You’ve probably heard tales of westerners traveling to Asia to study the use of herbs, acupuncture or qigong. Studying these traditional arts is an extremely worthwhile endeavor, even for the casual student or hobbyist. However, Dr. Marc Wasserman is the real deal by all accounts. He forewent the conventional path to a western medical degree and decided to move to Asia to earn his PhD in Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was an 11 year journey which led him through pre-med, Chinese language courses, to Asia and back to Maryland. It’s a very inspiring story for anyone interested in Asia. Read on!
Leap66: Hi Marc, you’ve recently opened Flow Health Clinic (http://www.flowhealthclinic.com/) in Maryland offering Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) services. Tell us a little about your clinic and the work you’re currently doing.
Marc Wasserman: Hi Ryan. First of all thank you for your interest. And thanks for setting up this time to talk.
What I’m doing right now is providing the treatments we performed at our clinic in Taipei to the local community. It is something that is not readily available here in Maryland and a service that I wanted to offer for people in need. Over the years in Taiwan I worked alongside Dr.Lee Chen-Yu at his clinic in Taipei, witnessing remarkable treatment outcomes and learning both the classical and modern approaches to dealing with illness. A modern understanding of Chinese medicine grounded in classical theory, that’s the key to it all. Never losing touch with tradition and lineage, but simultaneously being able to understand the requirements of participating in the modern healthcare world.
L66: Let’s back up a bit. You started out your undergraduate degree in pre-med and then later switched your major to Chinese language. Do you recall a moment where you thought “Okay, I’m definitely going to pursue TCM as my career path”? What made you get serious about it?
MW: You know, growing up I always wanted to work in medicine. And I always loved languages. I also had some very close Chinese and Taiwanese friends and teachers and coaches. And from them I’d tried to learn words and how to write Chinese characters, it was terrible…I mean my attempts at pronunciation and handwriting, very embarrassing to say the least. Nonetheless that curiosity lead me to my interest in acupuncture and what people were calling alternative medicine. In high school I used to read whatever books I could find on the subject. Learning about five element theory, yin and yang, channel theory, nutrition, and so on… I couldn’t make much sense of it at the time, but felt that there was something really meaningful and useful in this differing approach to health. That combined with the gaps I’d seen in conventional medical care are what put the thought in my head of making it a career path. At the time I’d had no idea how to approach this field of study. I finished my first two years of pre-med at University of Maryland, and taking a step back to consider my future, I just felt like there were so many capable students pursuing medical careers through the conventional route, perhaps I’d be more useful taking a different approach. That was when I switched majors. Still not having any idea as to how I would pursue medical studies but felt that opportunities would be available to me in China or Taiwan if I just had the language skills. I continued taking science courses keeping my options open, but more and more I was excited about the new direction.
L66: I imagine the first part of that journey was to establish a solid foundation in Chinese language. How much time did you spend studying Chinese here in the States before you made your trip to Asia? Did you feel that you were a natural with Mandarin or did you struggle with the language when you started out?
MW: Yes. Language was the key. And I have to thank my first teachers from the University. Li Laoshi and that whole group had such patience with me…And no I was not a natural. I had a strong memory for a word’s meaning and how to write the character, but my pronunciation and grammar were horrendous…I remember one day after class Li Laoshi saying to me, “Wang Hao (my Chinese name) your tones sound like you are singing…” She didn’t mean that as a compliment…rather that my pronunciation was off tone and not decipherable. I studied hard, even from the beginning, really wanting to become fluent. But it wasn’t easy. The pronunciation was really my biggest challenge. Reading and writing, even grammar can be improved with focus and hard work, but intonation was always so difficult to get right.
L66: What influences did your Chinese instructors at the university have on your path toward studying TCM? What led to your decision to study medicine in Taiwan?
MW: They were the whole reason why I went to Taiwan. I was drawn to China actually, and had even looked into some university programs there, but my professors encouraged me to first go to Taiwan for at least a year and then maybe move on to studying in China.
