping mechanisms, and since I don’t have health insurance I’m pretty positive that even if I really stepped it up and starting drinking at ten in the morning it would still be cheaper than therapy. Probably. Even assuming I only have about ten or fifteen therapy sessions a week, I would still come out on top. And this way, I can have therapy any time. WHO COULD JUDGE ME FOR THAT?!
I currently require more medicinal alcohol than usual, given the time of year and the uproarious run of luck I’ve been having lately. Some people get really excited for sweater weather. I get really apprehensive about spider weather. The Pacific Northwest is home to some incredible fauna, such as conifers, seasonal depression, and arachnids. Given the concatenation of various factors of my life, such as the fact that my house is a moribund wreck on par with Miss Havisham, the fact that there is obviously a curse on me, and the clemency of breeding conditions for ghastly pestiferous eight legged fiends, this has been a banner year for horrifying shit occupying my house. Even allowing that every year yields a prodigious crop of things that I completely fucking hate, this year has been particularly fruitful thanks to the nest of bragilions of what appear to be actual BLACK WIDOW SPIDERS LIVING IN MY DRYER. Although this is statistically unlikely, it is also not improbable given that my life is generally punctuated by the type of bad luck that is both contingently remote and generally inexplicable.
The consequences of this pyrrhic discovery are diverse. I live in fear, I am applying for a permit to carry a bazooka, and laundry is hella old school.  Until an exterminator comes, our house is covered in layers of undergarments I washed in the bathroom sink. As usual, the environment around me is undergoing the inexorable transformation into that of a whorehouse.
As a more relevant repercussion, however, I have become excruciatingly aware of the inadequacy of my health insurance. Granted, a perfect plan for me would cover burns, inadvertent poisonings, spider bites, ethanol IVs, ancient curses, things I accidentally swallowed, motorcycle crashes and dysentery, which I hear from my HR representative is unlikely. But health care, and what constitutes adequate insurance for health care, are hot topics in the current landscape of U.S. legislation.
The general underlying premise of health insurance in various nations is predicated on what, in terms of U.S. constitutional law, is considered a right. Certain nations consider health insurance to be an unalienable right, whereas some philosophies regard it as a privilege. Regardless of your own personal opinions on the subject, it’s pretty clear that these diverse ideologies give rise to equally diverse systems of care.
Chinese medicine is more of a holistic process than the mostly reactive, specialized event type of care common in the US. Some aspects of Chinese medicine are completely accessible, intelligible, and evidently effective. Some are alarming, confusing, and inexplicable. And some processes are simply ineffable. A lot of the obstacles Western individuals encounter when attempting to parse Chinese medicine are direct results of ideological conflicts between Eastern and Western philosophies.
Health care in the United States is primarily evidence based, responsive, sterile, and specific. We manifest a constellation of symptoms, we remark those symptoms, we submit them to an accredited expert, and that expert in turn analyzes those symptoms and pronounces a diagnosis, which then informs a prescribed course of treatment predominantly contingent on the disease rather than the individual. Western medicine applies a highly specified and specialized approach to illness; conditions belong to specific parts of the individual’s body, and have distinct definitions and parameters.
The Chinese approach to medicine is entirely different; the individual is viewed as a system, each aspect is interrelated and dependent on the others.  We as westerners have some difficulty envisioning the concept of a life force, a motive, fluid, dynamic and animate power within the body and the mind that flows both perceptibly and inexorably.
Also, putting a snake in a bottle and covering it with booze is not necessarily consonant with my idea of tylenol.
My field being medical ethics, and having a personal investment in the scientific method, there was pretty much no way I could visit a country with such a markedly different epistemology without participating in some hands on research. The following  activities are things we engaged in in the interest of exploring alternative ideologies.
(Note: As the Principle Investigator, I was able to outsource some of the more tedious data collection, and focus on diligently documenting the procedures and adhering to the protocol. Being a PI means that you don’t have to do any boring shit like math or work. You get a graduate student to do that kind of BS.)
This treatment requires that fire is used to suck the air out of a glass globe, which is then immediately affixed to your skin by way of advanced super heated vacuum technology. Ever cleaning the globe is unacceptable.
EEEEEEEEEK. Tedious Data Collection like being IMMOLATED.
Bamboo cups are added to make you look less like a pokemon. The difference between the two vessels, and the rationale for the disparate application, was not explained to me in a way that I could comprehend. This could be because it doesn’t make any sense, or because my Chinese is so overwhelmingly Bu Hao.
The final product, is, however, inspiring.
It’s a miracle! He’s cured!
It is, of course, possible to visit modern hospitals in China. The Matilda hospital in Hong Kong is considered one of the most superlative and progressive research and treatment facilities in the world. However, in addition to massage, cupping and liquor distilled from the types of organisms generally associated with nightmares (perhaps they would like a tour of my basement?), ancient Chinese medicine is a discipline practiced widely and successfully.
My experience with Chinese medicine had heretofore been exposure to repellent substances that are alleged to improve virility. There is traboccant evidence to prove that the worse a thing is, the better it will be for your manhood. Rat juice? Horse Anus? Essence of Cloaca? These are not Ozzy Osbourne solo projects. These are treatments.  It might also be germane to note here that every other experience I have had with Chinese medicine has been the procedure where a person repeatedly strikes your wrist with their eyes closed and then tells you that you’re fat. This should be experienced annually.
So imagine my excitement when our friend Shao Shao offered us the opportunity to consult with a traditional Chinese Medical Doctor in his home clinic. I don’t know what you picture when you hear the term “home clinic” (For me, it’s reminiscent of the bathroom cut scenes in Silent Hill, but you may have had a better childhood), but the reality in this case comprehended a single room with a corroded floor, flyblown mirror, and a  peeling decal of a long washed up Chinese pop star on the wall. At least it wasn’t a home surgical suite.
The room was about 20 square feet, and was crowded and damp. In addition to myself, my brother, Shao Shao and the doctor, the room contained a camp bed in déshabillé, a rusted rotary fan, two ancient computers, and several posters of the human body of the type usually seen on the wall at budget massage parlors. (as an aside, unlike Vietnam, massage parlors in China are not generally used as euphemistic fronts for whorehouses. Those are hair salons, as Chinese humor is geared towards the growing body of 12 year olds that think a double entendre involving the word “head” is hilarious.) Drying lines of faded clothes and greying underwear were roped across the ceiling.
The doctor himself was wearing an outfit that presumably conformed to the standard professional uniform. A hastily donned frayed white shirt, paired with worn professional grade underpants. “BAD BOY!” proclaim the ragged boxers. “USA!” 
After the introductions, the exam began. Fred admitted to feeling tired and stressed out. The doctor asked about his diet, his exercise, his love life. He prodded Fred in various places, and listened to his chest.

