Friday, April 11, 2008

Chinese medicine, by prescription

Initially, it was supposed to be for a concoction to treat asthma the Chinese way, and I was just going along with a friend who was more knowledgable and eager about the plan than I was. But according to the TC doc, you can't treat specific diseases in Chinese medicine. You have to treat the whole system. It's a matter of qi. I was roped in and, it just so happens, my qi that day was 19 plant products and a scorpion low.

I've actually finished taking that first prescription, so today I went back along with three friends to get my prescription adjusted to my new health state. Here's how seeing a Chinese doctor works, at least in this case.

The doctor's office, on the corner of a busy intersection, is straight inside. The door remains open, covered only by the plastic fringes so common here, as long as the weather is decent. There's a partial partition which shields it from the rest of the area, but it's not a room to itself.

The whole consultation, besides a brief glance at the tongue, consists of sitting across a desk from the doctor as he 'listens' to your wrists. He puts three fingers along the right wrist first, applying light pressure in different combinations for a couple of minutes. During this, he was explaining what the points are, how they apply to different body parts and circulation pathways, but it was tough to follow. In any case, according to my friends, he was astonishingly right. You have a weak stomach, he'd say. Do you have a pain in your lower back, or perhaps related to your kidneys? Some of it I think could be easily guessed by chance, and I'm a skeptic. But, some of it was remarkable.

The left wrist follows, in the same way, with the tongue glanced worked in along the way.

The doctor never asked for symptoms, only asked for details or clarification once he came up with them himself. Since none of us are actually that sick, and coming for general health instead, I don't know what treatment for very acute issues would be like.

Next, the prescription is thought over as it is written out:
My prescription, as illegible as doctors back home, so far as I can tell.
This is then taken to the cashier, in the other, larger room of the establishment, who calculates how much is owed. The consultation with the doctor costs 5 yuan (70 cents), and the medicine preparation (including putting the product into individual packets) costs the same. The rest is the cost of the materials, which varies, in our experience between 75 and 150 yuan ($11-21). So it's sort of expensive, but it's a lot of herbs. I can't imagine what it would go for back home.

The prescription is passed to other employees, who seem extremely knowledgable. They gather the various herbs from a set of drawers behind the main counter in the room, weighing by sliding a marked metal rod until it balances at the length representing the weight desired. These are piled neatly along reusable sheets of pastic-y paper as you chat with the gatherer and try to figure out what's what and what it's for.

There are roots, seeds, berries, leaves and if you're lucky, a bit of scorpion or seahorse. None of us got the seahorse, but we did have a look at it up close, upon request:

I had scorpion in my first concoction, though I didn't realize what it was until I got back and looked up the character. It's sort of a funny story. When the doc was writing the presctiption I had asked if they were all plants, and he had chuckled and said almost but not all, for I had 'xie' in mine. Now, I know the word 'xie,' and it means crab. So I put my hands up like pincers to confirm I had the meaning right and he nodded happily. When they put a pile of it on my sheet, it wasn't really identifiable as anything, most of it was powdered or at least crumbly, though you could make out small pieces that looked very faintly spiky or shell-like. After looking up the character, I learned my mistake - crab is 'xie' pronounced with a fourth tone, starting high-pitched and sharply going done, while scorpion is 'xie' pronounced with first tone, at a very even, relatvely high pitch (oh, and second tone can mean shoe and third tone write, by the way).

But back to the pharmacy. Once the ingredients have been double-checked, they're bagged up in a black plastic sack and you're given a ticket, sort of like a coat check, which matches the ticket attached to your bag of goods. Coming back in a few hours, the piles will have been processed by this machine, which whistles and whirs and looks like cinnamon toast crunch should pop out:

But out comes a brown liquid that is distributed and sealed into 15 packets, to be drank hot three times a day for five days half an hour after meals.

Does it work?? After my first treatment phase, I'm still not sure. I feel fine - good, even, and perhaps with extra energy. It's hard to say, just yet. I'm thinking I'll go once more, a 15 day cure for my qi.


mj said...

great photos! sounds so interesting. i would love to go and get my "qi" checked out. is that even the proper use of that word?! the scorpion part really caught my eye i guess mostly because i'm a scorpio. are there any other non-herbs aside from the seahorse and scorpion?

icety said...

Oh, man, Eastern medicine. A pretty elaborate fraud, although it's hard to say that when it's so deeply rooted in the culture. Who are those girls in the pictures?

Anonymous said...

I believe detective McLaughlin would find something illegal in all that herbage