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Covid and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)

In the mid 1970s, Karen and I attended a series of seminars on "oriental medicine" offered in Boston by Michio Kushi. I was soon to go off to medical school and Karen to study acupuncture with Dr JR Worsley in England. I have a deep gratitude for this early foundational set of sensibilities I internalized as I embarked on a career primarily of practicing western medicine. Now there are at least two generations of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of westerners who have studied, refined, and added to the broad discipline we can call traditional chinese medicine.

In the current situation in which the world finds itself, we should not ignore the experience in China with widely using TCM to treat, mitigate, and perhaps prevent the spread of Covid-19. My daughter Emma who carries forward the proud tradition, sent me a two hour youtube webinar, of the brilliant Dr John Chen, ("Corona Virus Treatment with TCM in China") posted last week, on this vitally important material. While fairly technical and intended for practitioners, its message is essential for everyone.

It's not just about how herbs can be helpful, perhaps even life-saving, but also about the essential differences between modern western and traditional eastern approaches. Dick Grossman, one of the early voices encouraging an opening to eastern approaches to healthcare, was fond of saying: "not either/or but both". This is so apt. We need the hazmat suits, ventilators, organ support in ICU settings, we need social distancing, a hiatus of life as we know it, wise leaders, sacrifice and giving, mutual support. But there is also a way of thinking about health and disease that healers who had no modern tools used that can help us now.

The opening of Ted Kaptchuk's seminal work, introducing many westerners to TCM, The Web That Has No Weaver (1983), describes several patients with a western diagnosis of peptic ulcer, The TCM approach discovers in each patient, a unique pattern of "peptic ulcer", each of whom are approached differently, both diagnostically and therapeutically. Thus TCM is rooted in an effort to understand the patient holistically. Western remedies revolve around the ulcer, healing it, strategies designed to prevent it's recurrence, but usually do not deal with the core imbalances in lifestyle, which include stressors, diet, constitution and so on.

Dr John Shen, a Chinese master teacher and practitioner of TCM, (1916-1998), talked about the western approach to viruses when he came to the U.S. in 1971. He was impressed that some patients were admitted to the hospital because there they would be able to rest, but still did not feel that western medicine took the toll that viruses could ravage seriously enough. He talked about imbalanced living. He talked about the need for deep and sometimes prolonged rest, a very foreign concept for most of us. He was a master diagnostician, using pulse diagnosis, and the kind of inspection, listening and intuiting that made the patient feel sort of deeply scrutinized but also deeply cared for. The herbs he prescribed were carefully prepared in a custom fashion, herbs designed to fight viruses, to tonify weak hearts, or kidneys or constitutions, to remove damp heat, or prevent an early wind from invading deeper levels of the body. In all good TCM 101 courses, on day 1, the student learns the order of healing using tools available to us. Rooted in Taoism, TCM is considered way-of-life medicine. This means that every aspect of how we live contributes to our condition. Spiritual/psycho/emotional healing is at the highest level, followed by food/herbs/lifestyle, then acupuncture and other body energetic approaches, with surgery as a last resort. Where modern allopathic medicine fits into such a hierarchical scheme is a judgment call!!

All that being said, Dr Chen points out that the PRC, facing a devastating pandemic, could not consider the nuances of an infected patient's condition, and needed to come up with a rapid and effective response. So knowledge of the specific anti-viral properties of herbs, which have been studied using western science for many years at this point, were applied to come up with formulas, many of them traditional, to use both as treatment and as preventives. Their experience with SARS-CoVid 1 in 2003 has been applied to the current situation and we will learn more from China in the coming weeks and months. However, there is already ample evidence that herbs, when prescribed by knowledgeable practitioners, ensuring high quality and proper dosing are generally safe and can have potent anti-viral effects.

Other aspects of TCM, having to do with "way of life medicine" are also of tremendous importance going forward in how we approach the current urgencies.

So find a good practitioner, have a virtual visit, and blend her advice and treatment with everything else you are doing to stay or get well.

As Dick said, not either/or but both.

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