When a doctor tells you that you are ill, it grabs your attention. The doctor in the white coat had the wire-rimmed glasses of a scholar, the look of someone who doesn’t kid or joke. A distinguished looking man, fit and trim probably in his 60’s – someone that you look at and immediately see authority, experience, and scholarship. Very serious and stern, he announced loudly in Mandarin, a deep concern for my health. He had grabbed my hands, threw my palms up in the air and lunged for my belly. Grabbing my stomach, he announced that my “leeber” (according to the translator) was toxic. It was imminent , I was told I needed help and needed to be healed, STAT.
Underneath the white coat, however, was nothing more than a practice of “Chinese medicine.” A hoax, a fraud, and designed to extract about $300 from me to fix me using Kung Fu to rid my liver of toxins, then purchase a larger quantity of herbs to keep me from having an issue, help me lose weight, and open up the arteries going to my brain (which, if I bought this nonsense might be proof that they were closed).
I was hijacked to the Ancient Chinese Medicine Institute, not because I was looking or feeling ill. My day had been planned around a tour of the Great Wall of China. Once on the bus, the tour guide, Sally, told us that when we were finished with the Great Wall we were going for a free “foot massage” and lecture about “longevity” at the Institute.
During this attempted wallet extraction, my wife was having a hard time keeping a straight face. Her husband, a physician & surgeon, the ultimate skeptic, somehow got trapped into this, and she was waiting for me to begin an inquisition. Later she told me she was surprised I had kept my mouth shut with a respectful smile and lots of nodding.
There is something compelling about “ancient Chinese medicine,” especially when they tell you it has been around for 5000 years. It hasn’t of course, but the older something is, the more it appeals to the logical fallacy of antiquity. The “appeal to antiquity” is an argument that states if “it” has been around long enough it must have stood the test of time, and therefore be legitimate.
Still, it would be nice to believe someone could look at you and both tell you for certain you have something wrong with you, and fix you at the same time. As a surgeon I have to do this. The difference is, we operate based on science based medicine, and hope our principles are backed with good science, and not anecdotes. The field of medicine we ascribe to has been continually modified and challenged for years, and is set to continue to evolve.
But this part of China, this “Institute” has not evolved since Sun Simiao cataloged a number of herbs a few hundred years ago.
Back to the Great Wall of China – looking at the brochure for the tour there was nothing on it about this stop. For my wife, a free foot massage piqued her interest, although massage for me is about as enticing as tooth extraction (although a tooth extraction at least has some virtue). But we were “on the bus” in a foreign land, and were now held captive by the tour guide, Sally.
Earlier that week we visited a Daoist temple in Xi’an where the father of Chinese medicine, Sun Simiao, is enshrined. I thought this would be my extent of enduring a hoax of medical treatment, but alas, it was just a precursor of things to come. Simiao produced two textbooks, one of which, 1500 years later, is still used for study of medicine. This of course is unlike Western medicine, where our monthly journals change our idea of medicine. Imagine if our medicine stopped 1500 years ago, and all we knew about herbs was that if we didn’t extract the active ingredients, we didn’t get to the point where we could say “you need this much of the medicine, not more, not less” but instead had to rely on a text of someone from 1500 years ago.
We used to do that in the West. We relied on ancient manuscripts, and even made it criminal if someone were to challenge that. Today we challenge assumptions all the time. A medicine we think is a good one day, we discover a few years later isn’t. What if some of the herbs were not good, or were toxic at a higher level, or didn’t work at a lower level? No further work would be done, we would just grind up the plant, of course, you’d want to sell plants to Westerners that are from Tibet…after all, isn’t that where Shangri-la is located?
As the bus turned into the lot, Sally told us that this institute had been the private province of the Emperors of China, their staff, and only the highest ranking government officials. Then in 1949, with the liberation, the institute was opened to the public. Nothing like using an “appeal to authority” to attempt validation of a scam. Since authority figures used it (they probably didn’t) then it must have been good.
