An Unforgettable Educational and Cultural Experience: East West Students in China

Written by
Michael Tierra with a view of the Huangshan mountain range.

The East West Herb Course and TCMZone organized a special training for our advanced and graduate East West Course students to receive advanced clinical training at Shanghai University of Traditional Medicine (SHUTCM). Based on the enthusiastic and grateful responses to all of us during and after the trip, everyone felt that this experience provided a quantum leap in their education and understanding of herbal healing especially from the TCM perspective, which is a core part of the curriculum of our course.

With a relationship dating back to 2008, herbal medicine supplier and continuing education provider TCMZone, LLC, has been collaborating with Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine to create a specialized clinical training. Along with Lesley and myself, TCMZone collaborated with Longhua hospital and Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine to design the ideal advanced training program for our advanced students and graduates.

"The gang of seven"

The program allowed for maximum of preferences and individual flexibility. Some of us (“the gang of seven,” consisting of me and Lesley, Susan Kramer and her 87-years-young mother, Madeline, East West graduates and instructors Joshua Farahnik and Holly Hutton, along with her husband Paul Claeyssens, an archaeologist) were able to extend their trip for additional sightseeing a week before and after the scheduled tour and training. Kristi Shapla, also a graduate and instructor explored other parts of China with her husband, Roman.

The actual TCMZone scheduled tour began with two days of sightseeing trips in Beijing, followed by a nine-day Shanghai training with clinical rounds in the morning and special lectures in the afternoon. During the clinical rounds, students were divided into four- or five-person groups led by interpreters and following a senior doctor to observe clinical treatment with Chinese herbal medicine in different inpatient/outpatient departments. Lectures on advanced herbal medicine, on topics such as autoimmune diseases, rheumatology, gastroenterology, gynecology, cardiovascular diseases, Shen or neurological disorders, and oncology were scheduled each afternoon. These were taught by senior doctors and professors.  Combined with observing the professors in in- and out-patient settings (the latter seeing on average 30 to 50 patients each morning at the hospital), this made for a memorable and profoundly enrichening experience.

What was immediately apparent was that only in China is traditional medicine and modern Western medicine so completely integrated. Each of the doctors and professors we saw had degrees in both fields.

This is something I had heard but seeing and experiencing both systems being used virtually side by side is a completely different thing. As with any change, there are both positive and negatives but in this case, since both approaches have so much to offer, it is mostly a positive for health care.

The fact is that in China today the most successful TCM doctors have a dual degree in traditional as well as Western medicine. Those who are critical of such a merger feel that the wholistic body-mind-spirit aspect of TCM has been edited so that it had already become “Maoist Communist Traditional Chinese Medicine” because it veered to a more ‘sanitized’ approach without its deep rooted spiritual underpinnings.

Undoubtedly this is true to an extent but most fail to recognize how individual spiritual beliefs that accumulate around a core of pragmatic truth can eventually cloud that essential universal truth which is the source of its power.

Even in the West today, we see how people tend to make up for their deficiencies of skill and understanding by resorting quasi, unprovable methods such as flower essence therapy, kinesiology, aroma therapy and other methods that are more properly the domain of shamanism than a reliable mainstream system of healing.     

TCM views the emotions as an expression of body-mind rooted in organic imbalances which at least in theory, can be treated with herbs, acupuncture and other physiological methods. So if a particular emotional imbalance presents itself in a consultation, herbs are added to the formula to balance the corresponding organ imbalance, such as herbs for the liver when there are symptoms of anger and depression, herbs for the Heart when there are psychotic and delusional symptoms, for the Kidney-adrenals when there are pronounced symptoms of fear and paranoia – and so forth.

As a whole, the TCM department alone sees about 8,000 patients a week.

As we observed new patients in an outpatient setting, it took only 10 to 15 minutes, especially on a follow up consultation for a TCM doctor to assess the patient and send down via computer his or her formula to the huge herbal pharmacy on the ground floor. This could result in a patient receiving a shopping cart full of his or hers individually packaged herbal formula when the herbs we intended to be brewed as a tea – or perhaps they would be giving their formula as a granulated dried extract. Herbal pills and patents medicines were also available if the condition was milder or warranted that delivery system.

