Medical Examiner

The Medical Tourist

Getting the Beijing treatment.

This article is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

I just found out that I’m fatally screwed up. Dr. Liu, the Traditional Chinese Medicine man I consult my first night in Beijing, has resolved any remaining doubts. “Your body is diseased,” he tells me. “It is in a very advanced stage of trouble.”

For a doctor who posts classifieds on the Internet—for any doctor, in fact—Dr. Liu has so far exhibited extraordinary diagnostic skills. After cursorily squinting at my tongue and taking my pulse, he has my whole medical history nailed.

He begins with my heart: “It is weak, and this is a problem.” He asks if I’ve ever had heart surgery and, amazed, I nod yes. At 15, I underwent three catheter ablations to correct a congenital defect in my heart’s electrical wiring. My annual EKG still shows traces of that abnormality, in little bumps where others’ lines are flat, but I never suspected that my pulse told the tale as well.

Dr. Liu swiftly proceeds to my digestion. “You suffer the sporadic computation, yes?” At my quizzical glance, he clarifies: “Blockage, sometimes, in the bathroom?”

Ah, yes, of course—what neurotic Jewish female doesn’t?

So goes our interview: Dr. Liu runs through a series of questions and greets my responses with growing dismay. “And what about ice cream?” he asks finally. “I think you like ice cream very, very much.”

When I again nod in wonderment, Dr. Liu sighs unhappily. “This is as I thought,” he says. “Very, very bad.”

“Hey, do you want to see my MRIs?” I blurt out, grabbing for the film I’ve schlepped 7,000 miles.

But Dr. Liu isn’t interested. “Pictures are for Western medicine,” he tells me. “In Chinese medicine, we do not need pictures.” And then, after a pause, he makes his final pronouncement: “Your entire body system is wrong.”

“Wrong? What do you mean, wrong?” In the weeks since my consultation with Dr. Liu, I’ve learned that it’s just about impossible to show your tongue to a Chinese doctor without being told that you’re fated to die within the year. But that first night, I still scared easily. This great genius, who had divined the innermost workings of my organism, thinks that not just my shoulder, but my “entire body system,” is flawed?

Herbal remedies on display at Tongretang, a famous Beijing dispensary open since 1669

Western medicine, Dr. Liu explains, treats symptoms one at a time as they arise; Chinese medicine treats the entire body system. The Chinese method is superior because, as long as the system itself is damaged, the symptoms will continue to accumulate, in a deceptive variety of forms. Take my own seemingly unrelated medical complaints: Every one is merely an offshoot of the fundamental trauma triggered by my heart condition. Luckily, to hear Dr. Liu tell it, restoring my body system is a cinch. I need only pay him 5,000 Yuan, or about $650, for a customized, monthlong cycle of herbs.

I’d been in China for only 30 hours at this point, but I already had some idea of what $650 could buy here: a shitload. So, while Dr. Liu’s domino theory makes some sense, I’m not about to blow such a large chunk of my travel budget on pulverized leopard bone and dehydrated rhubarb. “Just hypothetically, what if I don’t have that much money?” I ask him. “What are my other options?”

“Without herbs you will become even sicker,” Dr. Liu warns me. “You must act now, when you are young.”

Jet lag kicks in suddenly. I give Dr. Liu his consultation fee (not quite $650, but extortionate all the same) and assure him we’ll be in touch. Then, within seconds of showing him to the door, I fall asleep, one day closer to death.

Over the next week, I decide not to contact Dr. Liu after all. Not that I regret meeting him. In a way, he prepared me for the gloom-and-doom fatalism that is TCM. I no longer gasp when an acupuncturist frets over my too-rapid heartbeat or clogged digestion. Nor do I panic when I stick out my tongue and the man studying it frowns and murmurs, “Very bad, very bad.”

Outside the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital 

My real treatment begins the next morning, when I set off for the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital in the northeast corner of the city. It was there or Peking Union, the other reputable state-run hospital with a large foreign clientele; I chose the Sino-Japanese for its amusing name. I spend my first hour inside the complex of dingy white buildings stumbling past masked civilians, repeating “English? English?” to a succession of nurses. Eventually, I land in the office of Dr. Zhang, a tidy, soft-spoken doctor from Inner Mongolia who straight off agrees to help me, and at a far more palatable fee than Dr. Liu’s: $30 for eight treatments. Not quite $1.50, but it’ll do.

