The pulse of Tibetan medicine

10:22, June 01, 2011      

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Nyima, a 56-year-old Tibetan doctor, diagnoses a patient at the Tibet Medical Hospital in Lhasa on May 23. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

As a boy, Nyima was shocked the first time he saw his father diagnose an illness by reading someone's pulse.

"He was aware of patients' conditions, even lifestyles, by putting his fingers on their wrists," Nyima said. "It seemed a miracle for me."

Nyima, then 13, begged his father to let him feel the pulse, but he didn't know how the pulsations could carry so much information.

"My father laughed and taught me how to recognize subtle differences between different pulses," said Nyima, now a 56-year-old Tibetan doctor at the Tibet Medical Hospital in Lhasa. "He said I can only master this skill after decades of experience and hard training, but Tibetan medicine had already become fascinating to me."

Compared with modern hospitals, the Tibet Medical Hospital is old and dim. The smell of herbal medicine pervades the building and local patients wearing traditional Tibetan wool cloaks wait on wooden benches outside doctors' offices.

When Nyima arrives at his office - a small consulting room at the end of a corridor - his patients rise to greet him. A big smile flashes on his tanned face, and he touches his thick mustache with a thumb and jokes to his patients.

"Wait for me a little longer, I have to change into a white jacket to be a doctor," he says. Everybody laughs. Nyima is one of the most popular doctors in the hospital.

He was also one of the most hardworking students in college. Apart from clinical training, memorizing the Four Tantras of Tibetan Medicine - a classic of ancient Tibetan medical theory - was the most important part of his studies.

He said that in his father's generation, the final test to get a doctor certificate at the hospital was fluently reciting the Four Tantras in front of all the teachers, which could take at least five hours. Nyima spent three years learning to recite three of the four tantras, which are still considered a basic resource for Tibetan doctors.

Unlike traditional Chinese medicine that is based on yin and yang, Tibetan medicine considers the balance of three principles - heat, cold and circulation - as the foundation of health.

Tibetan doctors employ a complex approach to diagnosis, incorporating techniques such as pulse analysis and urinalysis, and utilize behavior and dietary modification, medicines composed of natural materials like herbs and minerals, and physical therapies including Tibetan acupuncture and heat to treat illness.

Nyima said he relies a lot on traditional Tibetan medicine for treatment, which is cheap and applicable even in the most remote areas where medical equipment is scarce.

Nyima said Tibetan medicine is good at curing chronic diseases with fewer side effects, and also has been proven effective in curing fractures, diabetes and various difficult and complicated cases, which have not been explained and cured by Western medicine.

According to Dradul, president of the Tibet Medical Hospital, Tibetan medicine is becoming increasingly popular not only within China, where specialized hospitals run in many cities, but also in India, Nepal, Bhutan and more recently in parts of Europe and North America.

But Tibetan medicine also has its weakness, Nyima said. "It does little to help in emergencies and for some severe diseases."

Nyima remembered in 1990 a patient with a brain tumor asking him for help. The doctor tried his best and still found the Tibetan medicine couldn't keep the tumor from worsening. When the patient finally accepted Nyima's advice to go to a modern hospital, the scan showed he already missed the best time for surgery.

"I felt guilty and helpless," he said.

So Nyima started to learn Western medicine. He said Lhasa now has seven modern hospitals to which he will recommend patients in critical condition.

The Western medical examination technologies, including blood tests, X-ray examinations and electrocardiograms, have been introduced in the Tibet Medical Hospital.

The introduction of Western medicine has served as a double-edged sword to the development of traditional Tibetan medicine, Nyima said.

"Experienced Tibetan doctors used to tell what disease the patient was suffering from by visually examining the color, smell, bubbles and sediments in a urine sample, and placing the urine in different metal containers can also help finalize the diagnosis," Nyima said.

"But now fewer Tibetan doctors are able to do that, relying more on modern urine tests that make the diagnosis easier and more accurate."

Nyima said it would be a pity that one day local doctors stop practicing traditional Tibetan medicine - a magic art that has been etched in his mind since early childhood.

"Ancient Tibetan medicine is not only a medical service, but also a tradition and culture that Tibetans have believed and cherished for thousands of years," said Nyima. "What I would like to see is that the tradition is carried on, even improved with modern technology, to help more people in the future."

Source:China Daily
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