In the summers of 2014 and 2015, I traveled to Amdo, Tibet with Dr. Nida Chenagtsang, founder of the International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, and a group of his students comprised of Sowa Rigpa practitioners, massage therapists, acupuncturists, Western doctors, and those simply interested in the art of Tibetan Medicine.
We volunteered at the Hospital of Traditional Tibetan and Mongolian Medicine in the town of Malho, once a small nomadic village that is quickly being transformed into a polluted modern Chinese city. It is a cultural crossroads where old and new worlds coexist: nomads live in tents in the surrounding hills following a lifestyle that has not changed much for hundreds of years, sustaining themselves from their lands and their yaks, with the added convenience of iPhones and cellular reception that is far superior to anywhere I have been in the West. In the center of town are newly paved roads and high-rise buildings where the Chinese live alongside the Tibetan-Mongolian nomads who have chosen to exchange the wealth they have earned from their land for the modern comforts of running water and central heating.
Inside the hospital all these worlds collide, and patients from various walks of life arrive every day to receive the free treatments we offer. As word of our arrival spreads, the number of patients increase exponentially, and I habituate myself to a level of chaos that would never be seen in a sterile Western clinic with its orderly schedule and rules. I also habituate myself to a presence of heart in a medical environment that is hard to come by in a Western atmosphere permeated by endless paperwork, waivers, digital charting, and the rest.
A typical day in the Tibetan hospital looks like this: We arrive at 9:00 AM, and crowds are already outside the door of the office where Dr. Nida will give consultations. Each patient is supposed to be carrying a registration paper with their name, age, and basic information recorded on it, but very few decide to pass through this minor administrative process. Instead, they go straight to the source: as soon as Dr. Nida arrives they push their way in with their friends, mothers, grandchildren, neighbors… Dr. Nida meets with them one by one, asks them basic questions, takes their pulse, looks at their tongue and sense organs, etc. The Western doctors in the group perform some additional tests, and Eastern and Western approaches are discussed and compared. A diagnosis is made and Tibetan herbal formulas are prescribed, after which they are sent into one of the external therapy rooms to receive bloodletting, Ku Nye massage, acupuncture, moxibustion, or cupping (or if the patients have it their way, ALL of the above). Some skip the doctor’s office and come straight to the therapy rooms; they have been here before and know the routine, so crowds also gather in front of the acupuncture room where I am working. Translation is available, but not always sufficient, and we get used to talking with gestures and simple questions such as ‘where pain?’. I found this mode of communication surprisingly satisfactory; much can be conveyed with few words. I spent my days doing what I can only describe as running an ‘acupuncture factory,’ treating more people in a single morning than most practitioners in the West would treat in a week. The work is not subtle, it is fast and rough, and my skills limited, but as the days go by and we ask with our broken Tibetan, ‘better?’, the response we get from the happy patients is a resounding ‘better!’.
During my first trip to Tibet, I was halfway through Chinese Medicine school in the United States. I had no hands-on experience, was extremely timid, and held a pretentious attitude about what ‘Classical Chinese Medicine’ was. Fascinated by the esotericism of Eastern medical traditions, I aspired to be able to look at a patient and understand their deepest energetic imbalances as well as the psychological tendencies that create pathology in the physical body. I was not in the least bit interested by Western Medicine, an opinion I had to quickly reevaluate as soon as I was faced with ‘real people’ with ‘real problems.’ One day in the hospital taught me that I needed to get confident, get practical, and that my primary job for the moment was to help alleviate pain. I had looked down upon acupuncture as a method for ‘pain relief’ because I know it is a modality capable of much greater things, but when I saw the level of pain that many of these patients experience and how deeply tied in it is to their quality of life, I reconsidered. Most nomads sleep on cold, wet floors in tents above 13,000 feet of elevation and work physically to sustain themselves in ways that we who have grown up in modern cities could not possibly imagine. Though many are suffering from deeper internal conditions, it is mostly their knee pain, their elbow pain, their rheumatism, and their sciatica that they beg me for help with. When that pain is ameliorated with some simple acupuncture and basic care, the gratitude they express is immense (one old lady giddily proclaimed, ‘thank you, thank you, finally I can squat down to pee again!’). When I returned one year later and saw the familiar faces of the patients I treated the summer before, I was told over and over again that the treatments had extremely long-lasting results — the acupuncture was more than just a quick, short-term fix. This was true not just for pain, but in cases of paralysis, epilepsy, migraines, and more.
I left the hospital with gifts of all sorts — fruits and socks, money stuffed in my pockets, dinner invitations at the patients’ homes… But more importantly, I left with greater confidence in this medicine and in myself, and with a strong aspiration to continue this kind of work and deepen my diagnostic and treatment skills in order to be able to offer more holistic care. Much gratitude to Dr. Nida, to the International Academy for Traditional Tibetan Medicine, and to Sorig Tours for providing this opportunity.