Why I became an acupuncturist?

I get asked this a lot by patients and random strangers...so here it is!

The answer is long and very much like a biography.

So let's first dive into my educational background. When I first started in biological sciences, I was keen on becoming a researcher.  I was very lucky that early on in my academia I was able to secure a pharmaceutical research internship at UCSF under Dr. Neal Benowitz, MD, the world-leading researcher in tobacco and nicotine . Although I was just an undergraduate student, they allowed me to partake in many master level duties. I was even able to attend researcher meetings and had access to years of their research at my fingertips. But after this wonderful experience, I realized pharmaceutical research was not for me. 

I began to venture into different aspects of medical science. I did more internships and realized that I loved helping people on a one-on-one level. I became pre-medical, pre-pharmacy, pre-nurse, pre-nutrition, taking all the required classes since I could not decide what I wanted to do. This is how I ended up with a background in biological sciences, neurology, human development, and nutrition.  

I took my MCATs and did relatively well. But I still wasn't sure if medical school is where I want to spend the next decade of my life. Plus my parents, although always supportive, did not want me to become a doctor. As a child, I was always weak. I would catch every cold, often with complications due to asthma. I had severe seasonal and food allergies, chronic migraines, and a love-hate relationship with food. As much as I was a foodie, any food could randomly make me break out or cause stomach cramps. On top of that, I had very severe cystic acne and rosacea. 

It was around this time that my parents brought me to a herbalist. My parents were very concerned about my acne because it was getting more and more painful. I would often cry myself to sleep because my face was in throbbing pain. I seen many dermatologists. I had taken antibiotics throughout puberty and on and off my adult life. I tried every possible cream, steroids, so many countless pills, even multiple experimental drugs, but nothing had a lasting effect. However, after 2 months of taking herbs, my skin miraculously cleared!! 

While I took the herbs, I noticed that I became more energized, was able to sleep better, food bothered me less, and overall, I was just healthier. I became very interested in Chinese herbal medicine.

People often find this funny. I actually grew up in a non-traditional Chinese family that deemed most Chinese traditions as superstitious. I joke with my patients that I ate more pasta than rice growing up. My parents were raised in Hong Kong under British rule. They were part of the generation of people believing Chinese medicine was not only old fashion but dangerous. They also came to America at a young age. My mom even graduated high school here in San Francisco.

So going to a herbalist to treat my acne was really a last resort. Luckily, that changed my life.

On one random afternoon, just by chance, I bumped into a professor while I was at a fair. We both happened to be waiting for someone and exchanged some small talk. She told me she was a TCM professor. And I was shocked! I did not know it was possible to learn Chinese medicine in America, much less get a masters or doctorate degree! I seriously thought Chinese medicine was just like the herbalist in Chinatown using info based on folk medicine from villages. She gave me her contact information and told me that the school was actually having an opening house in a few hours and I should check it out.

My own herbal miracle still so fresh in my mind, I was curious enough to go. Unfortunately the open house was mostly for Chinese native speakers. I could not read or write medical Chinese so I left quite disappointed.  But it sparked my interest, and I started to do research online. I discovered that the best TCM herbal program was located right in SF! And the open house was just the following week. I signed up and went. I was super skeptical because they talked a lot about acupuncture, which at the time I thought was something related to martial arts. But I was still very interested in their herbal program so I applied and interviewed on the spot. I was fortunate and got the last spot in their masters program! 

However, this was a masters program for TCM. They no longer offered just the herbal program. Not knowing the difference, I said "yes and I want in". 

That first year was crazy. I felt like I walked into the biggest mistake of my life. All the Chinese medicine jargon made zero sense. It actually felt more like "hocus pocus" than medicine, especially with my science background. Truth be told, I failed my first year; specifically the acupuncture part. I had no idea how putting needles in people could be a good thing. That was just bizarre and was the hardest thing for my mind to wrap around. The herbal part made more sense since I can explain it using nutrition and science...but acupuncture, nope!

However, in order to learn more about herbs, I had to pass acupuncture.  Being pre-med, it was not hard to memorize a bunch of information. So I memorized and passed.

During our second year, we started to see patients. My patients would get relief from acupuncture, but I still wasn't convinced. I basically chalked everything up to a placebo effect and really focused on herbs. 

Then a second life changing moment happened.  I began my internship at California Pacific Medical Center Impatient Stroke and Spinal Trauma Injury Clinic. I was under the supervision of Dr. Stanley Leung. My first patient at the clinic was a recent stroke victim with full hemiplegia so he was not able to move his left side. He couldn't even move his mouth to speak or close his left eyelid. As per my training, Dr. Leung instructed me to place needles in specific spots. Still a non-believer, I grudgingly put the needles in. But what happened next left me baffled. The patient was able to move his left arm and leg and smiled! Whollllly crap!!! What just happened?? 

I studied neurology during my undergraduate years, and I even did research specifically on stroke. There was no way he could have moved like that! No placebo effect ould be that strong. The patient was barely responsive when we first started needling.  For lack of better words, this was a true turning point in my life. I threw myself into trying to understand TCM and how acupuncture works. I first tried to reason it with biomedicine and failed terribly.  It turns out that’s because it is based on an entirely different system. I finally put down biomedicine and looked at TCM thru a fresh pair of eyes. I took everything at face value, assumed everything worked, and then it finally clicked.

TCM is all about balance. There is no miracle pill that works for everyone. Every person is unique and requires a unique treatment, both in acupuncture and herbs in all of its wonderful modalities. And to make it even more confusing, there is no one correct way to treat someone. In TCM theory, everything is related. That means that balancing one aspect will cause a rippling effect that will lead to balancing everything else. 

This is why it is nearly impossible to subjectively test whether TCM works. And why it is so hard to make sense in a biomedicine way. 

I owe my health to TCM. After studying it more, I got treated and started to self treat myself. I have never been healthier.  The most beautiful thing about TCM is that you can apply it to every aspect of your life. And that is why I want to practice it and spread its knowledge.  


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