Towards the end of the exam, the doctor repeatedly tapped Fred’s wrist and then informed him that he was fat. Thank God, because I was beginning to feel a little self conscious and uncomfortable. “Should I say something?” I thought. “I’m certain this man is really breaching the standard of care by omitting this procedure.” We were looking at a serious malpractice suit here. What a relief!
Ultimately, the doctor gave Fred a plastic pouch of his personal formula of all purpose panacea, which he kept in a grungy plastic bag underneath his camp bed.
The storage instructions in Chinese translate roughly to: “Keep in a gross dark place. Film with grime. Refrigerate after opening.”
He also wrote Fred a prescription for another demulcent, which could be filled at any pharmacy.
The efficacy of this treatment is currently under evaluation.
In many ways, I enjoyed my experiences with Medical treatment in China far more than I have in the states. I find a lot of comfort in massage. I feel like western medicine has a lot to learn from acupuncturists. I firmly believe that the US could benefit from the Chinese practice of providing pedicures with 90 minute foot rubs for less than twenty dollars. But more than anything, I really enjoyed the novelty of being treated as more than the sum of my parts.
Although my experiences with the Gynecologist were really unsettling.

1 comment:

  1. What struck me the most about my time in China related to medicine is how little privacy you have. In my first year I had a need to visit the gynecologist and that was the last time I went in China. I had multiple observers of an exam that I would consider to be private. And not just medical staff, but other patients. Everything was done almost in the open. After that I scheduled appointments back in the US when I would go to visit family. I guess it is one of the things you have to get used to when adapting to a different culture, but I don't want to repeat that experience. Once is enough. PS. I'm enjoying your blog. I miss other aspects of China.