In 1992, my second child Russell was born with a defect of the spinal cord called spina bifida. The impact of this defect is usually quite severe, including crippling or paralysis and fluid on the brain. Fortunately, my son’s defect was unusually mild. When he was five weeks old, a team of super-human pediatric neurosurgeons corrected the “tethered cord” defect and he was given a clean bill of health.
Immediately following his surgery, I began to notice an odd array of symptoms unrelated to his birth defect or surgery. He suffered through an endless parade of chronic ear and sinus infections. He was ravenous all the time, and after each nursing, would become colicky and bloated. Some days he needed almost constant diaper changes due to steatorrhea (severe diarrhea). His hair and skin color changed almost daily, and his sweat was so salty that his skin became covered with little salt crystals after the sweat dried.
I complained about these symptoms to our doctors, family, friends, and anyone else who would listen. Understandably, everyone wanted to reassure me that our troubles were well behind us given his successful surgery. I wanted to believe that myself, but I knew that something was terribly wrong.
Russell weighed 9½ pounds as a newborn. By the time he was eight months old, our pediatrician was alarmed to discover that he had stopped growing. His 90th percentile ranking at birth had slowly eroded to below the 5th percentile for both height and weight. The doctor diagnosed him with “failure to thrive” and suspected that an inherited disease called cystic fibrosis was the cause. She instructed us to take him to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC, where he would be given a diagnostic “sweat test.” Late in the afternoon on the day of his test, the pediatrician called me to report that the test had confirmed her suspicions.
Cystic fibrosis (commonly called “CF”) is a progressive, incurable, fatal disease. Contrary to its reputation as a respiratory disease, CF is instead a full-body assault. The disease is caused by a cellular-level mutation that impacts the entire exocrine system—a system that includes every organ or gland in the body that manufactures and then secretes fluids through a duct to another part of the body. Thus, my son’s pancreas, stomach, liver, gall bladder, small intestine, sweat glands, salivary glands, testes, sinuses, and lungs were all impacted by the CF mutation.
There have been modest medical advances since my son was diagnosed but, at the time, life expectancy was 29 years. Despite western medicine’s best efforts, the doctors predicted a life of illness and progressive organ damage that would eventually lead to lung and liver failure and an early death. It was devastating news.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. With now two serious diagnoses threatening my son’s well-being, desperation became the mother of risk-taking. Following my son’s diagnosis, positive memories of my experiences with alternative healing in young adulthood came flooding back. Though my son was just a baby, I wondered if he too might benefit from alternative healing in addition to what conventional medicine had to offer.
Before having children, I suffered for years from painful menstrual cramps that were bad enough to keep me in bed each month for a day or two. I tried all sorts of pain medicine, but nothing worked. It was the late 1970s and acupuncture was not well-known or widely used in the U.S. (In 1971, a New York Times columnist named James Reston who was accompanying Richard Nixon on a trip to China required an emergency appendectomy. After returning home, Reston introduced the American public to acupuncture via a column about his experience with acupuncture-induced anesthesia.) I didn’t personally know anyone who had tried acupuncture, but conventional medicine had fallen short and I was desperate enough to try anything. I was living in Boston at the time. One day, I noticed a flyer advertising acupuncture by a woman who’d completed her training in England. After a few months of treatments, my cramps lessened significantly.
Before trying acupuncture, I had also dabbled with other kinds of alternative healing. In 1973, my mother took me to an osteopath to see if he could relieve the chronic pain in my shoulders and arms. I was a musician back then, spending six or seven hours a day at the piano. The treatments (called “manipulations”) released the uncomfortable tightness in my upper back and stopped the pain that would sometimes shoot down my arms. Two years later, I moved to Paris to continue my music studies. At one point, my French roommate expressed concern about my dark moods and offered to take me to see her doctor. Her conventionally-trained internal medicine physician treated my mild depression with the homeopathic remedy pulsatilla. Though nothing else about my life in France changed, the darkness lifted within days.
My exploration of alternative healing for my son began with acupuncture. Just as I had happened upon a flyer years before in Boston, my husband noticed an acupuncturist’s flyer in a Japanese import gift shop in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 1992. The flyer claimed that acupuncture treatments could reduce allergies. My husband had suffered from allergies for years, and I encouraged him to give acupuncture a try. He started receiving regular treatments with an acupuncturist named Mary White. We lived on a farm in Maryland, surrounded by a bounty of trees. But the following spring, when pollen rained down from those trees, my husband developed no allergy symptoms whatsoever. It was miraculous!