Entering the building, there are rows of apothecary drawers, as well as large mason jars filled with dried starfish, sea horses, and other creatures and plant parts. Next to them is a women dressed in a pink nurses outfit, complete with nurse’s cap. We are escorted past chairs that are roped off, as they are chairs where presidents and others sat during the Olympics. The wall is filled with pictures of world leaders meeting Chinese ambassadors, Mao, and others – I suspected to provide more “appeal to authority,” but I knew that Obama had not set foot in this place.
We were escorted into a classroom where rows of lazy-boy style chairs were set up with small stools in front of them. A young woman introduced herself and told us that we were going to get a massage and talk about medicine, but first we had to take our shoes and socks off and have our feet washed.
A group of young boys, all appearing no older than 18, came in, each bringing a bowl with plastic lining and water. We were warned the water was hot – and it was. Floating in the water was a large “teabag” filled with some herbs from Tibet. Apparently, herbs from Tibet are magic. The water was indeed hot, so hot none of us could immediately put our feet in the water.
She told us to slowly place our feet inside the bowls (not that any of us could do otherwise). She told us this was good for our circulation. My wife looked at me and asked, “Is this true?”
No dear, circulation is dependent on the arteries going to the feet. If arteries had blockages secondary to atherosclerosis, there would be a fixed rate of blood flow. You could not increase that flow by placing feet into hot water. However, with heat, the capillaries of the heated area expand to attempt to cool the feet, thus with healthy arteries there would be more flow, but that has no useful benefit whatsoever. Nerdy response, but accurate. Such a killjoy.
Finally the water cooled, enough to put our feet in – and after a long walk up and down the Great Wall, it felt good to relax in a chair and soak. Then the young men marched back in, behind them the young woman in the pink nurse’s outfit, carrying a credit card machine and some boxes that had pictures of herbs on them.
The young men proceeded to give a massage of the feet and legs. As they massaged the calf I wondered if they ever massaged a deep venous blood clot forcing it to break free, traveling to the lungs and causing death. Then I coughed… and in my mind I could see it now; the 7000 miles of travel had no doubt caused the clot which now broke free and my death would happen in the Chinese Medicine Institute, and my fellow surgeons and skeptics would just wonder what I was thinking.
My wife asked the young men if they were studying, and indeed they were in the curriculum for the next six months. My wife looked at me and said, “Wow, how many years did you study to be a doctor and surgeon, and these guys get to do it in six months?” The lady overheard her and corrected her, stating that to become a “traditional” Chinese medicine doctor was a five year curriculum. Still, four years of college, four years of medical school, five years of surgical residency – my wife’s point was well taken.
Then we were told we could have a free evaluation by the distinguished faculty of the institute. In came several “doctors” and she asked we applaud the “President” of the institute as he arrived (must be a sign of respect). She told us that the palms reveal everything about a person. “This is not palm reading,” she said, “that isn’t science.” Just loud enough for my wife to hear I said, “Yes, that has only 6,000 years behind it.” Two can play the appeal to antiquity argument.
She then proceeded to explain that if someone had problems of the liver the palm would be yellow – if they had “low blood” and red spots indicated, “too much blood, that leads to circulation problems.”
Jaundice could be manifested in the palms, but would be manifested through the entire skin, not just the palms. The whiteness of the palms may be a sign of anemia, but there are better signs, and too much blood is not the cause of atherosclerosis and circulatory problems. Some grain of truth, however, most scams have a grain of truth.
My wife raised her hand for the free “assessment.” The doctor in the white coat came over with his interpreter. Looking at my wife’s palms he asked if she had cold feet and hands sometimes, and then asked about her menstrual cycle. The doctor deduced that she has kidney problems, and of course, with the right kinds of herbs, not only will her menstrual cycles improve (they are, as she told them, like clockwork, regular and not an issue), but she would feel better immediately. He took out a prescription pad and began to write. My wife asked if the herbs were a tea form, or a pill. They brought her a box and showed her a sample of the pills. She said she didn’t want them- he kept his prescription.
