Hanjay Wang: Yin and Yang of Integrative Medicine
“Master, I wish to learn the ways of The Force.”
“You will not be trained. It is pointless for you to undergo the training for so short a time.”
It was a truly Jedi-esque moment, though spoken all in Mandarin Chinese. Dr. Hongtao Xu was Yoda, and I the hopeful young apprentice. This past summer, I traveled halfway across the world to Beijing, China to learn more about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). One of my chief interests, I explained to Master Xu at Xiyuan Hospital, was studying the art of manipulating Qi (i.e. the life energy, according to Chinese philosophy, that pervades and links everything in the universe, on which The Force of Star Wars was based).
“No,” Master Xu countered, “that is not why you are here. You are here to learn about Western medicine. Because you study only Western medicine in America, you cannot truly understand what you are practicing. Here in China, you will experience TCM, a system of healing that is very different than anything you have seen before. With this knowledge as a contrast, you can return to America with a better understanding of what Western medicine is, and for that reason, you can be a better doctor in the future. Now then, begin the training, and sit here for one hour without moving, without breathing if you can manage it!”
Learning to conquer my mind and eliminate all thoughts during meditation was one of the most challenging exercises I have ever engaged in, but the sense of renewal and inward peace that followed felt so surreal, unearthly even, that I found myself wondering whether Star Wars and other sources of popular culture had trivialized the healing potential of Qi in the West. Master Xu said, “To be one with everything is to be one with nothing, and there is no disease in nothing!” I admit I had my doubts, but through my personal experiences and through conversations with my training-mates, all of whom were patients being treated for chronic diseases such as digestive problems, arthritis, or diabetes through Qi exercises, I realized that this internal mode of healing may be effective indeed.
Aside from training in Qi exercises, I also joined Xiyuan Hospital’s Department of Cardiovascular Diseases and the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, working with Dr. Hao Xu and Dr. Qinghua Shang to design a clinical research study investigating how Chinese herbal medicines and Western drugs can be used synergistically to treat patients with coronary heart disease. Although East-West integrative medicine remains undeveloped in the Western world, doctors at Xiyuan Hospital treat diseases using literally the best of both worlds.
While doing rounds with academician Dr. Keji Chen, the renowned founder of East-West integrative medicine in China, I saw first-hand how TCM and Western medicine could work together in a single system. As Dr. Chen interviewed one patient with coronary heart disease, he pressed three fingers to the patient’s right wrist, and then after several minutes switched to the left wrist, feeling for the specific nature of the pulse at each of the six sites where his fingers pressed. Was the pulse thin at the third site on the right? Or slippery, perhaps? According to TCM theory, this pulse-taking technique allows a physician to gather information about each organ system and its respective degree of function. Not neglecting the value of Western medical technology, Dr. Chen also reviewed the patient’s labs, X-rays, and EKGs before proceeding to perform a physical exam. I had learned many of the exam maneuvers in medical school, but Dr. Chen also asked the man to stick out his tongue. It was purple with a greasy-looking coat. “TCM blood stasis syndrome,” Dr. Chen noted aloud while preparing to write the prescription. In addition to the standard regimen of Western drugs for heart disease, Dr. Chen also scribbled down 15 Chinese herbs. “Treating external symptoms is not enough,” Dr. Chen said. “These herbs are to help restore the patient’s body to its original state so that he can heal internally.”
By the end of the summer, I concluded that TCM and Western medicine were indeed very different, but nevertheless compatible. Philosophy and science aside, the two medicinal systems appeared to treat patients from different angles. For example, TCM herbal formulas often work to tonify the weakened systems of the body, allowing a patient to recover from the inside out. Western drugs, however, can be described as external interventions, relieving symptoms and curing diseases from the outside in. Given that TCM has thousands of years of therapeutic success and Western medicine has withstood the tests of rigorous science, it is clear that both systems are effective. But as Master Xu had warned me, I could not fully appreciate one without knowing how the other differed, and I could not fully understand the meaning of “healing” without seeing how the two contrasting systems formed a coherent whole. It was a truly beautiful manifestation of yin and yang!
I am deeply indebted to Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute for funding my experience in Beijing this past summer. With all that I have witnessed and learned, I now return to my medical training at the College of Physicians and Surgeons with a broader understanding of what Western medicine is. Although this may seem to be a trivial discovery, my experience will forever influence the way that I work with patients. I see clearly now the difference between resolving an illness and healing a patient, and that medicine is humanistic, not disease-oriented. Finally, my summer experience also helped me confirm my interest in East-West integrative medicine, and I anticipate conducting further research in this exciting new area and incorporating integrative medicine into my future career.
For more information on the Weatherhead MA Training Grant fellowship, please contact Kim Palumbarit at email@example.com.