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Old-world wellness: Exploring Chinese medicine in Las Vegas

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I first encountered one of these apothecary shops years ago after dinner in Chinatown. Intrigued by an unfamiliar market with a nondescript name, I stumbled into Chung Chou City on Spring Mountain Road. There I found the aforementioned items along with other pills and creams, though I wasn’t sure what the dehydrated raw materials were for, until a Chinese friend told me: medicine. Ingestible ingredients, to be cooked into “soups.” Basically, they’re foods.

Since then I’ve always been intrigued. But, being unaccustomed to Eastern medicine—or Oriental medicine, as it’s called by the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners—it doesn’t immediately spring to mind when I’m ill. With the herbal shops a little difficult to navigate, I scheduled consultations with two specialists in town: Dr. Sae E. Lee of Lee’s Oriental Medicine Clinic and Dr. Fiona Kelley of Wuxin Healing Arts.

Oriental medicine is based on the idea that the body contains Qi (pronounced “chee” and translating to “life force”), moisture and blood. Illness occurs when those elements fall out of balance, and Oriental medicine seeks to restore it through herbs, acupuncture and other methods, such as massage.

* * * * *

Dr. Lee answered the phone on the first ring. I explained my situation: I wanted to write about being treated with herbal medicine. What was the problem, he asked. Put on the spot, I gave a weak, meandering response about stomachaches and stress, and neck pain from a car accident. “It sounds like you don’t have a specific problem,” Dr. Lee concluded.

“Um, I do,” I said shyly. “Can we talk more when I get there?”

When I arrived at the clinic near Downtown’s Circle Park, Dr. Lee, a kind, older Korean man, was sitting behind the counter. I was shown to his office, where we began to talk.

I’ve had chronic stomach pain since age 13. It began the very first day of middle school. Sitting outside my first-period class, horrified by the idea of navigating several classrooms for the first time, my abdomen began to burn. Since then, it has reoccurred somewhat frequently and seems to peak when I’m stressed.

“Where does it hurt?” Dr. Lee asked, rising from his desk. “Here,” I said, touching a spot beneath my belly button. “Your stomach is here,” Dr. Lee said, placing a hand beneath my ribs. “Your problem is something else.”

He returned to his seat and continued to ask questions. What did the pain feel like? When did it occur? What makes it feel better? Have I ever been treated by a Western doctor? (Yes, the last one told me to eat out less frequently.) Dr. Lee seemed concerned. He pulled out anatomical charts and reference books. He took my pulse by hand, as my arms rested over decorative, red wrist pillows. And then he concluded: duodenum ulcers. The duodenum is the shortest part of the small intestine and is directly connected to the stomach. Occasionally acids leak into the duodenum, causing pain, and often the spills are tied to stress.

Dr. Lee ruled out acupuncture, instead recommending herbal medicine, a combination of anti-inflammatory and soothing ingredients, twice a day for three weeks. If the treatment succeeded, we might do a second course. “There are two things about herbal medicine,” Dr. Lee explained. “It’s not cheap, and it doesn’t taste good.”

Back in the day, Dr. Lee said, he might have sent me home with a bag of herbs to boil and prepare myself, but today he uses a high-pressure cooker in his clinic to create potent, concentrated serums. He packages them in soft plastic, in doses about the size of a juice pack. The three-week treatment would cost $400. I said I would call back.

* * * * *

Dr. Kelley’s office is located in a pastoral office park on East Flamingo. A middle-aged white woman, she also does her own scheduling and reception, and the inside of her office is carefully decorated with informative posters and humorous cutouts. I told her about my intestinal issue, and also mentioned stress, neck pain and a couple of other ailments.

Like Dr. Lee, Dr. Kelley began by asking questions, ranging from familial medical history to whether I ever have a particular flavor in my mouth to whether I’m a big-picture person or the opposite. She then took my pulse, and explained that six different pulses, with 27-plus qualities, can be detected in the wrist. The measurements checked to “see who is home,” she explained.

During her reading she asked if I had ever been divorced. “No,” I replied. “Your parents?” she asked. “Yes.” “Ah, I can tell,” she said, explaining that the particular pulse indicated a severed connection to the heart, usually indicating emotional trauma. Finally, she looked at my tongue and concluded her interview.

Rather than attack all my problems at once, Dr. Kelley suggested acupuncture to induce a general reset, a baseline to build upon in future visits. The treatment lasted about an hour. She poked hair-thin solid needles first into my back and then into the front of my body: between the eyebrows, on several points on my arms and hands, one on each knee and a couple on each foot. It was comfortable, apart from a slight zinging when I moved too much, causing the needles to shift with my muscle tissue.

Afterward, Dr. Kelley ordered me not to shower until the next morning to preserve my improved Qi and gave me prepackaged herbal pills to stimulate moisture in my lungs. That night, I felt relaxed and more present than usual, and I swear the pills cleared my sinuses. Although it was my birthday, I didn’t want to go out; I stayed home and reaped this newfound zen. I have a follow-up with Dr. Kelley this week, and when I can afford it, I’ll also return to Dr. Lee.

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