One of the most fascinating things about Asia for me was the traditional medicine. On my first full day in Taiwan my friend took me to a TCM doctor who felt the pulses in both my wrists for 1 minute and basically did an MRI-level reading of my body—the first words out of his mouth were literally (translated into English) “you broke your left ankle 10 years ago.” It made the hair stand up on my neck because I had a really bad basketball injury where my entire left foot almost broke off; I thought it was some trick. He went on to tell me that I had a lower back injury that was 5 years old and that my biggest problem was a bone in my middle back being out of place that was compressing a major nerve to my heart.
I had been having heart palpitations in the USA off and on for two years before that, had seen a heart specialist in Kentucky who charged $10,000 USD for 2 afternoons of testing (and subsequently told me that I had a healthy heart and could see nothing wrong), had even had a full-on panic attack thinking I was dying during one particularly bad day of palpitations. Seeing the heart doctor actually made it worse because it made me think I had something rare and undetectable. I had also been having tightness in my lower back (for a few years) after sleeping for 4-5 hours, which wasn’t painful but was uncomfortable and keeping me from getting a full night’s rest. The lack of sleep was affecting my emotional state, which was affecting my heart, which was stressing me out even more. It was a viscous cycle and I was a ragged mess.
To have this little man in Taiwan who never met me before and who didn’t even speak to me before feeling my pulses, so completely and thoroughly diagnose my problems, literally blew my mind. And not only did he do the diagnosis, but he fixed me! He did some Kung-Fu chiropractic on my neck and back and afterwards my entire body and face were flushed pink for about 2 days. I asked him through my translator “How on earth can you know those things?” to which he replied “I can feel the Qi flowing through your body. It was obviously stuck in those 3 places so I opened them for you. Maybe in your whole life you have never had your Qi fully open and flowing like this.”
I haven’t had an extended palpitation since, and to this day, when I see Dr. Mai, I want to kiss his feet. He saved my life. However, the lower back pain returned after a few weeks and continued to affect my sleep, so I found another renowned traditional doctor in my neighborhood (Dr. Mai was in a rural area about an hour’s drive outside of Taipei City and I did not have a vehicle at that time.) My new doctor, Dr. Chen, was an herbalist and acupuncturist. I went to Dr. Chen’s clinic every week, and besides me, she would see about 30-50 other people in one 6 hour period; some days she had clinics both in the morning and evening.
Dr. Chen would look at my tongue, feel my pulses, and take me into a back room where there were about 4 small beds separated by curtains. I would lie on the bed and she would stick small acupuncture needles into the back of my hands, along the bones of my forearms, along the outsides of my shin bones, and sometimes in my feet and/or my scalp. It didn’t hurt (per se) but when she stuck around my shins, there were always spots that would shoot a funny-bone sensation up and down my entire leg, almost making me kick. Dr. Chen would say “Ahh, electricity!” like this was a good thing.
I would lie there fully needled, shoulder to shoulder through the curtain with two moaning grandmas who were getting stinky, burning moxibustion treatments, listening to blaring Taiwanese pop music on the radio, absolutely terrified because my legs stuck out 2 feet past the end of the bed, and the nurses would constantly bump into me as they scurried around the small room. After 15 minutes of that, Dr. Chen would come around, take out the needles, and send me home with a week’s worth of bitter (vomit-tasting), powdered herbal medicine packets that I needed to drink down with water before every meal. It sounds like a nightmare but the night after her treatment I would sleep like a baby, and for the week I had the medicine I would have zero back pain while I slept. It was another miracle. That winter I slept 10, 12, sometimes even 14+ hours, as I made up for the time I had lost in the USA.
Dr. Chen would always say to me “Your pulse is too tight, like a guitar string. You are too stressed. You need to do something relaxing, like Tai-chi or meditation,” and I would tell her “Well, the medicine is working for my back; I would like to keep taking it.” She would say “Your back is not the problem; your stress is the problem,” but I was fixated. The same specific area had been bothering me for years and I remembered falling down the steps of my basement in Kentucky right on the problem area. It wasn’t until I was finally going back to Kentucky after my first full year away that it locked in for me. I asked Dr. Chen for a month’s supply of the medicine to take home and she said “Once you get back you will be in your familiar environment with your friends and family, and you won’t need the medicine anymore,” to which I replied “I would like to take it anyway.”
I came back to the USA, took the medicine for a week or two, went on a vacation to see my East Coast family, forgot to take it every day, and sure enough, I realized that two weeks had passed with no medicine and no pain. It was then and there that I finally accepted that my mental/emotional state could so specifically affect my physical health, which for some reason had been a huge mental block for me to get past. Self-health and self-healing are fundamental aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is actually not as much about medicine and doctors as it is about energy awareness, disposition, and lifestyle. This was a pivotal shift in my own health consciousness moving away from a primarily physical focus (nutrition and exercise) towards a more psychological focus (meditation and spirituality), which profoundly impacted my overall health. Since that summer, going on 7 years now (knock on wood), I have had no back pain or other chronic issues and have hardly even been sick.
Andrew Crenshaw lived in Taiwan for 7 years, studying traditional medicine, language, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Professionally, he has taught composition, TESOL and general-education English at National Taiwan University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Taipei University of the Arts, University of Louisville, Jefferson Community and Technical College, and Western Kentucky University. He is currently working for Jefferson County Public Schools in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.