Chapter 11 – The Herbal Solution

Brendan told me one day that people who start qigong later in life can benefit from an herbal jump-start to build up their depleted energies. He gave me the name of an elderly Chinese herb doctor in Seattle’s Chinatown district who’d helped him get his own energies going.

The man was indeed old, and his office was old, with stains on the carpet and dead plants on the windowsill. But he was kindly, and he had me fill out a health status questionnaire and put my wrists on a little red pillow, one after the other, while he took my pulse with a funny light-deep alternating pressure. I told him I needed more energy for my qigong practice and that I was recovering from a bout of gastritis. His English was fairly good, and in retrospect, the main obstacle to our communication was me.

I had thought visiting a Chinese herb doctor would be magic. He would take my pulse and he would know without my saying a word what was wrong with me. I wasn’t prepared to articulate what I wanted, and the slight language barrier made me feel even more tongue-tied.

The doctor said something about my stomach energy being cold—I had no idea what that meant—and said herbs for 10 days would cost me $80. He put my $20 bills in a drawer with other $20 bills, and I wondered why he wasn’t worried about being robbed. Then he had me sit in the waiting room while he weighed out the herbs on an apothecary scale.

He gave me five little brown paper sacks, each sack containing herbs for two-days-worth of tea, along with printed directions for making and drinking the tea. And he gave me a plastic bottle containing little brown pills.

The herbs were beautiful. They were not leafy and green, like the herbs you buy in the produce section of the supermarket. Rather they were dried and brown. There were slices and pieces of roots, stems and bark, plus some dried fruits and some small cubes of a very hard white substance. I thought if I were an artist, I would make a collage and title it “Barbara’s Cure.”

I made and drank five batches of tea over the next 10 days, and only once did I almost boil the herbs dry. The tea wasn’t yummy but it wasn’t bad either, just earthy and odd. I think Brendan was impressed that I didn’t grouse about drinking it.

But the pills gave me pause. I peeled off the label the doctor had put on the bottle and looked up the English words on the original label on the Internet. I couldn’t figure out why he’d given me pills for itching when I didn’t itch. Hmmm….. another mystery of Chinese medicine.

After 10 days my energy level seemed unchanged but my stomach was feeling better, so I went back a second time and got more sacks of herbs and some new pills. This time I realized that the pill bottles weren’t sealed, that the doctor was buying pills in bulk and then putting the proper quantity in empty bottles he had on hand.

I was still OK with the herbs. I’d shown them to Brendan, and he’d recognized most of them and thought they seemed reasonable. And they were, of course, beautiful, and I thought cooking them up was cool. But I was not OK with the pills. They were manufactured in China, and if the Chinese were putting melamine in formula for their own babies, what might they be putting in pills for export to America? I didn’t know what was in those pills, and I didn’t see how the doctor could know either.

I also began to wonder why, in the two hours I’d spent in his office, I’d seen only one other patient—and he wasn’t even Chinese.

I thought, “If I read in a newspaper about someone getting sick from taking Chinese herbs under circumstances like these, I’d think they were stupid.”

So I stopped taking the herbs and the pills, and I didn’t go back for the third visit the doctor had recommended.

I am still interested in Chinese herbs. I do believe that I could gently improve my health and energy by drinking an herb tea formulated for my unique physical condition, and I do now have the name of an English-speaking naturopath said to be very good with Chinese herbs. However, for the time being, I’m focusing on the other arm of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture.

And it’s funny how that happened—or perhaps it was just another instance of qigong-induced synchronicity.

I belong to Group Health, a Seattle-area HMO. I’d had the same wonderful primary care doc for years, but over those years, I retired, I moved—and traffic got a whole lot worse. I began to wish I had a doctor who was easier to get to—and who maybe could help me navigate the interface of eastern and western medicine.

In January, it snowed, and I stayed home for several days. We didn’t lose power, and I spent way too much time on my computer, doing things like searching Group Health’s web site for doctors with Chinese names. I ended up finding, instead, a doctor with a British-sounding name who was licensed to practice not only western medicine but also acupuncture, although he wasn’t practicing acupuncture at Group Health.

At our first visit, my new doctor recommended two books.

One was a lovely little book by Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein, “It’s Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness,” that probably influenced the format of this book. The other was a book on acupuncture, Dianne Connelly’s “Traditional Acupuncture: The Law of the Five Elements.”

I fell in love with the acupuncture book. I thought it was one of the most beautifully written books I had ever read and found equally beautiful the philosophy it embodied, that each person is a unique and valuable individual, and that every health issue needs to be viewed in terms of the totality of who that person is.

Five-Element acupuncture is less common than the style of acupuncture usually associated with Traditional Chinese Medicine, so I e-mailed my new doctor to ask if he knew anyone who was practicing it in this area. He gave me the name of the Wu Hsing Tao School in Seattle, and I put cooking herbs on the back burner.

Table of Contents | Continue to Chapter 12

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