Doctor Sun Zengyi

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Digging for the Gems of Chinese Medicine

An Interview with Dr. Sun Zengyi
Interview by Andrew Nugent-Head


Dr Sun ZengyiI was born in Beijing in 1934. My father ran a successful herbal medicine store here in the city. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was only four years old, leaving my mother to run the store and raise me. As there was only my mother to run the store, from very early on I would help her. I would help sort herbs and put them away, and as I grew older, after school I would help her make up formulae, powders and medicine balls. By the time I was fifteen, I had developed a good knowledge of herbs and their properties.

It was about that time my mother became very ill. She developed a high fever that would not break and seemed near the end. As my father had been known in the Chinese medicine community, we were able to ask one of the four great doctors of Beijing, Shi Jingmo, to treat her. In only three or four treatments, her fever had passed and it was sure she would survive. I was struck deeply by the power of Chinese medicine and developed a new found interest in using the herbs I had grown up around. I also had a tremendous respect for Chinese medicine, as it had saved my mother's life in such a seemingly effortless way.

At the age of sixteen, I decided to study medicine as my career. Not only would I be able to help others as Dr. Shi had helped my mother, but it would also be an honorable profession to make a living with. As Dr. Shi had been a friend of my fathers, he was easy to approach and I was accepted as an ordinary student. I spent six years with him in that relationship before being accepted as one of his recognized disciples in 1956.

Dr. Shi was a very busy man in those years and had little time for formal teaching of new students such as myself. He spent the mornings treating patients in a clinic and in the afternoons he would make house calls. Thus my first years of studying medicine were spent watching him in the clinic and copying down his recipes. He would recommend several basic books on Chinese medicine theory and herbs and tell me to memorize them. Once I had them memorized, I would begin to see the connection between his diagnoses and treatments with what I had learned. In that way the book knowledge became alive and relevant to me.

After a few years, he then recommended a second, deeper set of books to memorize. Again, at first it wasn't important that I understood them, just that I memorized them. Once again, understanding came as Dr. Shi would talk about the patients or the recipes he had decided for them in the language of the books I had memorized. Finally, a few years after that, he had me memorize the books which most influenced him and then passed on his book of secret recipes. They had been passed onto him by his teacher and were meant to be studied for the use and combinations of herbs contained within.

I also underwent two years of classroom training in the late fifties. The new Ministry of Health, in an effort to ensure quality and education, created a program for all the people who had studied Chinese medicine in the traditional, teacher-disciple way. There, I was exposed to many other great teachers who lectured on theory, the classics, and treatments. There was also a course designed to expose us to Western medical theory and treatments so we would understand and interface with hospitals. Those were difficult years, as I awoke at four am to memorize and study for my classes, then headed to the clinic at seven am to be with Dr. Shi, then to school in the afternoon, then home to study and ponder the days lessons until eleven or twelve. The late hours were when I would ask myself if I had understood what transpired, and formulated questions for my teachers the next day. Why did he use that particular combination? Why was the treatment successful? Why such an such an amount when books mentioned smaller doses?

It was about that time that I began to treat patients myself. I was very young then and didn't have too much experience. I worked in an herb store and treated "walk ins". Fortunately, very few walk ins are very sick, as those people would go to the hospital to be treated, so I was not overwhelmed with difficult cases in those early years. But it was a very important time, as it was in those years that all the book reading and clinical observations came together in me and became mine as I used them to treat patients and develop my own confidence.

A little after that I was sent to work in a large hospital belonging to a work unit. I still had very little experience on my own and was still trying to understand why certain treatments I prescribed worked yet others didn't. Therefore, I always carried a journal and made entries about each patient to study in the evenings. Ten, twenty years later, I felt I had matured into a good doctor and felt confident when faced with difficult cases. I remained in that hospital until I retired, watching, learning, and always thinking about the patients and their treatments in the evenings.

