Saturday, January 12, 2013

Taking Your Pulse: A Scene in Tibetan Medicine Land

I am taking these pills called “gu-yu de-pak” that are supposed to cure my “drangwa.” My problem is, I don’t know what these pills are, I don’t even know when exactly I am supposed to take them, and I don’t really know what this “drangwa” is that the pills are supposed to cure. Welcome to Tibetan medicine land.

Now I am a fan. I think the Tibetan medical system is pretty freaking awesome. I like the idea that Tibetan medicine is focused on curing the patient and not just the illness. I think it’s amazing the way the doctors use their own bodies as a fine-tuned diagnostic instrument. I get a thrill every time I get my pulse checked (with their fingertips held tightly against my inner wrist—I am easily thrilled) although getting my pulse racing just then is not exactly guaranteed to give the best reading. And I like the way Tibetan pills are not supposed to have any side effects, although sometimes they don’t seem to have any main effects either.

I just think, ok so there was Yuthok Yonten Gonpo who wrote the Gyuzhi, the four treatises of medicine, in the, wait for it, 12th century and that is still the main text of Men-tsee-khang students today? Sure, that speaks to the excellence and vision of Yonten Gonpo’s work but doesn’t that also mean that in all that time no one else wrote anything better? And this was a system that knew how to detoxify mercury. Come on, people. You can do better.

Anyway, so the point is Tibetan medicine is pretty sophisticated, and especially good with chronic illnesses, and when we heard that an Amchi was coming to New York, my brother and I both went. The Amchi has a very good reputation, and he’s a “lamen”, physician to His Holiness. Although I have noticed that a lot of people seem to be His Holiness’s physician. If someone stays long enough at Men-tsee-khang, do they eventually get bumped up to the team of His Holiness’s physicians? That would be ridiculous right? This gig shouldn’t be an equal opportunity thing. It should be the best people, and not just the people who stuck around long enough. Not that I think it’s that. I am sure it’s not. Really.

Ok. So anyway, I was feeling in pretty good shape. Alright so my exercise consists of climbing up four flights of stairs to our apartment, but I don’t drink, do drugs or eat lard. On the other hand, I eat tons of Nongshim noodles (only circumstantial link between msg and cancer, you know, or so I tell myself) and didn’t really drink water for the first fourteen years of life. Overall, I feel generally fine. But my brother has a persistent sinus problem that’s been bugging him for the past, oh so many, years. And recently, in my sisterly fashion of taking up whatever bad habit he has and taking twice as long to get rid of it, my nose and throat had been clogging up too.

Morning? Afternoon? Evening?
So we both went. There was a pretty long line to see the Amchi. And this was the overflow crowd from that the scheduled consultations held over the previous days at Tibet House. Mostly palas and amalas but also a few young people, and a couple Injis as well. The consultations were held in the basement of Norling’s restaurant, which is walled up with mirrors all around so that although there was a Japanese screen stood up between the doctor’s corner of the room and the rest of us, I could easily look at the wall across and see both doctor and patient reflected. So much for doctor/patient confidentiality.
When it was our turn, the Amchi checked my brother’s pulse and said, “You have too much stress. You should sleep at a regular time and eat at a regular time.”

My brother said, “I get a lot of colds and my sinus is very bad.”

The Amchi replied, “Your auto-immune system is weak. If you are not careful, you’ll get a lot of allergies later on. And asthma and bronchitis. When you go to your doctor, you should do an endoscopy. X-rays won’t help.” I was very impressed that he knew which modern diagnostic tool would work best in this case, and ok, also that he knew what an endoscopy was.

Then the Amchi said, very quickly, “Starch is very bad, don’t eat potatoes. Don’t drink coffee. Don’t eat bananas and oranges, they are very bad for weak sinuses. Don’t eat salad or raw vegetables.” He also said a lot of other things not to eat but neither of us can remember what they were.

In some desperation, my brother asked, “But what do I eat?” Amchi la thought for one second and said, “Eat lamb, not pork.” Then he wrote out a prescription. The whole thing took five minutes. Maybe less.

My brother got up from his chair, looking a little stunned. He really likes bananas and oranges. Later I said, “At least he didn’t say you can’t drink Coke.” “I bet he forgot,” he said. Which is probably true.

Then it was my turn but an older Inji guy slipped into the patient’s chair before I could. Alright fine, I thought, but I’ll just stay right here and watch you. He got out a khata and laid it on the table, and the Amchi seemed really pleased. Please note that none of the Tibetan patients had brought a khata and if one had, they would have been laughed out of the room. Then the guy took out something from his bag, which turned out to be a jar of urine. Amchi la looked at it. Did he smell it? He must have but I can’t remember. Apparently the urine was fine.

When it was my turn, the Amchi said, fingertips on my wrist, “You are ok. Hmm maybe you have a chance of getting ‘drangwa’ later.”

I said, “What’s ‘drangwa’ ”? What did he even say? He muttered something to do with coldness, then he told me that I needed to stay warm, and to make sure that I didn’t get cold at night, but he didn’t really tell me what ‘drangwa’ actually was. He said later I might get back pain and I said, oh yes I already have that sometimes.

Tibetan doctors are good at telling you what symptoms you have (this is why people spoiled by Tibetan doctors look up and down at their MD and say, ‘why don’t YOU tell me where my pain is?’), but don’t we already know what symptoms we have? When they pronounce vague illnesses like ‘drangwa’ or ‘rlung’, which can mean a lot of different things (rlung especially is almost all encompassing!) it really isn’t very helpful at all.

He told me not to eat sweets. Of course. They always know what you like to have and tell you not to have it. My friend Sonam Wangdue (yes all star MC and comic) says, “Tibetan doctors do that on purpose. They like to be ‘ulta’. They tell the rich guy, don’t eat butter, don’t eat meat, don’t eat cheese, then they turn around and tell the poor guy who can’t afford them, lots of butter and meat for you!”

For all that, I am trusting that the pills will be good for me. They aren’t a lot. Just thirty pills and I remember the Amchi saying, take gu-something-something for fifteen days. I was so stuck on the name of the pills and the square gangster ring flashing on his finger that I forgot whether he said I was to take two every morning or to take one in the morning and one at night. Well I suppose there’s a fifty-fifty chance of either.