I write this story as an acupuncture patient. I'm an author and documentary filmmaker. This is an exerpt from my memoir "True Stories of a Mediocre Writer." It's about some of my life experiences that have informed my creative projects over the years. In 2013, I was working too much and my immune system wore down that sent me onto my deathbed for six months.
My rising from the dead experience is the basis of another memoir, Views from Atop My Bedpan (working title). I'm always looking for "one true sentence" fodder that now includes surviving the lung disease, the septic ulcer, and annoying shingles pain. Western medicine did its job and kept me on the right side of the grass.
Nonetheless, I attribute acupuncture for nurturing me back to health.
My docs were all a little vague with me. In my mind, Western medicine is generally pretty good at fix-up jobs up like sewing wounds closed, prescribing remedial drugs for measurable maladies like high blood pressure, and splinting broken bones.
As for my case, all that happened to me, in the end, was the leaky rubber tube protruding out of my abdomen for quick access to my surgically repaired intestines had there been a problem. The shingles settled on my left scalp, and the residual pain is bothersome. My rehab was good, and I ended up pretty much back to normal, but healing up wasn't without trying alternative practices like acupuncture for long-term maintenance.
The first day I was back from rehab was February 2, 2014, and Super Bowl XLVIII. I was homebound in a wheelchair for the next three months before I started to snap out of it.
A physical therapist taught me how to walk again. My lung doctor had me breathing supplemental oxygen for another four months. The occupational therapist showed me how to put the milk jug in the refrigerator to minimize the range of motion. Every summer after that, I made an appointment to get checked out by my pulmonologist. June 2020 was the last visit I made before he retired a few days after I saw him.
What's he going to be doing with his spare time? Writing the Great American novel. I invited him to my writing groups. We recalled the time I was just released from rehab. I was still pretty sick, and we talked about options, including a lung transplant. I asked why he didn't recommend pulling the plug on me.
"I had a feeling you were going to make it," he said. "You ended up having such a miraculous recovery. I don't know what I would have talked about at medical conferences."
In addition to my supportive lung doctor, I attribute my vascular surgeon as the guy who actually saved my life. He somehow figured out I had a slowly leaking septic ulcer that made me the sickest and repaired it during emergency surgery, a week before the lung biopsy.
My doctor sent those tissue samples to a laboratory at the University of Michigan. The lab technicians figured out my disease was caused by the same common fungus that debilitated AIDS patients back in the 1980s. Similarly, I was susceptible because of a fragile immune system.
The treatment that cleared out the fungus was simpler than imagined with ordinary sulfa drugs. When working in Mexico, I always had a supply of over-the-counter Bactrim tablets with me for various intestinal bugs.
Now that I was stabilized and out of rehab, my doctors were amazed at my recovery but had no answers about the future. My lung doctor didn't know if pneumonia would return, if my lungs would deteriorate after I quit the steroids, or if I would be on supplemental oxygen for the rest of my life.
My primary care doctors are pretty good guessers about diseases that aren't obvious, like what might be wrong with my lungs at any moment. In my view, western medicine is inaccurate at best.
As long as my regular doctors were pretty good with medical game theory, I decided to integrate alternative practices. The acupuncture doctor from China I saw when I came to Boulder 30 years ago was still in practice.
This was well before Chinese medicine became generally known in the United States. In 1971, New York Times reporter James Reston traveled to China to cover Secretary of State Kissinger's advance trip that paved the Way for an upcoming visit by President Nixon.
Reston came down with acute appendicitis. Local surgeons used acupuncture as anesthesia during the appendectomy and after the surgery to control post-operative pain.
Based on the vague comments from my doctors, it was clear that western medicine had run its course. I booked an acupuncture appointment. Later, other practitioners characterized my acupuncture doctor as an "aggressive needler."
Thinking back, I thought it a bit over the top when he bled my big toe that developed gout from kicking too many soccer balls with lancets the size of ice picks. Now that's aggressive. I still have mild gout, but the joint loosened up.
