The U.S. health care system is in crisis, with Americans at the bottom of 18 developed countries in health rankings. Unless we start conversations about the health and well-being of our country, we will never find a solution. That’s the goal of the column “ Health Talk of America.”
Family Tradition of Chinese Medicine
I was born in Hefei, the capital city of China’s Anhui province, into a family tradition of Chinese medicine.
It is said that one of my ancestors was the personal physician to an emperor in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). When he retired, the emperor wrote him an inscription on a plaque to hang above the entrance of his home, and any official who was passing by had to get off his horse cart and bow to it.
I was told that my great-grandfather died while helping people during an infectious disease epidemic. He was known as “Kind Tao” because he helped save many lives among the poor. Tao is my original family name. My father changed his last name to Yang—my grandmother’s maiden name—for safety reasons during World War II.
As the youngest of eight children, I thought I didn’t have to worry about becoming a doctor of Chinese medicine, a daunting job to the mind of a little boy. It’s customary to teach this art and science to your firstborn male child, as he is the one who carries the family lineage.
But I was raised during the Cultural Revolution and all high school graduates were sent to the countryside, often far away from home, to be re-educated by farmers.
My father was concerned that I’d never survive the harsh conditions on the farms if I were sent there. So he prepared me to become what was called a barefoot doctor: a practitioner who tended to the illnesses of the workers in the flooded wheat paddies of southern China, with nothing more than a box of needles and some basic herbs.
He thought I might at least be fed enough to get by if I was useful to the farmers in this way. So at the age of 13, I began my training by reading volumes of Chinese medical textbooks.
Most of these original source books were written in the ancient Chinese language. I also began to practice how to locate acupuncture points, and how to insert and manipulate needles into paper and on myself.
Although I was never sent to the farms, that early education became the foundation of my nearly four-decade-long study and practice of classical Chinese medicine.
Encountering Western Medicine
In 1979, I was admitted to one of China’s top modern medical schools—the Fourth Military Medical University in Xi’an City, Shaanxi. Breaking with our family tradition, my brother chose to become an electronic engineer and I, a medical doctor.
My father believed that Chinese medicine was best taught at home. My study of Western medicine was useful, as his patients were treated by medications as well. He was often critical of these treatments, however. He observed the severe side effects of psychotropic medications, and described the treatment as “shooting a squirrel with a cannon.”
It was confusing to me at times to study two medical systems that seemed to be so different. I remember debating with my father after studying modern medicine. For example, I learned in medical school that bone marrow—and not the kidney, as he taught me—is what produces blood cells. And hypertension (high blood pressure) and mood disorders belong to two medical disciplines with little connection, but my father insisted that both conditions have something to do with the liver.
Study of Neurology and Psychiatry
I specialized in neurology and psychiatry because I was especially intrigued by the way the mind-body connection affects an individual’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.
It was a fascination that developed as a child watching my father care for some of his psychiatric patients. Later, I found myself reading many extracurricular books on neuroscience and modern psychology.
Five years later, I became the youngest physician of neurology at the teaching hospital of the Fourth Military Medical University. I worked in outpatient, inpatient, and intensive-care services in rotation. The hardest part of the job was to see a patient die, despite doing everything we could—too late. I realized then that the medicine I practiced was mostly about masking symptoms and managing crises, and not addressing the root causes of illness.
I managed to break away from neurology briefly to study clinical psychiatry at the World Health Organization’s Collaborative Mental Health Center in Shanghai. I enjoyed reading recent books and journals from the West. I also completed a research fellowship at Oxford University in London.
Merging of 2 Medicines
I left China in 1996, as I found myself mostly working as a clinical neurologist with minimal teaching and consultation in psychiatry after returning from Oxford. I love neurology, but I love psychiatry more. To me, neurology is a holistic system for the body, and psychiatry is a holistic system of the entire person.
While preparing for the exams to get a U.S. medical license, I found myself teaching acupuncture and Chinese medicine in a master’s degree program in St. Paul, Minnesota.
I never imagined I would be teaching Chinese medicine in English to Westerners. For almost three years, I was constantly challenged to make sense of what I was teaching in both Eastern and Western medicine.
I began to realize that I wasn’t teaching two medicines, but one medicine in different dimensions. Modern medicine is mostly a medicine for body structure and biochemistry, while Chinese medicine is medicine for human bioenergy (known as Qi, pronounced as Chi). The parallels became more and more obvious.
I could now tell my father that he was right about the debates we had. It is the kidney that secretes a hormone called erythropoietin, which stimulates the bone marrow to produce blood cells. And yes, both hypertension and mood disorders have a dysfunction that involves the same neurotransmitter, known as serotonin, which is chiefly metabolized by the liver.
I chose Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia for my resident training because the department of psychiatry has a program of alternative and complementary medicine led by Dr. Daniel Monti, who introduced me to the practice of integrative medicine. Later, I completed a two-year fellowship of integrative medicine at the University of Arizona, led by Dr. Andrew Weil.
Integrative medicine in the West frequently means borrowing from the best practices of different cultures and medical traditions. From my perspective, this term really means assessing and caring for a person at the structural, biochemical, and energetic levels of his or her existence, while utilizing all the best tools we have to fully meet the patient’s needs.
As a result, integrative medicine helps improve one’s life in every way, and all at the same time. It would be great if, in the near future, all medicine was integrative and we no longer needed to use the term “integrative medicine.” It’s what all good medicine should be and every department of medicine in the world should practice.
Health Talk of America
I believe it takes three kinds of doctors to keep people healthy: doctors who alleviate suffering and manage crises, doctors who treat the whole person and prevent illness, and doctors who make public policies that promote health and peace.
If you fall into any of these categories, I invite you to join the conversation and share your wisdom. If you are reading this column, I hope you return and continually find it informative and empowering.
Jingduan Yang, MD, is a neurologist, psychiatrist, and an expert in acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and integrative medicine. He founded Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine, Tao Clinic of Acupuncture, and American Institute of Clinical Acupuncture. Dr. Yang co-authored two books: “Facing East: Ancient Health and Beauty Secrets for the Modern Age” and “Clinical Acupuncture and Ancient Chinese Medicine.”