06 March 2011

It All Starts in High School

It's a Friday in March, the weather is winter cold but the sun is out and spring is coming.  I'm standing before a group of high school students from the metro Portland area who are all interested in careers in natural medicine at NCNM. 

In China, acupuncturists are trained right out of high school. Their colleges integrate western and some eastern medicine throughout. There are systemic problems, such as Chinese medicine being subsumed by Western medicine.  Another is that few graduates in mainland China actually enter their field (since the state prohibits private practices which they consider to be in competition with state run clinics). Still, there are impressive institutions of Chinese medicine that are based on size alone--meaning they are massive structures with tens of thousands of students.  One example is a university where I studied in Nanjing.  For most traditional students, after practicing for 20 years, then you've got a student who becomes teacher.

American high schools have their problems too. Once pathbreaking institutions, they are now seen as outmoded, evidenced by high dropout rates--up to 40% locally.

On Friday, we had a 7:30 meeting--in the morning. It was a rousing discussion on bridging ancient Chinese with Greek medicines (and Phenomenology for good measure).  I was reminded about the high schoolers awaiting me. Power point this time? Maybe just for wallpaper. I thought of sharing an impressive story about the patient getting surgery with only acupuncture anesthesia--something with flash to get them engaged. I remember being pretty glazed over in high school: I was wrong this time.

The youths were dressed up. Men in restrained dark suits with the gravitas of Obama. Their elbows were on the table, leaning forward. There were about 45 of these students in our old brick building, originally an elementary school from 1902.

I began the talk with my own despair of when I was in high school and of not knowing what my career path would be. I wanted to be like my old grandfather Roger, a surgeon in a mining town who trained at Johns Hopkins and served as a surgeon at the European front during World War I.

My math skills plummeted with the stress of entering an all-boys, competitive private school. I gave up ever wanting to practice medicine, or anything to do with math.  I went on to speak to the group about the career aptitude tests I endured in the 70s, with little gears that turned so that they would know if I could be an engineer (and get a real job).   The results, for me, were to work with people not machines. Yet there continued to be omnipresent social pressure to learn 'hard' science (math, engineering & medicine) in order to survive in the "new" economy -- which was plummeting in its own unique way even back then.  

Lights didn't go on in the audience but the students were listening. I told them my flashy acupuncture story about the patient getting breast surgery of 54 stitches (including cauterization) with acupuncture as the sole anesthesia.  They seemed unfazed. I felt a little out of my league and scrambled to find connection.

At this point, I showed the students a picture of an old Chinese man playing a Qin, a stringed instrument on his lap (in the middle of our powerpoint slides). He played it to treat patients. We talked about the importance of music, and how the Chinese often used it not just to sound good, but for healing.  Finally I struck a chord.   In high school, for so many students, music is everything.

Questions started to fly. A hand flew up like an uncertain bird taking flight.  The question was a tentative young woman asking how long a student would have to study to become a healer.  I answered and the students became more bold--asking about a variety of issues--

"Who wants a treatment?" I interjected. Half the group raised their hands. I couldn't pick one, so I just put a chair and invited the first one to get there. After a polite pause, a young man took measured steps to the chair.

Here are some teaching tips with high school students: In past years, I tried ear and scalp acupuncture. The treatments wind up being too strong and needles often had to be removed. I find I can treat patients who are about 14 and older with needles in clinic but group events have a stronger level of Qi and response. Youth are more open.

So I offered ear seeds for the first time to this group of high schoolers. I thought it wouldn't be compelling enough for them but the results were perfect.

On the brave young man who offered himself up to be treated, we found a tender point on his knee, and applied black radish seeds to corresponding points on his ear.   I pressed on the acupressure pellets and he slid down a little lower in his chair.  He reported his knee pain was gone in moments.

We did a second demo on a young woman with chronic shoulder pain.  The group volunteered her: they knew her story, and were delighted when she smiled with clear relief.  I was moved by their collective concern for one of their own.

Then we did qigong. Here's another tip for reaching high school students.  I've done qigong over the years with this age group. They are very open, and get a little blown away with powerful or deep forms very quickly. It makes them giggle a little. Likewise, a very showy or expressive form, like something with shaking can make them feel awkward. This time, I just had them stretch up, and then wash Qi as 'bioenergy' with their hands through their body. Nobody cracked up, giggled or felt overwhelmed. It was a first.

The young man came up afterwards, full of questions.  "When can I start studying this? How long does it take? This really moved me," he said, "I want to do it --now!"

I knew the feeling of excitement and finding one's calling.  The light in his eyes was similar to when I met my first bodywork teacher.  After two weeks in his class,  I saw my career. There was a glow of recognition.

Later that Friday afternoon, I was treating patients in the second floor of our magnificent new NCNM Clinic. I saw the high school students in the parking lot. The same young man took their picture with a video camera.  I could see his face, the soul and heart of yearning as he looked at the building before leaving.

The sun at that point was setting in the western sky and cast a white hazy glow through the high clouds.  I wanted to open the window, to wave and call out one last time, but the students had walked beyond calling distance.  They were on their way back to their lives.  I had to wonder, would they return one day?


  1. And this is why you teach. Amazing, Roger

  2. And this is why you teach, Roger. Amazing.

  3. Really delicate writing, Roger. It takes me back to the days interning at Hooper, with you at the helm. You could still a room of withdrawing addicts effortlessly..so it's facinating to see how this skill is being put to use now! Your "voice" really comes through in this piece...

  4. Your writing has undergone a remarkable shift--much less clinical, much more personal, very effective. Keep it up!