We did not see the tendency found among western herbalists and less experienced TCM practitioners for extended hour or longer intake sessions to delve too deeply into minute dietary, emotional or lifestyle considerations. Certainly the doctor might give suggestions and point out such changes but it was not something that either the doctor or the patient felt needed to occupy a lot of time. However, it was somewhat amusing to some of us to find that there was at least one specially designated space in the hospital called “emotions treatment room.”     

We were able to ask questions and observe pulses and tongues as well. Patient compliance was expected and reportedly excellent. After examining each patient either on a first-time or follow-up basis, the doctors entered the information on a computer and the formula was sent to the hospital pharmacy where it was put together as teas, concentrated granules, pills and even individually bagged prepared liquids. The patient then went to the large dispensary on the first floor of the hospital and we could see how some of them received large plastic bags with numerous individual bags of their formula. Unlike practice in the US, when acupuncture was prescribed it was usually three days a week with rounds of 12 or more treatments.

Because both western and traditional methods were combined (usually administered by different physicians), it did not mean that the more natural traditional methods were less favored. Younger people, who have less time due to work, generally sought quicker symptomatic relief from Western medicine. While there were many younger patients who visited the traditional doctors, the majority were older patients above the age of 55 (retirement age in China).

So many of contraindications we in the West have been taught, such as the combination of Blood-moving herbs such as dang shen (Salvia milthiorrhiza) for angina and cardiovascular disease with blood-thinning pharmaceuticals, was not a concern shared by our far more experienced colleagues. This would also be true for the use of immune-tonic herbs with autoimmune diseases.

In fact, as in the case of treating cancer and other serious and otherwise incurable diseases, natural methods such as herbal medicine and western therapies and pharmaceuticals were prescribed together. The strategy of traditional Chinese medicine oncologists was to relieve pain, side effects of Western interventionist therapies and most importantly prevent recurrence. The most common type of herbal formula prescribed by TCM oncologists was called “fu zheng” or “make normal” formulas. (By the way, Planetary Herbals carries a fu zheng-styled formula created by Roy Upton called “Reishi Mushroom Supreme.” As a cancer specialist, I prescribe this formula to every cancer patient to be continued throughout treatment and recovery for up to two years after one has been declared cancer-free.)

All our concerns about whether patients were getting good results were appeased as many of them in the various departments we visited (oncology, rheumatology, dermatology, respiratory, gynecology, gastrointestinal, trauma, mental and neurological) would return to us happily exclaiming how much benefit they were receiving from the herbal formulas they were given.

To describe all that we learned from our herbal study tour in China, would be too long. We are still assimilating and sorting through our notes and photographs.

Some have criticized the ‘disease’-oriented approach used in China as well as by prominent TCM proponents in the West such as Giovanni Maciocia as opposed to the strict pattern approach as not traditional. Both have their roots in tradition and both involve pattern differentiation which is the heart and soul of TCM. It is mostly a matter of orientation but if practiced properly, both will lead to a similar treatment approach; however, the disease approach has several advantages, including that it connects with modern scientific medicine.

Many thanks to TCMZone and its manager, Jennifer Knapp, and president Dr. Dan Wen, for making such a fabulous experience available to advanced and graduate students of the East West Course. While students and graduates from our school number into the thousands and among their number some of the most accomplished and leading herbalists in the country, it was particularly gratifying to see how the level of the 22 who were able to go on this ‘journey of a lifetime’ were able to attend courses in advanced herbal medicine and earn the respect of the extraordinary professors and mentors in China. For more photographs from the tour, see our Facebook page.

Upon completion, we each received a beautiful certificate in Advanced Herbal Training signed by Dr. Dan Wen and Professor Yan Xiao-Tian, Director of International Education College of SHUTCM who said,  "We are glad to see TCMZone's continuing education program has grown so successfully. The large group recently led by TCMZone from the USA represents a growing interest from practitioners for this kind of clinical training in TCM hospitals in China."

I know that there are hundreds of other students who might want to go to China to study. I heartily recommend it, as you will never see anything like that level of herbal practice anywhere in the US. Our school is organizing a similar tour next year, dates to be announced! It can be tailored to include not only herbal medicine, but acupuncture, body work, and Qi Gong. Space is always limited so if you have any intention to go on next year’s trip, be sure to contact Jennifer Knapp at TCMZone to get yourself on the list.   http://tcmzone.com 888-788-8086.

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