L66: When you arrived in Taiwan you joined Yusheng Chinese Medical Clinic (育生中醫診所) and studied with Dr. Lee Chen-Yu. Not being a large hospital, is an organization like that accustomed to admitting foreign students/staff? Can you describe the application process? Were there other foreigners working/studying there besides you?
MW: Yes, they do from time to time have foreign students apprentice at the clinic. Dr. Lee’s position is that if you are interested and hard working you are welcome to come learn. He himself began as a young man apprenticing with his uncle before going on to formal studies and building a career as one of the top TCM doctors in the world. When I first arrived, my now good friend Frank, was the most senior of the students (local or foreign). There were also a couple of other students from France and Japan at the time. Dr. Lee had a history of working with a few foreign students, including Nigel Wiseman, who has gone on to write many of the important English language texts on Chinese medicine and Daniel Altschuler who is now a professor at the Seattle Institute of Oriental Medicine.
To apply I had to fill out some basic forms and commit a set amount of hours for coming in to the clinic every week. Though that was not a problem…I was so excited to have the opportunity I think they had to tell me not to come in so much and remind me that reading and studying time was just as important as hanging around the clinic to start.
L66: So once you were accepted as a staff member how well were you received? Did you feel the doctors there were generous with their knowledge right from the start or did it take them some time to warm up to you? I just have this image of the traditional Chinese master-student relationship where they first make you pay your dues before they’ll teach you anything! 🙂
MW: Dr. Lee was very generous from the start. Though he wouldn’t water down his language and he’d expect you to study hard. He expected you to read, read a lot actually and ask questions. The first day I arrived at the clinic after talking for a minute, he sent me across the street to the bookstore and had me pickup Fundamental Theory of Chinese Medicine, all in Chinese of course. I’d read that book every night, and as much as I had free time and he or the other doctors would answer questions as they came up, in addition to teaching various lessons as opportunities popped up in the clinic. The other doctors were also very willing to share their knowledge but were not quite as outgoing in their personalities so it was a bit harder to make a connection at first. You are right that many apprenticeships with TCM doctors must first pay their dues and slowly earn the knowledge that is passed down from the master; but with Dr. Lee this was never the case. He’d answer any question I’d had, often directing me to the source text where I could find information. He’d also share openly everything he’d learned.
L66: I understand your role at the clinic began with learning about the qualities of individual herbs and learning how to prepare various herbal formulas. You then moved on to the acupuncture department and finally finished with training in TCM methods of diagnosis. Was this your chosen path or was it prescribed by the clinic’s training program?
MW: That was basically the progression as designed by Dr. Lee and the rest of the staff. It worked well. Working behind the pharmacy counter gave me lots of opportunities to chat casually with employees and visitors. This really helped with polishing language skills in the beginning. The work we’d do there was to fill prescriptions, weighing out and bagging herbs as prescribed by Dr. Lee. I was encouraged to taste and get familiar with everything. It was overwhelming, and later on in my studies I’d always wander back to the pharmacy counter when I’d have a minute, just to handle the herbs and reinforce it all once again.
Learning the individual herbs, how they are prepared and combined and dosed; I always come back to that as the heart of the medicine. All the theory and diagnostics can be seen neatly wrapped up in each unique prescription. Even though a lot of that was over my head to start, when I moved on to acupuncture and diagnosis, it was much easier to absorb. And like I said, I’d always come back to the herbal pharmacy to refresh my memory, it’s really a lot to remember all those herbs…You know, people always seem impressed when you can remember the name and location of the more than 350 acupoints in the body, but it is the herbs that are most challenging…
L66: If you could go back to those early days of TCM training what would you have done differently?
MW: I always felt like I was in good hands with my learning. I’ve been very fortunate to have the best of teachers to guide me.
One thing that I wish I would have done more of early on though, was to prepare salves, topical treatments, and medicinal wines. These are more on the periphery of Chinese herbal medicine. At the clinic we used to make a lot of these products, but I always wanted to try to make some more customized ones at home. When I finally got interested in those, I was totally engaged in my research work and didn’t have much time for side projects.
L66: Your studies later took you to Liaoning University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (遼寧中醫藥大學) in northeastern China and I believe you spent four years in that program. There must have been some pretty difficult texts you had to get through, not only in modern Chinese but also classical Chinese. How did you cope with all that reading?
