Written by Carolyn Reuben, LAc
Stereotypes are like distorted mirror images of a society’s biases and preconceptions, and the ones I carried with me to China were so deeply ingrained in my consciousness I didn’t realize they existed until they were shattered. I spent nearly seven months in the People’s Republic, studying acupuncture and gathering information for articles on medical care, so the stereotypes about medical practices were the first to go.
For example, I found that not all Chinese are eager acupuncture patients. Late one afternoon a young Chinese man stopped outside my doorway in the foreign students’ dormitory. He was hoarse and sniffling. He knew I saw patients each morning at a local hospital and hoped I had a cache of medication in my desk drawer. I had none, so I offered to give him an acupuncture treatment.
“You mean with needles?” he asked, looking aghast. “Yes, of course,” I responded, assuring him it could counteract the symptoms of his cold. “No, no thank you,” he murmured, backing off and looking as though he wished he’d never approached my door. “I’m afraid of needles,” he explained, and fled. My first preconception bit the dust.
In the hospital clinic I stopped to talk to one 50-year-old man with back pain who was there for his first acupuncture treatment. He was nervous and needed reassurance. He had tried every other available treatment without results before attempting this ancient one invented by his ancestors. How surprised he was when it helped.
During my stay I discovered that methods of treatment other than those I’d learned in school often worked. Another preconception gone.
Acupuncture clinics in China are always located in hospitals, and I visited several of them. I heard of some doctors who saw private patients, but these were mostly elderly practitioners who had retired from hospital work or young people assigned special jobs by the government labor office. In these cases the doctors made house calls.
In one clinic I found doctors trained in Western medicine who were being retrained as acupuncturists. They weren’t especially happy about it, but they had no choice. The government, especially in the 1950s, soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic, brought traditional Chinese medicine out of the closet and legitimized it. Some doctors were forced to switch and to study herbs and acupuncture for two extra years in school.
The most obvious difference between the newly trained medical doctor/acupuncturists and those traditionally trained was the number of needles used per treatment. I once counted 32 needles in one young polio patient. A traditionally trained acupuncturist who had been asked to take over some of this patient’s doctor’s cases made no secret of how much she disapproved of the needle prescription. I, too, was shocked by the number of needles since in Los Angeles I’d been trained to treat the root cause of a condition with preferably fewer than ten needles. Nevertheless the M.D.-turned-acupuncturist was getting results, though perhaps slower than she might have if her prescription had been a bit more focused.
No one who had originally used pharmaceutical drugs and surgery in his or her treatment of patients was expected to ignore all previous training. I had believed that Western and Eastern methods were distinct categories that caused one to look at the human body in entirely different ways, and that they could not be reconciled. In China, however, I found doctors using the best of both methods, to the patient’s benefit.
Eye specialists looked at photographs of the eye’s interior to determine the damage to the optic nerve before prescribing a course of acupuncture and herbal treatments; heart specialists reviewed electrocardiograms; general practitioners examined the patient’s urinalysis and blood panel reports; X-rays were ordered and taken into consideration in cases of injury.
In one case three weeks of antibiotics had not controlled the fluctuating fever and severe dysentery of an old man unable to keep anything down, herbs or food. At his request his doctors called in an acupuncturist who happened to be my mentor at the hospital. Three treatments later his temperature was stable and his intestinal tract soothed. He only stopped treatment because it was winter, there was no heat in the hospital (every patient slept in his winter parka and clothes!) and the man felt too cold when the acupuncturist had to open the covers to insert the needles.
The acupuncturist wrote “Thank you” at the conclusion of her report on the man’s chart because, she told me, she had been invited by the Western-trained doctors to treat this patient. I felt like writing a thank you note to China to tell them how grateful I was for inviting me to witness a system based on the intelligent and balanced use of different medical traditions that harmonize two world views for the good of their people. I left China convinced that acupuncture and modern technology can work together.
This article was printed in a slightly different form in the Los Angeles Weekly newspaper issue June 29-July 5, 1984.