Sometimes, we just have to say no when everyone thinks we should say yes in order to pursue our passion, even when we have no idea where it will lead. Such was the case when young Arya Nielsen declined acceptance into Tufts Medical School after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The anti-Vietnam war protests were raging and the whole country was undergoing a major cultural change. Nielsen took an interest in indigenous healing practices and had read about the Barefoot Doctors Initiative in China, where people in the countryside were trained to treat and detect sub-clinical (but not yet apparent) disease by using traditional methods, like looking at tongues and taking pulses.
“Now this was preventative medicine,” Nielsen said, while recalling her decision to reject medical school and study at the New England School of Acupuncture, the first acupuncture school in the U.S.
The school was founded by Dr. James Tin Yau So, who became Nielsen’s mentor and teacher. Ted Kaptchuk, who is now at Harvard Medical School and author of the classic book on Chinese medicine, The Web That Has No Weaver, was the other principal instructor at the school.
Today, Nielsen works at the Beth Israel Medical Center (a teaching hospital of Albert Einstein Medical College) where she does research, treats patients and heads a program that trains acupuncturists to work alongside doctors in inpatient care. She has been there for 10 years and has been a practicing acupuncturist for over 30 years. She has her doctorate in Philosophies of Medicine: Integrative Clinical Science and Health Care.
It was from Nielsen that we, as first-year students at the Tri-State College of Acupuncture on 14th Street and 8th Avenue, learned how to administer the Asian healing technique, gua sha, which she had learned from Dr. So. It was fascinating watching her treat a spasm, sciatica, or carpal tunnel syndrome by gently rubbing the surface with a smooth-edged disposable instrument to bring “sha,” or stagnant blood, out of the muscle to the surface into the subcutaneous layer under the skin. We practiced on each other under her guidance and found that, even though we had red, purple or blue “petechiae” on our skin — it looks like a hickey —for a couple of days, our flexibility, chronic tension or stiffness more than noticeably improved.
Today, as a practitioner of acupuncture, almost every patient I treat gets a little gua sha, which is so well-known in the East that usually the “cook of the house” administers it to whomever is in need whether for a cold, fever, a tight neck, or chronic tension,among other complaints. Once, I treated Vietnamese twins for chronically tight muscles, and when I started to explain what I would be doing, their eyes lit up and they told me how their mother, when they were in Vietnam, would do cao yio (as the technique is called there) whenever they had a fever. She would put some balm on their back and use a smooth edge, like a piece of ivory, a coin or even a hardened bean, to “scrape” the skin smoothly and then cover them in blankets. They would sweat, sleep and wake up and “be totally better.”
Nielsen says that gua sha is a big part of her work at Beth Israel “because it is so effective.” She mentioned a number of recent scientific studies supporting the evidence that centuries of practice have already proven.
I recently watched the movie, The Gua Sha Treatment, a popular contemporary Chinese film in which a grandfather treats his grandson with gua sha for a stomach ache. The extended family lives in Minneapolis and, when the marks on the young boy’s back are discovered, he is taken away from his parents in order to avoid further “abuse.” It is a story of cultural misunderstanding that gets resolved in the end with the not-so-subtle message to the viewer to keep an open mind when it comes to other traditions. Most of my patients are grateful for Nielsen’s open mind, curiosity and intellectual vigor. Her saying yes to studying East Asian medicine has yielded many rewards, not just for her, but for the people she treats.