Saturday, November 10, 2012

Patients, #12: Acupuncture

     Last year, after the government raided my office and I could see how my future was going to be like a building at the epicenter of an earthquake--a crumbling heap of concrete, wainscoting, drywall, roofing, with sinks and kitchenware strewn about in the rubble...and with sub-personalities that sort of belonged to me, wandering aimlessly, like people lost in a catastrophe--at that time, I began to experience chest pain.
     Not only chest pain, but the presentiment of being unable to breathe.  When I lay down at night to read or sleep, my heart flopped below my sternum like a fish at the end of a line on the marred wooden deck of a boat, signaling extreme distress.  If I took a deep inspiration, I couldn't fill my lungs.  The pleura halted mid-breath, balloon-like, stiff, as though about to burst.
     I tried the usual things doctors do to avoid going to the doctor.
     Everyone knows doctors make terrible patients.  For one thing, we don't go to other doctors.  We think we know better.  We don't like subjecting ourselves to other people's judgments, which feel accusatory.  So, I stayed away from my medical colleagues, did Valsalva maneuvers and carotid massage to reset the patterned rhythm of my heart,  took propanolol and hawthorne berry extract, avoided caffeine, and tried to meditate.
     But whenever I meditated I could feel my heart tripping.  There was a character in there with a bad limp, taking a step, and dragging a leg, taking another step, and bump-bump-bumping along.  Focusing on my breathing--a standard technique for calming the mind--only brought to the foreground my inability to take in deep, restorative breaths.
     I did an EKG at the clinic one afternoon:  sure enough, every third beat was an odd one--the guy with the limp--and the other two were saying, "Come on, get it together, man!" in a rhythm the textbooks call trigeminy.
     I couldn't bear the thought of seeing a cardiologist.  He might want to do a cardiac catheterization, and I knew I wouldn't agree to that.  He'd tell me to wear monitors, or return for a thallium stress test, or try one or another prescription drugs and, like other "noncompliant" patients, I wouldn't do those things--I might not even show up for the next appointment.
     It's bad, being a doctor.  You think you can see through all the tricks of other doctors.  You don't really like what they do.  You don't believe in them, at least not for yourself--and believing is just about everything.
     So I called an acupuncturist I had visited fifteen years ago, a woman who had completed her training in China, who was from China, and whose English remained authentic in its choppiness.  I remember having had to fill in words for her, when she got stuck.  I remember that she told me stories about her life in China, about her father's political resistance, her grandmother's loving protection, and the horrors her family endured in the Great Leap Forward.  Someone who'd been through all that must be the real deal.
     She gave me an appointment right away and when I arrived, her office was serenely empty.  Here was a woman who knew how to manage her schedule.  There weren't patients piled on top of one another, she didn't run late, and she must really know how to say No.  (I, on the other hand, have always maintained a strict policy of Yes:  "Sure, come on in!  I'll see you.  We'll take care of you.  It's one minute to closing?  No matter--you're sick, I'll help.  Come one, come all!"  For this reason, my clinic waiting room has always been overflowing, and I run late, and have to say to everyone, "This isn't Walmart!  We don't promise instant-service-instant-cure!   But I will take you seriously").
     Therefore, the Chinese acupuncturist's office and clinical style were, for me, completely other.  Maybe that was Step One in my cure.  The acupuncturist herself was unwilling to "explain" her methods--which was Step Two.  And Step Three:  I submitted myself wholly into her care  I did what she said, I stuck out my tongue, I held out my wrists for her to check my pulses in nine positions.  I lay on the table in the dim lamplight, staring at diagrams of the human body with dots and lines running along pathways that didn't correspond  to anything western, to any model I understood, and I let her twirl sixteen horsehair-thin wires into places as far removed from my heart as my palms, ankles, head, and forearms until they smarted and sent currents of sparking energy in all directions.
     "That's the blocked energy pathways opening up," she said obscurely, "to let the chi circulate again."
     Sure enough, my heart started thrashing around in a way that was worse than before.
     "The problem is  not better, it's worse," I told her.
     "Don't worry," she said, unperturbed.  "Take some deep breath.  Tie to relax."
     She tinkered with the needles, stopping only when she saw me grimace, and left the room.  Then she returned every twenty minutes to tinker some more.  Between times, it was silent as a church.  I even heard the noise in my head settle into a pew, and bow down.
     I remained in treatment two hours.  After the needles came out, there was a round of suction cups on my back, followed by placement of tiny seeds on my ears, attached with sticky-tape.  She told me to press the eight seeds--hard, round, black products of the vaccaria plant, used in auricular therapy--four times a day for best results, and to leave them there for two weeks.
     The magic worked.  That night, my palpitations were ninety percent gone.  After two more treatments over the following weeks, they disappeared for good.  Moreover, I felt calmer, slept better, and was able to take the long view, scanning the rubble of my future and planning its clean-up.
     It was important for me to undergo treatment that would petition my inner healer to come forward.  Some people call this the placebo effect.  Whatever else acupuncture might do (and clinical studies have never confirmed that acupuncture works), my belief triggered a biological or chemical response to my condition, and led to resolution of my symptoms.
     So, last week when my heart ululations came back, I presumed once again that my system was "out of balance," and went back to my acupuncturist.  Her office was unchanged, a tranquil place with no other people, and she told me more stories, as though they were relevant--stories about her brother whose mental illness was caused by a bout of meningitis, and whose short, sad life forty years ago still brought her a portion of grief every day.  Perhaps she was getting as much out of my visits as I was getting from her, something that happens all the time for me, in my clinic.
     After the next two visits with her, and once my chi is moving freely, I will scan the horizon of my life and put together a plan for picking up debris, hanging more drywall, rebuilding the kitchen, starting something new.  As for the government and its agents, I'm going to send them to a shed out back, by the pond, where the alligator--who is getting hungry--lurks.

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