XIAOLAN ZHAO reading at Indigo Books (2300 Yonge), Monday (January 9), 7 pm. Free. 416-544-0049.
You can set cynical eyes rolling by suggesting there's such a thing as a born healer. But as I watch insensitive medical practitioners literally manhandle my aging parents, for example, or seek out someone to talk to about my own body's weird and unpredictable changes, I'm beginning to believe that there is such a thing as the gift, the touch.
And now that I'm getting a treatment from Xiaolan Zhao, and she holds my hands in hers while examining my tongue and asks me how I'm doing, I'm sure of it.
The thing is, the most talented healers are the first to deny that they have any special gift. Zhao, for example, has been practising traditional Chinese medicine, including acupuncture, since 1992, and has seen over 7,000 patients. Three of them have told me point blank that she saved their lives when everything Western medicine could give them had failed.
They whisper the word "genius."
But as I sit in one of the many rooms in her buzzing clinic on Christie, Zhao says no, it's all about Chinese medicine's alternative model.
"Western medicine wants to control, conquer and kill diseases. Sickness is seen here as weakness, but Chinese medicine teaches that my symptoms are the body communicating with me, telling me I should look after myself.
"It is energetic medicine. The heart has to be there. Doctors need to see the whole body, not just individual components like cogs in a machine. People can feel the energy - even children can feel it," she says.
She maintains a disarmingly steady gaze as she talks, and as the conversation continues I keep trying to figure out how Zhao manages to convey total authority and complete modesty at the same time.
The idea of the clinic, she tells me, was hatched while she was at McMaster University, where she was completing requirements to qualify for medical credentials in Canada. Her colleagues told her not to bother; they'd felt that touch.
"I was giving private sessions to medical colleagues. They would have headaches and I would give them needles and they immediately felt better. They were the ones who discouraged me from completing Western medical training here.
"And I knew that the old-fashioned Western methods of family doctors spending time with patients, trusting their knowledge and their touch, were changing. To get paid by OHIP, you can afford to spend maybe five minutes per patient, not the length of time you need to do the job properly."
She opened the clinic in 1992. The first week she had seven patients, the second week 40. Do the math and you can see how the practice has gone through the roof.
A sense of urgency fuelled her desire to write Reflections Of The Moon On Water, her gentle and insightful guide to women's health. (See review, below.) It's inspired by her experiences at her clinic, where she's been able to help patients get physically unstuck - for lack of better word.
Health is an everyday thing, she says. If people could bring new values into their daily lives, they wouldn't be reeling from medical crisis to medical crisis, and our socialized health care system would be sustainable.
Though in her book Zhao does touch briefly and poignantly on what it was like growing up in China, she could have told a huge epic story about life under communism.
When she was eight months old, the Mao regime removed her parents from her household for the purpose of "re-education." That was happening to all young parents, but it didn't help that, though her father was what she describes as a loyal communist, her mother was critical of the regime.
Zhao was raised by her loving grandmother until her parents returned when she was four. After high school, she was sent away to work on a farm three hours from her hometown of Kunming. She planted rice every day for two years.
"The government had no intention of sending me back to the city, where I could be" - she gives a slight smile here - "contaminated by capitalism. We worked from 4 am to 10 pm. The farmers themselves showed us a lot of love, but I was depressed. I didn't feel like a prisoner, but I felt lost. I wrote entries in my journal asking about the meaning of life and whether this was all my life would become. But the environment didn't stop me. I always wanted to learn more."
Typically, after the two-year re-education process, the authorities then decide who gets the benefit of a post-secondary education.
"That was a nightmare. Only three of the 12 students could be chosen for further schooling."
Big surprise - she was one of the chosen.
(Years later, after she began studying pharmacology at Queens, her professor insisted on writing Immigration a letter in support of her moving to Canada permanently. "She is going to have a major impact on medicine in Canada," he wrote. For someone who claims she doesn't have any particular talent, Zhao sure does get noticed.)
After she left the farm, she studied Western medicine in China because of its efficacy in treating the recurring infectious diseases caused by unhygienic conditions, and Chinese medicine because Mao was revolutionizing the practice.
"Traditionally, it was something handed from father to son, and if the father had no son, the knowledge was buried with him. Mao actually went to the Forbidden City and dug out the old medical texts and formed a Chinese medical university that teaches both. Mao did many very bad things, but one of the good things he did was reorganize Chinese medicine."
She was assigned to a hospital as a surgeon but was really more interested in the traditional practice.
"My knife had no value in chronic care. I can't open every stomach of every patient. Intuitively, I knew that we should be learning prevention, that we should be teaching lifestyle: how you sleep, eat, how you value yourself and your emotions."
Now she believes so strongly in blending the two disciplines that she recently brought a physician, Vince DeMarco, into her practice. She feels no need to prove TCM's authority, and many patients have been impressed with the speed with which she'll call 911 and kick a patient out of the clinic and into a hospital.
The situations most likely to call for this kind of response? Heart attack and infection.
And she doesn't dismiss Western technology either.
"Ultrasounds, blood tests, MRIs - I like to get the full picture. And patients like seeing confirmation that there's something there. I, too, like to see what's going on inside."
But the key is equilibrium. There's no day without night, Zhao says, no moon without the sun. In one startling passage in her book, she insists that even too much joy can be dangerous to your health.
"It's all about emotional balance," she says. "I think the breast cancer epidemic here has a lot to do with women holding onto anger and frustration. There is very little breast cancer in China because diet is a another big factor - food is medicine. Here, there are way too many hormones in the food.
"And nobody takes birth control pills in China."
She admits to missing her home country, but she says she's pretty certain she's here for good.
"I still feel very connected to the Chinese culture. When I go back there, I arrive feeling empty, and when I set foot in the Chinese hospital I feel energized. I don't feel completed or connected here. I feel nourished there, like a fish in water.
"But I could never go back to China - I just couldn't leave my patients."
A lot of people in this town will be relieved to hear it.
REFLECTIONS OF THE MOON ON WATER: HEALING WOMEN'S BODIES THROUGH TRADITIONAL CHINESE WISDOM By Xiaolan Zhao (Random House), 316 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
This primer on ancient Chinese practices mixes philosophy, personal insight and advice into a very pleasurable read.
Zhao takes readers through the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine, explaining the relationship between essence, spirit and energy. She then charts a woman's life chapter by chapter, contrasting Eastern and Western approaches to its phases. For example, in the West we call menstruation "the curse," while in TCM it's known as "heavenly water." What's referred to here as menopause is called "second spring" in China.
Each chapter contains charts and diagrams that outline exercises, recipes or personal meditations to help deal with the distress that can accompany each aspect of the life cycle.
A particularly lovely element of Reflections is Zhao's openness with her memories of life as a child and student in China.
This is an excellent and highly readable intro to a medical alternative rapidly gaining steam in Canada, especially in Ontario.