Medical Fortune Telling

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Dim natural light streamed into the room, where a hospital bed stretched nearly the length of one wall. A monk, two translators and four of my fellow correspondents crowded around me as a Taoist doctor rattled off my diagnosis.

“Cancer...

“No, breast disease...

“No, not now. In the future. Maybe.”

I panicked, searching the eyes of each person in the room for reassurance. Nothing. My colleagues looked glad they were not in my position.

I had come to Yulin Li, the Taoist doctor at Beijing’s Bai Yun Guan clinic, during my research on Chinese medicine. He told me that Taoist medicine focuses on treating psychological problems to prevent physical problems.

Li diagnoses his patients based on a detailed pulse reading.

“Once the symptoms show, the disease has already come into being,” he said.

To demonstrate, he took my right hand, placed it on a checkbook-size yellow cushion and felt my pulse. Not with a stopwatch and a stethoscope like a Western practitioner. It was almost as if he were trying to puncture my tendons with his long nails. Taoists honor their parents by keeping what they were born with, including allowing their fingernails and hair to grow.

When Dr. Li was about to say something, he pressed harder, squinted his eyes and gave me a disapproving grunt.

“You think too much,” he said. “You are a nervous person, depressed. Too much leads to disease. Breast disease.”

I admitted to thinking too much. But how much is too much thinking?

He said I sweat in my sleep, that I have frequent bad dreams.

Bingo. How did he know?

But the good doctor didn't get everything right. He told me that I am a weak person. I should play sports. I shouldn’t smoke or drink. My liver can’t handle alcohol.

Weak?! I'm the strongest woman I know. Of course I shouldn't smoke or drink. Both are unhealthy habits. Surely he reads everyone's pulse this way.

While Dr. Li issued his diagnoses, both translators hunched over me, inches from my face, quickly relating the doctor’s words between their slight gasps.

“No Western doctor could tell you all that just by reading your pulse,” he said. “You need to calm down, relax, be happy."

Dr. Li finally made eye contact with me and squinted again.

“But not too happy. Too happy gives you heart disease.”

If a Western doctor told me I might have breast disease within one minute of taking my pulse, I think he would have his license revoked. Despite the apparent ethical difference, I concluded that in some respects both Eastern and Western doctors are interested in the same thing in the end—pushing the product.

“He says you should buy Chinese medicines,” both translators said with worried brows.