Published: 12:54, April 27, 2020 | Updated: 03:35, June 6, 2023
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TCM eases pandemic symptoms, fears among Chinese Americans
By Xinhua

A doctor uses a moxibustion stick to treat a recovered COVID-19 patient in rehabilitation at Hubei Provincial Hospital of TCM in Wuhan on Tuesday. (WANG YUGUO / XINHUA)

WASHINGTON-"I am writing to tell you that we, three senior ladies, have fully recovered. We're so grateful for your help at this difficult time," a WeChat message sent to a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine read.

When the message popped up on the afternoon of April 20, Chen Decheng was so happy that he felt the fatigue of a hard month's work miraculously disappear.

The TCM practitioner in New York City, the worst affected area in the United States by the COVID-19 outbreak, clearly remembered how desperate the sender, 71-year-old Xu Lei, had sounded when she told him over the phone that she had a persistent fever, dry cough and other obvious symptoms of the disease.

Equally desperate were Xu's 73-year-old sister and 68-year-old friend who live with her in NYC's borough of Manhattan.

In order to meet future health needs, neither Eastern medicines, exemplified by TCM, nor Western medicines, exemplified by current conventional medicine, is sufficient

Yung-Chi Cheng, Henry Bronson Professor of Pharmacology at Yale University

Chen, who has over 20 years of experience in traditional Chinese medicine, immediately made diagnoses for the three seniors via a WeChat video call and prescribed a tailored TCM remedy for each of them.

China's experience

"The prescriptions aimed to help improve their lung function, lower their body temperature and boost their immune system," says Chen, who got his PhD from Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine in China's Jiangsu province in the early 1990s.

Chen, who runs two TCM and acupuncture clinics in NYC and neighboring Long Island, says his approach was in line with recommendations shared by his Chinese counterparts for treating COVID-19 symptoms. "China's experiences in the area are so helpful to people like me in the West," Chen says.

China's National Health Commission prescribed the use of TCM alongside Western drugs in its guidelines for the treatment of people infected with the virus as early as late January.

Various studies in China showed that application of TCM alone was sufficient to reduce fevers, symptoms and viral loads for patients at the early stages of infection. For those in severe condition, the use of TCM, in conjunction with various antiviral protocols, could help patients recover.

Jin Ming, founder and medical director of Ming Qi Natural Healthcare Center in Manhattan, had brought back a batch of Chinese herbs used for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 symptoms when she returned after spending Spring Festival in China.

"China was working hard fighting COVID-19. No one at that time could have imagined that the pandemic would worsen to such an extent in the US," Jin says.

The virus has infected over 886,000 people, with deaths surpassing 50,000 in the United States alone as of Friday. New York state remains the hardest-hit state with over 268,000 cases and 20,861 deaths.

Patients' calls

In late March, both Chen and Jin closed down their clinics and moved their diagnosis and prescription services online days before the New York state governor issued a stay-at-home order intended to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The two TCM practitioners have since been bombarded daily by phone calls from potential patients, as local Chinese Americans increasingly turn to TCM for help as the pandemic continues to overload NYC's public health system.

"I am kind of scared myself, initially. It's often the case that a person makes an appointment with me, and it always turns out to be for the whole family," says Chen.

Thanks to social networking apps like WeChat and FaceTime, TCM practitioners can have a "relatively comprehensive view" of a patient by conducting three of four TCM diagnosis techniques-looking, listening, and questioning, he says.

COVID-19, as agreed by Chinese TCM experts, is a cold and dampness-related illness, says Chen.

The deadly disease could cause the imbalance of Yin and Yang-two opposite yet complementary energies-in one's body, as a result of living in a humid and wet area.

Noting a patient's tongue is an "important diagnostic tool", Chen says that "a pale and moist tongue with a thick white coating is an indication of excessive dampness".

As the disease develops, the color of the tongue coating darkens to yellow and the tongue's color also darkens to red or purple. The patient could get worse when his or her tongue coating gets thick, dry and cracked, even without an obvious cough and shortness of breath.

To help reduce his workload, Chen's patients would take daily pictures of their tongue with a clear indication of date and time.

The doctor was then able to easily tell if the patient was getting better or worse by simply comparing the pictures.

West-East medicine

As no cure has yet been found for COVID-19, Chen and Jin say that TCM can help in relieving the associated symptoms.

What TCM practitioners do is try to adjust the whole body's health and improve a patient's immunity so that they can better fight the virus, Chen says.

TCM, though not officially recognized in the US and the West, has been around for more than 3,000 years, Jin says, and it has helped fight pandemics in the past, including SARS.

Addressing doubts surrounding the TCM approach in the West and China, the doctors say that the most important thing is to save lives, and it's good if the method reduces the symptoms a little bit, and the more the better.

As TCM practitioners usually do, Jin, Chen and their colleagues help cook and pack the prescribed herbs before having them delivered to the doorsteps of patients if needed.

Most of his patients showed signs of recovery after having one decoction of herbal medicine twice a day for five to 10 consecutive days, Chen says.

For the Chinese community in New York, TCM, in addition to alleviating the pains associated with an illness, also serves as a valuable platform for psychological support, Jin says.

"At least you can get hold of a professional speaking your own language to alleviate the fear, confusion and helplessness brought about by the virus," she says.

The TCM approach is "different from, but can be highly complementary with" current molecular medicines evolved from Western medicine, which focus more on the microscopic level and single targets to treat diseases, according to Yung-Chi Cheng, Henry Bronson Professor of Pharmacology at Yale University.

"In order to meet future health needs, neither Eastern medicines, exemplified by TCM, nor Western medicines, exemplified by current conventional medicine, is sufficient," Cheng says.

"The most effective approach for developing future medicine to meet unmet clinical needs should be the melding of 'w' and 'e' into 'we' medicine," he says.