I asked for an assessment. He immediately went from my palms to my belly, announcing that I had toxins in my liver. He asked if I had pain in the back of my neck – I said that I did, when I had a long day of surgery. The surgery part didn’t register. Through the interpreter he told me that the toxins in the liver were affecting the arteries to my brain, laying down clogs, and that is why the back of my neck hurt. Of course the main arteries to the brain, the carotid arteries are in the side of the neck, not the back, and where he was pointing to was below where the vertebral arteries went to the brain, but that wasn’t the point.
Whatever was I to do? He told me that he could fix me immediately. He would use Kung Fu to remove the toxins from my liver. “Kung Fu?” I asked. The interpreter said, “Yes, like Bruce Lee. The doctor will use his energy to remove the toxins from your liver, then you can take some herbs that will keep the liver free of toxins and help you lose weight.” And how much would this Kung Fu Panda inspired technique cost? Just over 4,000 RMB (a little over $300).
I declined, of course. Then looking over our group I saw the president of the institute using his Kung Fu on a lady by her forehead. It reminded me of Benny Hinn curing someone in his church. I almost expected the “doctor” to yell “Fresh” as his kung fu energy was zapping out the toxins from that woman’s brain.
Next to us was a man who was told his pulses were low. Using acupuncture, several needles were placed into his wrist, and as the needles were taken out, the doctor who spoke English very well, said, “See, already the circulation is better.”
There was more conversation with the fellow tourist’s wife and I heard the doctor say, “Oh, you don’t need surgery. That’s Western medicine, you need Chinese medicine.” He explained with herbs he could shrink her uterus to the size of a bean (since they don’t use x-rays, CAT Scans, ultrasounds, or even do autopsies on their patients I am not certain how he knows or could confirm this). Next thing we knew, she and her husband were off with the doctor for a “private consultation.”
The entire tour group was waiting for this couple to come back. It took them a good hour and when they came back they had a large grocery sack filled with herbs. This woman will make her way merrily back to the Philippines, secure in the knowledge that she will not need surgery for her uterus that has a benign tumor. Of course, I thought to myself, there is absolutely no liability if the Chinese doctor was wrong.
So here are a few facts when you hear things like “ancient Chinese medicine” and it being thousands of years old. It isn’t. The herbs they use were mostly described 1500 years ago. Since then science has taken herbs, plants, fish, trees, and other assorted products in nature – purified the active components, or tested and found out some were just not active. For example: Digitalis, a drug we use to use a lot for heart failure, can be found in about 20 different plants. The dose of digitalis is important – use too much and the person goes into heart block and dies, use to little and you have no effect. It is quite dose dependent – something you don’t want to rely on a plant alone, but want it purified and quantitated. Most recently from the Yew tree, Taxol was found– one of the first potent agents against Ovarian Cancer – again, scientists found the active ingredient in the bark (saving forests of Yew trees), purified it and it is also dose dependent. Eat too much Yew bark and you won’t cure ovarian cancer, you will die. Eat too little and it will just slowly poison you. When you talk to these “doctors” they will tell you they use the original writings from 1500 years ago — really? If a doctor quotes an article from a journal ten years ago, other than to show for historical purposes – they are considered not being up to date.
What about acupuncture? There has NEVER been a study showing that acupuncture has more than placebo effect. Meaning, when you compare acupuncture with random placed needles, or pressure, there is no difference. Hence, there is no Chi, or field that the needle person can do anything with. Did you hear about the story where someone didn’t need anesthesia, just surgery — all bogus, didn’t happen. And acupuncture is first seen about 2000 years ago, although much more used 150 years ago (the stuff from 2000 years ago is speculation, we have good data from 150 years ago). The Journal of Chinese Medicine says the earliest they have indication of it is 2000 years ago .
Using Kung Fu to take out poisons or toxins? Don’t know where this came from — since they were hijacking tour buses, they probably either were appealing to Westerners who watch Bruce Lee movies, or they had seen the “healing” done in evangelical churches.
As I was in the parking lot of the “institute” I quietly let out a loud flatus. My wife was horrified but I told her, “I’m passing toxins.” You are what you eat- and I was just fed a lot of what I just passed- pure and utter BS.
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.