Dr. Zhang belongs to my favorite category of male authority figure: the easily disappointed. After sitting in traffic for an hour, I arrive late to my second session, and a mournful Dr. Zhang will not meet my eyes. The morning after the temperature outside drops from 70 to 50 degrees, he quietly admonishes me for not wearing long underwear: “Do you want to be healthy or not? It is your choice.”

I like, too, that Dr. Zhang gives me such explicit, comprehensive advice. He writes down the Chinese name of a special ridged pillow that will support my neck while I sleep. He cautions me against consuming too much “chocolate and sweety food” and commands me to spend five minutes stretching for every 30 minutes of typing. No improper exercise; I must eschew “all sports ending in -ball.” There is too much cold in my body, he says; it is necessary to generate more heat. To this end, he prescribes me an herbal remedy that dissolves in hot water and that smells distinctly of mulled wine and vomit.

Starting the day with acupuncture

And so my days fall into a pattern. Every morning at 8:00, I ride an overcrowded hospital elevator to a small room with three beds, where I am the only foreign patient. Next to me, a recovering stroke victim lies on his back with needles inserted in his cheeks. The bed closest to the window is occupied by an angry middle-aged woman who complains of night sweats and shouts into her cell phone for the duration of her treatments. I lie on my left side and twist out of the right arm of my shirt. (In two weeks of twice-daily treatments, I’ve only been asked to remove my shirt twice, both times for cupping, and only after lengthy apologetic stammering.) Once I am positioned with a pillow between my knees, Dr. Zhang’s assistant sets about puncturing me with needles. She doesn’t, like my acupuncturist in New York, limit herself to my neck and shoulder. She covers just about every exposed surface of my body: my hands, arms, lower spine, knees, ankles, toes, all “for extra stimulation.” Once I am plugged into the pulsing machine, a rotating assembly of international doctors and medical students—Brazilian, Australian, English, Russian, Italian—gathers around my bed while Dr. Zhang describes the nature of my affliction.

If this sounds creepy, trust me, it isn’t, or not to me. Short of miracle-surgery instant recovery, it’s pretty much my ultimate medical fantasy, actually: a full dozen medical professionals energetically debating my condition in four languages, competing to offer the best possible course of treatment. At home, I was grateful for five minutes of one doctor’s attention.

Two days after cupping, I undergo a “scraping” treatment to increase bodytemperature 

Post-acupuncture, Dr. Zhang places little trigger-point stickers inside my ear, in the places that correspond to the neck and shoulder meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which I am told to massage several times a day. I’m done at the Sino-Japanese by 10 a.m., leaving my afternoons free for sightseeing and shopping for pirated merchandise. I do not resume my therapy until the hour before dinner, when I undertake a serious tour of Beijing’s increasingly upscale massage parlors and spas. In the beginning, this aspect of the routine feels a bit Late Roman Empire, but I remind myself that healing is a full-time activity, or so says Dr. Zhang. And it’s not such a difficult habit to acquire, this going for a fully clothed massage every evening. I soon become something of a local expert. I learn to seek out the higher-end establishments, the ones with purple velour sofas and complimentary snack menus and fresh-squeezed pear juice and the soothing strains of Enya from above—all for about $12 an hour.

After two weeks, my time in Beijing is up. On the last morning of my trip, with only one massage to go before take-off, I sit in the backseat of an unmoving cab and for the first time venture to ask: Did my medical odyssey work?

Without a doubt, my shoulder feels better, but I’ve been fooled before. Better seldom lasts beyond the next deadline or plane trip. Though I vigorously denied it when bidding goodbye to the sensitive Dr. Zhang, I can still feel the flammable bundle of nerves in my shoulder, ready to clamp down at the slightest provocation. Then again, when I boarded the plane to Beijing two weeks ago, I wasn’t expecting to heal entirely, or not in a mere two weeks. If I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that the body can be an implacable tormenter, resistant to the most elaborate ruses.

It’s now three weeks since I left Beijing, and I already regret not pulling a Hans Castorp. I should have stayed longer—much longer, as long as it took to deflame. Instead, I am writing these words in the grips of pain, all the more agonizing for being so familiar. Has it loosened slightly, shifted closer to the surface? Yes, I think it has. It’s not the result I would have demanded a year ago, but with chronic pain comes patience. I will continue my rounds of steam room and physical therapy and yoga, and I will even continue to drink those nasty herbal brews, and who knows? Perhaps, one day, my shoulder will be repaired once and for all.