Guidepoints: Acupuncture in Recovery, Aug. 1995 - Don't worship the AIDS virus. Instead, give support, honor and power to a person's own life force and healing energy.
So said Michael O. Smith, MD, DAc, speaking from his experience as one of the first, beginning in the early 80's, to use Chinese medicine in the treatment of HIV-related diseases.
"I think a great deal of what we do, even in the Chinese medical community, is to worship the virus by giving it more strength, more value, more life than you have," Smith told attendees in June at the Third Annual HIV/AIDS and Chinese Medicine Conference in New York City.
For example, Smith said, people will say the virus is "sneaky or delayed or subtle" if someone gets infected but it takes five or six years for the virus to develop. "Why not say that the immune system of that person was strong enough to hold back the infection for six years?" Smith said. "How many sentences can you find in a medical text, from any source, that indicate there is some value in that person's immune system right now?
"Because if you can't see that, then you can't see the point of acupuncture helping the person," he added. "All acupuncture is going to do is help the person help themselves."
Smith said the misunderstanding has some roots in a difference in thinking between Western and Chinese medicine. Western medicine tends to be linear -- you are either well, and then, at some specific point, you get sick. Chinese medicine, in contrast, tends to be circular in its diagnosis and relationship to the patient. Every person has a place along a never-ending continuum -- you are always at some degree of expression of the interaction of complementary life energies.
"If you come to me and say, 'How do you understand my problem from a Chinese medical point of view,' I have to have an answer," he said. "I'm going to look at a circle of five phases, and a circle of yin and yang, and if you're alive, you're somewhere on that circle.
"In Western medicine, you have to be on a line, at some distant point, so there's a rush to judgement," he said. "You have a condition like AIDS, or chronic fatigue syndrome. The illness doesn't exist until it's on the line, at some point. And so the illness is either ignored, or you give steroids or pain pills so that it's sedated until there is a point of precise, mechanistic, categorization of illness. That forces people to either ignore conditions or rush to judgement. "In Chinese medicine, the balance is built in," he added. "If I have a person with AIDS, I can relate to him as a person."
Smith said another way people give the virus power and deny the patient's own healing power is to suggest that no one will ever recover once they are infected. That is not the case in past history, he said. Whenever there was a major epidemic, Smith said, significant numbers of people did recover.
"To say that you found an epidemic where no one will respond well, is to just change the history books," he said. "And to say that antibodies to HIV are only a bad thing -- if you do that why do you have your kids get vaccination? You believe in antibodies when the kid's four, but you don't believe in antibodies later on.
"These really come across as all or none situations," he added. "Because the whole issue of AIDS is a temptation for the regular world to let people die, to be nihilistic.
"And to do our practice and to work with people we have to avoid those things as much as we can," he said. "Your patient has to be able to see that there's some value in themselves."
Smith, a co-founder of the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA), was one of several dozen speakers at the three-day conference at Columbia University. He is director of Lincoln Hospital's acupuncture clinic, where he has personally treated more than 2,000 HIV-infected patients.
As probably the first institution of any type to use Chinese methods for HIV disease, Lincoln was the origination point for the first paper on the subject, by Smith, which came out in 1983. As Smith explains: "For awhile we were the only people doing this treatment. Part of the reason was that then there was still a big question: Would we get sick too, from working with these patients?"
The early Lincoln work led to training of many of the other clinicians who have since carried the techniques to other states and countries.
Smith continues to have regular contact with HIV patients. Besides his Lincoln work, he sees 20 patients a week at a program run by the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), perhaps the largest AIDS treatment site in New York. The conference at which Smith spoke was organized by the AIDS and Chinese Medicine Institute, a non-profit organization. Audiotapes are available. Contact: (415) 282-4028 Fax 282-2935 in San Francisco.