When Russell was diagnosed with CF that same spring (1993), Mary offered to start giving our baby acupuncture treatments as well. Though nearly twenty years had passed since my early explorations with acupuncture in Boston, it was still not widely used in the U.S. Whenever I shared that my son had begun his acupuncture treatments as a baby, people looked at me oddly. One person even suggested that I was allowing my child to serve as some kind of “voodoo doll.”
More and more Americans have tried acupuncture since. A lot of my friends and acquaintances have experienced pain relief, renewed energy, a stronger immune response, and enhanced general well-being as a result. My son recently turned 24 years old—he and I have both been getting regular acupuncture treatments now for more than 20 years.
The Science of Acupuncture
Acupuncture is an ancient form of healing that originated in China thousands of years ago. There is no clear record of its origins or early use. One story that has been handed down suggests that Chinese healers close to the battlefield noticed that warriors with non-fatal injuries from an arrow or spear often experienced an improvement in a health condition completely unrelated to the injury—essentially a positive if unexpected side effect of sustaining their wound. This inspired healers to embark on an exploration of pressure points that eventually revealed a total of 12 major meridians in the body and hundreds of points located along each of those meridians. The healers discovered that stimulation of each point could have a positive impact on a specific organ or bodily function. It must have required a laborious and methodical approach and years of experimentation to fully develop and codify this amazing approach to human healing. Billions of Chinese (and other Asians) have been treated with acupuncture ever since.
Acupuncture is based on the belief that a fundamental life energy (called chi) flows along meridians or vertical pathways located throughout the body. This energy enters and exits through a series of precise locations referred to as “points.” Meridians correspond to one or more organs and bodily functions, and represent both the physical and psycho-spiritual aspects of those functions. Chinese medicine posits that any imbalance or blockage to the flow of chi negatively impacts organs which, over time, will compromise their function and lead to illness. If points along a meridian are properly stimulated with acupuncture needles or acupressure, the flow of chi can be unblocked and rekindled. In addition to the corrected flow of chi, the five elements of existence recognized by Traditional Chinese Medicine (water, wood, fire, earth, and metal) are recalibrated by acupuncture, resulting in a renewed state of proper balance. Any organs or physiological functions that were impeded are thus corrected and reinvigorated. Balance is a crucial concept in Chinese medicine and always the end goal of healing. Preventive acupuncture is the epitome of Chinese medicine, i.e., the goal is to maintain good health. In fact, in ancient China, acupuncturists were paid for treatments that helped to keep their patients healthy. Should a patient encounter illness at any point, however, the acupuncturist would be expected to treat the person for free until good health was restored since the primary purpose of acupuncture was to maintain good health. Just imagine how that concept would shift the American medical economy!
Traditional Chinese Medicine beliefs about energy and the five elements diverge dramatically from the beliefs that frame our Western medical science, although the differing beliefs are not mutually exclusive and can even be seen as parallel or complementary. (See my website’s BOOKSHELF tab for suggested reading and an intriguing comparison of Greek and Chinese medicine.)
When “shopping” for an acupuncturist, it’s important to consider a person’s training and prior experience. Our acupuncturist, Mary White, had earned a Master of Acupuncture degree (M.Ac.) from the Tai Sophia Institute in Columbia, Maryland, one of the first acupuncture schools in the U.S. (When it was founded in 1974, the school’s original name was the College of Chinese Acupuncture. Eventually, it was renamed the Tai Sophia Institute. After the school secured university accreditation in 2013, it adopted its current name: the Maryland University of Integrative Health.) Following her schooling, our acupuncturist was licensed to practice acupuncture by the Maryland State Board of Acupuncture (L.Ac.) and was certified as a Diplomate of Acupuncture (Dipl.Ac.) by the National Commission for the Certification of Acupuncturists (NCCA). Mary’s credentials were impressive, but they simply backed up the intuitive sense I had that she was an extraordinary healer. Credentials are an important guide for the novice, however, when attempting to distinguish a thoroughly trained and experienced professional from the mail-order variety.
UP NEXT: Treating a Baby with Acupuncture
[Dr. Beane’s writings about Alternative Healing are excerpted from her memoir, Embracing The Dragon: A Parent’s Journey To Reclaim Hope, which describes the enormously positive impact that alternative healing treatments have had on her son.]Alternative Medicine