This post is about my experience going to the hospital for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Kunming. I have been going to the doctor two or three times a week to receive treatment for a shoulder injury I sustained while skiing in New Hampshire in 2009. The first time, I went with my good friend and colleague Yangxi who helped to interpret and explain my situation to the doctor, which was essential because my Chinese is not good enough to explain anything complicated.After that I tried going by myself but the language barrier proved daunting, so I am grateful to my friend Vivi for her ongoing help as interpreter during these visits.
Before even getting to the treatment itself I think I was first most struck by the completely different attitude towards personal information: What I am used to from the US is that all medical information is private and your consultation with a doctor is always held behind closed doors, your medical information is never shared or public. The TCM doctor’s office, in contrast, is very open and participatory: whoever happened to be waiting for the doctor watched as she examined me, took my blood pressure, checked my pulse, and gave me her diagnosis; sometimes onlookers even chimed in with their opinions or comments. What I didn’t realize at the time was that some of these people were there to assist the doctor, but still, others were just patients. I took all this in stride, however, not understanding what people are saying makes it a lot easier not to worry about it! So she gave me her diagnosis: in addition to the shoulder injury I had poor circulation, sleep problems and too much heat in my lungs, all of which was treatable with acupuncture, fire (cupping), herbal injections and Chinese medicine to take home.
I have to say my doctor is just lovely: a little bit wizened behind her glasses, diminutive, and very competent and efficient but also funny, very patient and caring with her communication-challenged American patient. She made me feel very comfortable and in good hands as she stuck me full of more needles than I ever thought possible. Shoulder, yes, but also back, chest, wrists, ankles, feet, neck, and perhaps most surprisingly when it went in, underarm. Under a wire cage to protect the needles, a heat lamp and several towels I had thirty minutes to wonder if this was really such a good idea but also to marvel at the novelty of it all. After the needles came out it was time for the fire treatment: this consists of a series of glass bulbs of different sizes stuck onto your skin to draw stagnant blood out and away so it can leave your system. The doctor sticks a burning cotton ball into the bulb to consume the oxygen and create a pressure differential, then quickly sticks the bulb onto the skin so it sucks the skin up into the bulb, and I have another fifteen minutes to consider my choices in life. When the bulb comes off you see if there are any problems under the skin: my shoulder was bad enough that the circle of skin under the bulb turned a deep uniform purple (cultural note: the doctor commented with a laugh that this skin color “looked Indian”; not sure if this was a commentary on what we told her of our fellowship). I had a whole row of these circles running across my back in different sizes and colors, reflecting the different levels of health of different areas and muscles. It is a fascinating diagnostic technique because it is so visceral: you can’t argue with the evidence your own body gives of what is going wrong underneath the skin, it’s right there in shades of purple.
That was it for my first visit but since then I have had the works: electrical stimulus through the needles, herbal injections into my shoulder and the muscles next to my shins, tui na massage, and now sometimes if the fire treatment reveals a particularly bad spot I get a stick of burning herbs held close to the skin to draw out the heat from my body. I have come to really look forward to these treatments and I enjoy them immensely. Between the treatments and drinking my Chinese medicine three times a day I have to say I am feeling a lot better! The most dramatic change was in my sleep: when I got here I was waking up every couple of hours and never got a good night’s sleep until my first acupuncture treatment; now I routinely sleep through the night and wake up feeling refreshed. My shoulder feels a lot stronger and more stable, although the doctor says realistically I need three months of treatment so I don’t expect it to be perfect yet. I’m not sure if my lung-heat is better or worse, I have to admit a certain degree of bafflement with this particular condition. That said, I will follow the doctor’s advice and limit my coffee and shellfish intake, and continue to eat cooling foods like pears and cucumbers, because it can’t hurt, right?
Now as we prepare to depart for India I am extremely grateful to have had this experience, and to have had such excellent treatment at the hands of my doctor and the Sheng Ai hospital, but I have something new in mind to try when we get to Kolkata: Ayurvedic medicine! Stay tuned for a future blog post to find out more…