Medicine: East and West

by Lorien E. Menhennett

In mid-September, I attended a lecture on traditional Chinese medicine at Dominican University. I wrote this essay as an extra credit assignment for my biology class, but thought I would share it here as well.

When I think of the field of medicine, I think of procedures, treatments, and methods based on years (sometimes decades, or more) of rigorous research and scientific inquiry. With a father in medicine and a mother in nursing, that’s simply how I grew up. But my parents – and my liberal arts education – also taught me to approach new information with an open mind.

At Tuesday night’s lecture on Traditional Chinese Medicine by visiting Fullbright scholar Chia-Feng Chang, that was sometimes a challenge for me. Not because I went in with a closed mind, but because the core beliefs and philosophies of Chinese medicine are, in some respects, simply so very different from those of Western medicine. That said, I did take away from the lecture that there is more than one way to conceive of “medicine.” And I believe that each tradition deserves respect, regardless of one’s personal beliefs.

As a pre-medicine student, my plan is to focus the next several years of my life on studying the “hard” sciences – introductory classes such as biology and chemistry, and upper-level courses such as anatomy and immunology. So I had to keep my jaw from dropping when Dr. Chang said, “Anatomy is not essential to Chinese medicine.” Rather, she went on to say, practitioners of Chinese medicine see the body as an integrated whole rather than an assortment of parts. My immediate reaction to that was that, “Well, don’t you need to understand the parts to understand how the whole works?” I had a hard time wrapping my brain around Dr. Chang’s perspective, at a very basic level.

Another component of Traditional Chinese Medicine that was difficult for me to understand is in the field of pediatrics. According to Dr. Chang, Traditional Chinese Medicine physicians would examine the three middle fingers of a baby or young child and make diagnoses based on characteristics observed only from those fingers.

I think I found these aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine difficult to comprehend because at its roots, Chinese Medicine is based not on scientific experimentation, but on the structural similarity of the human body to water, nature, and the heavens. In seeing these similarities, Chinese Medicine practitioners developed a theory that blood and Qi (energy) flow through a series of of  “circulation channels.” They then believe that all illness is due to congestion or blockage of Qi and blood. To cure an illness, the blockage must be relieved and flow and harmony restored to the body.

While the mystical aspects of Traditional Chinese Medicine do not appeal to me, they do to many people. And I personally know people who have benefitted from Chinese medical practices such as acupuncture and herbal remedies. So while I lean more toward Western medicine myself, I know it is not the only path. I respect the other paths; they are just not my own.

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