Thursday, October 18, 2007


"Feel OK?" Dr. F. asked. I did feel OK, but tried to remain as motionless as possible. I was bristling with acupuncture needles: feet, shins, knees, stomach (upper and lower), hands, ears, and a jaunty single right between my eyebrows.
He positioned a warming lamp over my feet and closed the door, leaving me alone in the darkened treatment room. Chinese music came from some distant part of the office, barely audible.

My first experiment with non-western medicine arose out of desperation. After several weeks of early morning hot flashes, I was almost demented from lack of a good night's rest. Already a little fogged by chemo, my brain wasn't up to handling sleep deprivation. The parking lot incident at the dentist's office was the final straw. As I walked toward my car, I was covered in confusion. A green Escort--that's it, all right. But what door was I supposed to unlock? I opened the nearest one and sat down. It was the front passenger seat. When I saw the steering wheel on the other side, I laughed. Still, it was unnerving.

Research indicates that acupuncture is mildly beneficial in reducing the severity of hot flashes. An acquaintance gave me the number of Dr. F, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. She said he had worked wonders with her husband's chronic sinusitis. I was willing to give anything--anything but Effexor--a try.

Dr. F, a slim man with silver hair, works out of a grim little second-floor office in Chinatown. The dented waiting room divider is decorated with a silk diploma banner from a Chinese college, and a calendar depicting cartoon zodiac animals dancing in some kind of frenzy. After I arrived, Dr. F started a medical history, and the briefest of examinations. He timed my pulse, and then asked to see my tongue. He scrutinized it pleasantly, and jotted some notes. He asked about my liver function, and recommended I get a blood test. "Chinese herbs maybe too strong now for your liver." At least, that's what I think he said. Dr. F has a pronounced accent. It took a while for me to understand his question about my "white blood cell" count, which I gamely tried to repeat back to him. Wide brood sole? Wait blue sew?

After he had taken my history, Dr. F led me back to the treatment room, past metal shelves stacked with bins of wonderful-smelling herbs. After sterilizing the entry sites, he began to insert the needles, which looked nearly as fine as human hair. I glanced down and saw him deftly poking one into the meat below my thumb. It was absolutely painless. Four needles, the ones on my abdomen and knees, were attached to electrodes. Dr. F adjusted the current until I felt a tiny jumping sensation at each point. The whole thing took about half an hour. Afterwards, I felt mildly invigorated. Perhaps a placebo effect, but a nice one.

After I left Dr. F's office, I went to a nearby bakery and bought a "dry pork bun," expecting it to be filled with barbecued pork. I was suddenly famished, and my mouth watered as I bit into it. I discovered that its primary ingredient was mayonnaise. I ate it, anyway.

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