The main reason I liked to see him was that his office was different. He kept track of patients by first name, hand-scrawled in a notebook.
His clinic pharmacy consisted of shelves lined with big pickle jars filled with dehydrated seahorses, various herbs, and weird animal parts like from centipedes.
Every treatment included a tea blend of herbs and critter parts for whatever was ailing me. The foul-smelling powder smelled like rotting fowl.
It could be mixed with any hot liquid. I started adding it to my coffee because it improved the flavor of both the tea and my coffee. Behind the check-in counter, the treatment room was cordoned off by clotheslines strung overhead.
The patient treatment areas were separated by bedsheets pinned onto the white ropes hanging above.
I didn't think his treatment was effective this time and switched over to the local acupuncture college. In the section about "getting old ain't for sissies," I mentioned that I was stricken by shingles when my health problems began.
Someone told me about the local acupuncture college. A student intern supervised by a licensed practitioner supervises the treatment. It’s akin to getting a haircut at a cosmetology school, except that it’s hard to mess up an acupuncture treatment, as opposed to whacking off too much hair.
"This college has much to offer to the wider community," I said to myself while in the middle of a treatment by the clinic manager. We were acquainted from one of our mutual past lives advocating to ban indoor tobacco use and second hand smoke. While she walked me to the front, I mentioned that they have a pretty good story to tell.
"I agree," she said. We sat down in the lobby and talked about how the power of a story told by video would be a powerful way to give prospective students and the ailing public a means to kick the acupuncture tires.
I ended up making a series of informational videos. They included interviews with students in internships like sports medicine, and at a long-term care facility. I recorded testimonials from patients, as well as from graduates who had established successful practices. One graduate had a mobile acupuncture clinic in a converted RV.
I liked the school's acupuncture clinic offerings. It was like a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) with a variety of treatment modalities available. I tried quite a few of them for my clogged-up lungs and the post-herpetic shingles pain.
The most effective for me is tuina (pronounced twee-nah). It's a combination of needles and physical hand manipulation. Another is guasha (pronounced gwah-shah). That's a smooth edge of a ceramic spoon or stone rubbed over various locations on the back that raises blood to the surface.
The effect is similar to cupping, made popular by swimmer Michael Phelps who, at the Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, had a medical practitioner place cups on the skin and vacuumed out the air leaving distinct red bruises.
Students under the supervision of college faculty members treated my lungs and shingles pain beginning in May 2014.
According to acupuncture theory, the lungs and skin are closely related since they are both exposed to the air. I had an X-ray taken in March that showed my lungs as still being clogged up.
Over the next few months, I had various treatments before another x-ray a few months later. When I compared the two X-rays, there was a remarkable improvement.
I don't know if the treatments did any good, but it was more fun to tell people that acupuncture was a miracle.
"Whatever it is that they're doing for you over there, keep doing it," my pulmonologist said during my first check-up, and after he looked at the second X-ray he took after 12 weeks of acupuncture treatment.
My lung condition improved and would continue to do so. I was tapered off the steroids and continued weekly acupuncture treatments. Because of COVID-19, the clinic is closed for over a year and is now open for the time being.
Over the past few years, I've learned quite a bit about Eastern medicine through immersion. I ended up writing some informational stories about the acupuncture college and produced some videos.
Whether acupuncture helped me or not, becoming a part of the Chinese medicine community has since been a good diversion. Getting behind the scenes and meeting new people are intangible benefits of documentary filmmaking.
I learned some new and interesting insights, particularly from students. For many, they were reinventing themselves and beginning new careers. I could relate to that, particularly since I ended up trading out script writing and video production services in exchange for acupuncture treatments.
Acupuncture not only improved my health, it taught me that it's okay to ask about bartering my creativity for useful goods and services that I would normally pay out money, like for weekly acupuncture treatements.