In the hospital, I would spend the mornings treating patients and then make rounds in the afternoons. Along with working in the Chinese medicine section, sometimes the Western medicine section would invite me over to see some of their difficult cases. In this way, I was able to watch many patients in both sections throughout each stage of their illness: from entry to the hospital, treatment, response to treatment, convalescence, to discharge. Watching the entire process of an illness gives an understanding not ordinarily gained just in a treatment clinic, and it was by doing this that I developed strongly in the areas of treating strokes, kidney illnesses, diabetes and cancer.

You see, Chinese medicine is a great treasure, but it is like gems buried deep in the earth. It takes more than a lifetime to dig out its preciousness. What is one life but several decades of research? Thus the value of Chinese medicine is in young people learning from the treasures already unearthed by their ancestors and then digging deeper, finding new ways to treat illnesses and make contributions to society. But what kind of young doctor is the type to make such contributions to further Chinese medicine? One who strives to be a good doctor, not just a doctor. In choosing to become a doctor, one must strive to become a top doctor, one who can come to realizations and understandings of illnesses and treatments.

This means someone choosing the path of medicine should spend much time practicing; they should not fear difficulty or fatigue; they should not strive to attain financial reward. It also means not being blind to patients. "Have a cold? Here is a recipe for Mahuang Soup..." This is wrong! You must see each patient's coloring, feel each patient's pulse, listen to each patient's complaints. From there, true understanding springs forth. In the end, all the stories of doctors having miraculous techniques or magic treatments are simply the result of a good doctor having an insight into the best way to approach and treat a particular illness.

These special understandings or insights into illnesses are examples of the gems being unearthed in Chinese medicine. One should strive to expand and enrich Chinese medicine by finding these gems and sharing them, so that others, or in other generations, your work can be taken further. For instance, I am sixty-five years old, I have enough money, I live simply and have few needs except for my books. Yet I still come out to treat patients and think deeply on their cases at night. This is the spirit of a good doctor. It is important not to become stuck in your practice. You may use the same basic recipe for an illness for twenty years, but each time you must think about it and its appropriateness for the patient. You must refine it each time. You must study how different patients reacted to it over the twenty years.

For example, If I were to use certain medicines in too large doses, but the patient became better, it still might not be a success. Why? Because I might have created other problems or potential for problems elsewhere by using medicines that were too strong. Actually, I view many Western medicines like that. By studying the past and thinking, by researching in the classics how doctors before you treated similar conditions, you can find the balance between powerful, fast treatments and safe treatments. These are gems to be savored, as well.

Speaking of finding these gems, another place I found them was working in the Qingrentang pharmacy. I must say that it was a bit of what the Chinese call, "Stealing knowledge," but it was an excellent way to learn. There was an old doctor there who treated patients inside the pharmacy. I would watch the different cases and follow the patients' progression as they came in for successive treatments. If they were noticeably better, I would copy down the herbs used by the doctor and then go home at night and decipher his thinking. That doctor had tremendous experience, particularly in using large dosages of herbs. I have to say that I have "stolen" much knowledge like that over the years! I always carry a pen and a book to write down such gems when they appear. But it is important not to blindly use this kind of knowledge, for what works on one patient may worsen another. It is important to study these stolen gems to understand them. This constant thinking is important to being a good doctor.

Studying and treating cancer in the hospital was also very educational. What should a treatment entail? What should be considered success? From my perspective, a successful treatment is to relieve the pain of the patient and allow them to live longer than expected. I accomplish this by strengthening the immune system, by increasing the patient's appetite through treating the stomach and spleen, removing what Chinese medicine calls "poisons" in the body, and by dissolving growths. It is also important to nourish the blood. This is how Chinese medicine treats cancer. You strengthen the body so that the body can either suppress or cure the cancer.

I have also studied diabetes in some depth and have a good success rate with it. It must be said, though, that the patient has to cooperate. If they keep overeating, eating incorrectly, or drinking, taking my medicines won't work. The patient must be willing to take on some of the responsibility of their treatment.

Hepatitis is another example of Chinese medical thought. Chinese medicine views it as dampness and hot poison in the liver. The treatment works to remove both the dampness and the poison, as well as treating the symptoms of hepatitis. This is important to ensure that twenty years later the patient doesn't end up with a hardening of the liver or cancer of the liver. A successful treatment should not only treat the hepatitis, but also prevent any potential damage that might manifest later. What I mean by this is: if you are sick at forty and most patients who have had that same illness end up dying twenty years later at sixty even though they were 'cured', but by taking my medicines you live to eighty, that is a successful treatment.

