For skeptics of Eastern medicine, let me share a story with you.
In Fall 2015, I was in a minor bike accident where I broke my right elbow, and left wrist. It was right around the time I started to launch my hands-on career as an Acupuncturist so the timing was terrible.
One year later, I couldn’t be more grateful for this break.
I had chipped the tip of my elbow, which was more painful than cumbersome, but more importantly I had broken the hardest bone in the body to heal: the scaphoid. The scaphoid is a small bone in the wrist joint that gets very little blood flow. Because of the lack of blood to nourish the bone, in almost 85% of patients with a scaphoid break, the bone begins to die and surgery with artificial joints becomes necessary. Yikes!
I brought myself to Minneapolis Orthopedics the morning after the injury to get x-rays and a diagnosis. Knowing little about the scaphoid bone, I followed the doctors advice to simply splint the wrist for a few days and go about business as usual until I could be seen for an MRI, which wouldn’t be scheduled for another 2 weeks! Warning sign #1: I value Western medicine for acute care situations and it’s my understanding that MRI’s and X-rays should be done right away to provide a diagnosis and prevent further injury. I should have transitioned Doctors right here, but then I suppose it wouldn’t be much of a story.
By the time my MRI came around I knew the wrist was broken. The pain was the same, as was the swelling. The MRI confirmed breaks in both the elbow and wrist. So the doctor had an assistant cast me right away. And right away I knew the cast wasn’t right. The cast went half way up my fingers and felt distinctly uncomfortable. The doctor came in to recast it, alarmed at the initial cast job, and again something didn’t feel quiet right. I told him it felt too tight. The skin on my forearm was bulging out, but he assured me that it was fine and that I’d probably end up needing surgery for this break anyway. When he left the room, the assistant, who had been popping her bubblegum in the corner, giggled and said, “it’s funny, we just don’t do much casting here”…hilarious. I left with more wrist pain than when I had entered the building. Warning sign #2, 3, and 4.
I called the office back several hours later because my fingers were cold and discolored, and I was having a burning pain in my forearm. I asked to come in and have the cast redone. The doctor refused, saying, and I quote “that cast is the best I can do for you.” Warning, warning!
Loosing feeling in my fingers, I spent the night at the ER to have the cast removed. When the ER doctor saw the cast she was appalled by the sloppy workmanship, by how tight the cast was set, and that it was missing the most essential piece to cast for a scaphoid break – the thumb casting. Apparently, that is crucial. She told me that this was negligent practice and far below a reasonable standard care. If I hadn’t come in to get the cast removed I could have had nerve damage or worse, lost functioning of my fingers. Ding, ding, ding. Warning signs acknowledged!
Bare with me folks I know this is a bit long, but this story has a useful ending!
After 6 grueling hours on the phone the next day with insurance companies, I was able to switch providers. That’s chaos is a whole different story.
I specifically choose to see a D.O., Dr.Wiley, because D.O.’s get extra training in the integration of the patient’s perspective. This is where the experience turned around for me. Dr.Wiley was really concerned that I hadn’t had proper care the first 2 weeks after the break. He notified me the break was about as bad as it gets in terms of healing, but assured me he’d do everything possible before putting me into surgery. He also noted that the healing process would take at least 9 months, as it does on average for this type of break. Nine months of healing before a potential surgery with even more healing arrived to me just as my Acupuncture & bodywork career were supposed to be starting. Nooooo, Universe!
Luckily, with the integration of both Western and Eastern medicine I was able to get that healing time down to only 2 months!!! This is the fastest Dr. Wiley has ever seen anyone recover from a scaphoid break. And let me tell you, I’ve broken bones and had many scrapes in the past and I am NOT a fast healer. Quiet the opposite actually. The success can only be attributed to the integration of Chinese medicine in a major injury. Read on to learn how I did it.
Right after the break, I started to apply a Chinese herbal tincture to increase blood flow to the wrist and reduce inflammation, which significantly helped my pain levels. Week 3 I was placed into a hard cast (which properly included the thumb) by Dr.Wiley. This is where I start my healing timer, since it’s where the integration of Western and Eastern medicine truly began.
I had heard of something called a zipper cast, which allows patients to take their cast off for special purposes. I explained to Dr.Wiley how important it was to me to be able to include Eastern medicine – Acupuncture, herbs and manual stimulation – during my healing process. He agreed to check back in on my progress after 2 weeks of being in the hard cast to discuss the potential for the zipper cast. When I checked in with him 2 weeks later, there hadn’t been improvements to my healing, but it hadn’t gotten worse either (the bone wasn’t dying). He agreed to give me a shot, and trust that I would only take the cast off for the purpose of my treatments and not for convenience.
It just made sense to me – if a break doesn’t heal because of the lack of nutrients and blood flow, then binding and immobilizing it doesn’t seem like an efficient solution when used alone. So I did everything possible to utilize my knowledge of Eastern medicine. I loafed the skin to create blood flow and stimulate the lymphatic system, I did acupuncture on the wrist, hand and fingers 2-3 times a day, I took bone building Chinese herbs internally, and I soaked the wrist once a day in Chinese herbs that promote blood flow and healing. I also continued my yoga practice, and did visualizations of the bone healing and my wrist and hand working again. It was A LOT! And was a lot to commit to, but the use of my hand and wrist is crucial to my profession, so I did everything I could.
I had also just gotten my very first kitten a few days before the break, and was finishing up medical boards, so trust me, if I can commit to this kind of time for healing, I believe anyone can!
After 1 month in the zipper cast, Dr.Wiley was amazed by the bones progress, told me surgery wouldn’t be necessary, and switched me into a splint which allowed me to slowly start to use my fingers again. I was thrilled!
2 more weeks in the splint, and then my wrist was completely free! The speed of the healing was surreal, and it was completely due to the addition of Eastern medicine to Western practices. I couldn’t have done this without both modalities.
The reason I’m grateful for this experience is because I got to directly discover the power of Chinese medicine and of medical integration. Both are practices I firmly support. I also experienced the exhaustion and frustration of being a patient. My gut was SCREAMING at me with the first doctor I saw. I knew it wasn’t good care, but it was hard to advocate for myself, I felt like I was arguing or doing something “wrong” when I stated my needs.
This experience solidified my desire to help my patients through their own advocacy in all forms of their care. I truly think we know our bodies best. I think that’s devalued in our culture. I also know now how powerful Chinese medicine is first hand.
There’s just something about experiencing healing yourself that really brings the truth to light.