U student integrates Eastern and Western medicine

Having needles stuck in his face, hands and head doesn’t scare Orion Wells, though the needles may be bigger than ones used for sewing.

“I had a cold. As an experiment, I decided to try acupuncture as a traditional Chinese treatment. But, oh yeah, it hurt. I felt pain,” said Wells, 25, a pre-med student who traveled to China this past summer with the U’s Envision Institute to study the integration of Western medicine with traditional Chinese medicine.

Wells, who admits he was skeptical of Eastern medical practices at the beginning of his trip, says he gained valuable perspective from his time in China.

“I was able to work with some of China’s most distinguished Eastern medical professionals, such as those who work at the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine,” Wells said. “I was able to enter previously closed doors and get a more global view of the world of medicine.”

Although a majority of the Chinese population has embraced Western medicine practices, traditional Chinese methods of curing illnesses are still widely popular.

“You would run into a situation of two pharmacies-a pharmacy filled with traditional Chinese medicinal supplies, mainly all-natural herbs and plants, and another pharmacy with synthetic Western medicines. I’d see the line outside of the traditional pharmacy going out the door. The guy in the Western pharmacy looked like he’d been alone all day,” Wells said.

Disseminating schools of thought

Understanding the differences between Eastern and Western medicine is complex, according to Wells, and both approaches to curing illnesses have their advantages.

Living with Chinese farmers in the rural countryside, Wells saw the practice of traditional Chinese medicine in action, since Western medicine is not as heavily used outside of China’s metropolitan areas.

Wells explained that traditional medicine involves teas, herbs, plants, massage, chiropractics, acupuncture and other natural methods of healing.

“You’d see them selling everything from dried centipede to dried seahorse…They have an herb for everything. It’s not about using synthetic, or chemically engineered, medication. In a traditional Chinese pharmacy, you’ll see bins and bins of dried plants and herbs with which you make tea,” Wells said.

Making tea out of herbs was one method Wells decided to try in order to cure a cold he had while in China, but he had to forget the western idea of having a “quick fix.”

“In the west, we expect our ailments to be cured within a few hours or a few days. We pop a Sudafed, and expect quick results,” he said. In eastern medicine, Wells reiterated that it’s expected that it will take time for the sickness to pass. His cold was to be treated with a three-day herbal remedy that required using up big bags of herbs boiled into tea three to four times a day. What’s more is this, said Wells: Traditional Chinese medicine users don’t use pills. They are more inclined to use hot drinks to cure a cold.

First-hand experience

Did Chinese methods cure his cold?

“I went through acupuncture, drinking hot drinks and massages. They sought to cure the whole picture-not just my symptoms. My congestion was relieved after some time. I think the methods made a difference,” Wells said.

Whether or not it was his cold which simply passed over time or the student was cured by the Chinese herbal teas, Wells believes a “placebo effect” plays an important role in curing a sickness, in both Western and Eastern medicine.

“If a doctor gives a patient a treatment or a drug and says ‘this will work,’ the likelihood of healing is much greater than if they say ‘Do this. It may work, so give it a try.’ If people don’t believe something will cure them, chances are it won’t,” Wells said.

Wells added he likes the holistic approach that Eastern medicine incorporates.

“It’s all based on the idea of chi, of having a balance between the different forces of the body and nature. It’s about the balance of the ying and yang-a balance between fire, water, earth, wind and wood. Western medicine is very symptom-oriented. If your stomach hurts, you’ll take medicine to make it go away quickly. But in Eastern medicine, they’ll take time to try and see what natural element is out of balance,” Wells said.

The sum of the experience

Wells added that he still believes more strongly in Western medicine than in Eastern medicine, but does not discredit the eastern philosophy completely. “It is so interesting because it has been around for 3,000 years. It obviously has to have something to it,” Wells said.

But he admitted that “something to it” was still hard to see at times during his studies in China. “I saw them doing a process called moxibustion where they put suction cups all over someone’s back… I didn’t see the practicality, but they told me it works by bringing bad toxins to the surface,” Wells said.

Traditional Chinese medicines are less expensive than western medicines, according to Wells. Also it’s more popular among China’s poor, and so won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Wells’ experience in China was a big step in his education, said John Hines, Executive Director of Envision Institute, the organization that sponsored the trip to China.

“As students progress in their studies, it becomes increasingly important to gain a full perspective on how medicine is practiced in the United States and abroad,” Hines said.

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