Recently, I treated a young man in his twenties who was prone to rupturing blood vessels throughout his body. Western medicine had told him he would be on medication all his life, which is why he came to me. Though I do have experience in treating ruptured blood vessels in localized areas, I had never seen a case in which the patient was prone to ruptures everywhere in the body. So I proceeded carefully and with much thought with each change of recipe, and after several weeks, was successful. Today, he no longer takes the Western medicine and the hospital's tests all return normal. Of course, there is no guarantee the success will last, as it is such a rare case that will always require careful observation, but he is at least free of the reality of taking medicines for the rest of his life right now.

I also treated a patient who had not urinated for six days. She was already quite sick and in the hospital when her kidneys failed completely. The doctors told her family to prepare for her passing, as there was no hope of a reversal. Instead of waiting for her to die, the family found me and decided to try Chinese medicine. As there was nothing to lose and the prognosis was death, I wrote quite a powerful recipe of herbs. After five or six hours, the woman urinated. After four treatments, the kidneys began to function again. The family was very happy and the hospital quite surprised. But, to tell the truth, my treatment might not work for every patient with this problem. So I can't claim I have a miracle cure, though I did cure her. It is important to be humble with successes like this, as Chinese medicine focuses on each patient, and there are no guarantees that a successful case will be successful in all cases. Unfortunately, I heard that the patient passed away several months later of heart failure. But it wasn't due to kidney failure, and I hope to have a chance to work with more patients like that.

There was also an American Chinese here doing business. He had eaten something bad and had both vomited and had diarrhea more than twenty times in an hour. He could barely move or function and was quite worried, as several Western medicines given to him had had no effect. In one treatment, I managed to stop both the vomiting and diarrhea, and in a few hours he was able to move about and continue on with his meetings. He was very impressed with the power of Chinese medicine.

Of course, I am telling you the stories of my successes, but there have also been failures. Those are to be studied and pondered so that something is learned. As I have said, it is important to have this desire to study harder, think longer and go deeper, to be a good doctor. To have a good heart or good intentions is not enough. One must also develop strong skills or one won't be able to treat patients. There really is no other way. That and a good teacher to illuminate the way and impart knowledge. And, of course, one must have a strong background in classical Chinese. If not, one cannot make use of the gems found by the people in the past. If one's classics skills is superficial, then one's understanding will be superficial. If deep, then one's understanding will be deep.

Digging for gems in Chinese medicine requires going deep. Let's say you dig and you dig, and you reach two meters and then take a break or give up and settle for a drink in town. But I keep digging, and at two and a half meters, I find the gem and am rewarded with its wealth. One must have that kind of mind set and perseverance. Goodness, my hair is white, but I still dig! Why? Because one must always have the strength to further both one's own skill and the art of Chinese medicine.

With all this talk of gems, it is important to remember that practicing medicine is practicing benevolence. You are removing suffering and should not choose between the rich and the poor. You should treat those who can pay just as you treat those who can't. Everyone must be treated equally, and this is part of what makes a good doctor.

One must also be willing to sacrifice. Others may be watching TV at night or going out, but you have to stay in and study the day's patients, think about the successes and failures. One must be willing to give up one's likes and hobbies. Once you are committed to learning medicine, pleasures like going to the Chinese opera, swimming or whatever must be replaced by the pleasure of successfully treating patients. Otherwise, you shouldn't choose this path. There is no excuse for being a mediocre doctor. Even at my age, I must constantly think and strive to be a better doctor. I must remain healthy so that every day my brain is sharp, my mind is clear, and I can remember my skills. This is important for a doctor, because the moment the brain starts to forget, then one's skills are compromised. Staying healthy hasn't been a problem, though. For me personally, the best way I've found to keep healthy is to keep treating patients. I think at this clinic, where many of the doctors are over eighty years old, that is everyone's secret!

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