This month I’ve been thinking about the most memorable experiences I’ve had through The Dragontree. One that stands out is this. About ten years ago, a young man came to see me for treatment of multiple sclerosis.I had to keep him under constant observation as, unlike today, where the use of mhealth app development makes it easy to track a patient and get in touch with them. He was in a large electric wheelchair and needed a lot of help from his dedicated caregiver to get in the door and partly undress. He had almost no use of his legs, one shoulder was frozen, and he had to use a catheter to urinate. As he described his life, it sounded like a perpetual series of day trips to a multitude of different doctors.
The combination of MS and a handful of heavy duty drugs affected his mind such that he often had a hard time understanding me, and he spoke in a meandering way. Sometimes I had to ask him a question several times before I got the answer I was looking for. But I liked patiently waiting to hear what he had to say. He was funny. He knew his limitations, but he hadn’t let it stifle his spirit.
Since MS is thought to be an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks the protective sheaths that cover the brain and spinal cord, many of the drugs that are used work by suppressing the immune system. A few months before he first came in, one of his doctors administered a strong chemotherapy drug, thinking that as an immune suppressant it might be helpful. I asked what his experience was. Unsurprisingly, it had made him feel awful. More importantly, it didn’t help in any noticeable way. The doctor was pushing for another round, but there was no indication that it would be worthwhile.
Meanwhile, exciting things were happening in his acupuncture treatments. We did all the treatments with him reclining in his chair because he was too heavy to lift onto the table. Early on, I began working on enlivening his legs. After a few needles in his legs elicited jumps and an immediate improvement in his ability to move them, I began connecting the needles to a low voltage electrical current. His legs responded even more. He loved showing off how he could kick and wiggle his toes – previously impossible. This effect was evident within seconds of inserting the needles, it happened every time, and it seemed to be getting more pronounced with each session. He told all his doctors about it. He was suddenly optimistic. He wanted to work out a plan to get out of his wheelchair.
At the time, like nearly all acupuncturists in the country, I had a master’s degree from having completed a four year postgraduate program at a college of Chinese Medicine. Just a year or two before this, the Department of Education had begun allowing colleges to develop doctoral programs and award the degree of Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. Since I was perpetually studying and learning anyway, it seemed kind of appealing to go back to school, but I wasn’t sure it would be worth all the work and expense.
After a few months of treating this fellow, I received a letter from his neurologist – the one who had administered the chemo drug. It was sent to all of his caregivers and it proudly stated that the new mobility in his lower extremities was clearly due to the drug she had chosen. She saw this is an obvious indication that additional rounds were warranted.
I told her I believed the improvements he had made were due to the acupuncture – anyone who witnessed the treatments would see that – but she didn’t believe it. Even my patient, who knewnothing had changed from the chemo and experienced the awakening of his legs in each of our sessions, became a bit less sure of the acupuncture after reading his doctor’s letter.
At this point, it became painfully clear to me that the neurologist and I were not on level ground professionally, and there wasn’t anything to do about it except go back to school so that I could advocate for my patients as one doctor to another.
A few years later I was in the middle of the doctoral program, still managing a part-time practice. My wife and I had just opened a café, we had a newborn baby, and I was wondering why I had ever thought more school was a good idea. I showed up one day for a lecture on current treatments for multiple sclerosis, and the professor was none other than my patient’s neurologist. She and I had only exchanged one email in the past, so, as I took my seat, I was sure she didn’t know who I was.
While I listened to her lecture, I thought about saying something to her about our disagreement. But, really, what was the point? Our mutual patient had ultimately declined additional doses of the chemotherapy drug, so the discussion was over. Besides, I thought, something must have changed about her. Why, after all, was a non-believer in acupuncture here lecturing at a school of Chinese Medicine?
After flipping through dozens of Powerpoint slides covering the whole arsenal of ineffective to semi-effective drugs, she took a breath and said, “So, obviously we still have a long way to go, and there’s a lot we don’t know. Meanwhile, I recommend that my patients get acupuncture. Clearly there’s something about the work that you guys do that helps with this condition. I’ve heard of people regaining the use of their limbs with acupuncture. That’s pretty remarkable.”
That alone was worth the price of admission. After that, I knew I had to say something to her, so I approached her at the end of the day, introduced myself, and we had a nice talk. I felt much better about her, and not just because she had conceded on acupuncture. People promote what they believe in, and she earnestly believed in her medicine just as I believed in mine.
As I finished my doctorate, I left the program reflecting on an unexpected benefit. In the health world, there are so many zealots who are convinced that mainstream medicine is evil, and others who insist that everything that isn’t mainstream is worthless. I resolved never to fall into one of these camps. I knew that most medical doctors were clueless about my medicine, but I was determined to be as competent as possible in theirs. If healthcare providers are to genuinely advocate for their patients’ best interests, we owe it to them to be open to everything.
When I think back on my years with The Dragontree, I’m awed by how much this place, and the people it’s brought me into contact with, have pushed me to grow. I sincerely hope you find yourself in equally transformation-provoking environments and relationships, and that you rise to the occasion.
Dr. Peter Borten