MW: Yeah, I actually spent six years in that program. The four years prior I spent apprenticing in Taiwan and getting through the major texts of Chinese Medicine.To get into the program I had to take an entrance exam based on several classic texts. Classical Chinese is not difficult, it just takes some time to adjust to the sentence structures. I think it is important to be able to look at the source material that makes up most modern day textbooks and form your own opinions. For example Shang Han Lun as recreated from scattered documents, can seem difficult to understand at parts, some people would argue that the restoration of the text has portions that are incorrect, or out of place, or incomplete…Nonetheless if you can at least look at the material yourself you can form your own individual opinion and gather knowledge from commentaries to try to get the best understanding of the text. So I coped with all the reading very slowly…but that learning has gone a long way in opening up resources for me to consult and I’m grateful that Dr. Lee my mentor always encouraged me to continue reading no matter how slow or confusing.
L66: In 2014 you became the first American of non-Asian heritage to earn a PhD through the Liaoning University program. How does your training in Eastern and Western medicine give you a different perspective when working with patients?
MW: The most important thing in working with patients is giving them treatment that works for their condition. Second most important is being able to explain clearly in a way that they can understand; the plan of treatment, the reasoning behind it, what to expect going forward, and so on…The language of Chinese medicine can be abstract and I work hard to explain it clearly to people, it is part of what I’m doing in my courses at the university as well as with each individual patient. I think people appreciate a logical explanation as to how their prescribed treatment was developed and how it works to help the body overcome a particular disease. Being able to speak in a way that patients understand clearly is important no matter what specialty a doctor chooses. As Einstein said, “if you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it well enough.” That is what I’m trying to do, is to overcome misconceptions about acupuncture and herbal medicine and foster good communication between myself and patients, as well as other doctors, professionals, and students.
L66: I’ve heard TCM practitioners and patients say that Western medicine focuses too much on treating symptoms and relies too much on powerful medicines that could harm one’s health. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Western medicine?
MW: A disease is both the pathological changes to the body as well as outward signs and symptoms. In TCM this is called “root and branch” theory. It is important to treat both; patients need relief of symptoms as well as recovery from the underlying condition. This is not as much of a distinction between Western medicine and TCM as people sometimes think. The goals are the same, it is simply a different way of explaining pathology and treatment. Nonetheless there are many pharmaceutical medications which harm the body, either through toxicity to the liver and kidneys, irritation of the digestive tract, impact of the biochemistry of the endocrine and neuroendocrine systems and so on. This is a big distinction between using herbal medicine compound formulas and pharmaceuticals or extracts. An important feature of TCM is that the herbal prescription is a balanced formula of herbs which enhance effects of all components, minimize toxicity, and target treatment on a specific area or tissue in the body. The formula can easily be modified following improvement or change in the patient’s condition. With pharmaceutical medications, people sometimes find that they start taking more and more both in dosage and variety to strengthen effects or to counteract side-effects, this is not the case with a compound herbal prescription by TCM standards.
L66: You might also read in Western medical journals that alternative medicine like TCM is not effective in some cases, or that research has shown some herbs to be toxic. What would you say to this? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of Eastern medicine?
MW: Of course medicine is not always effective in all cases. Treating patients and battling disease is very tricky. That is why it is most important for a patient to be aware of all options available to them. The doctor should work with the patient to understand what type of treatment is best for them, and if there are options available to the patient which we might not understand we need to refer the patient or consult with a professional to get the patient the best knowledge available.
There are many herbs which are toxic, most of which we no longer use and warnings of toxicity and adverse reactions have existed for hundreds of years. For herbs that may have slight toxicity it is minimized through curing and preparation techniques. The important thing with herbal medicine is that the doctor understands the condition of the patient, avoiding overly strong prescriptions for patients that may already be deficient due to disease, aging, or aggressive treatments; at the same time patients with serious illness may need very strongly dosed prescriptions in order to resolve symptoms fast enough and avoid damage to the body.
L66: Let’s talk again about your Flow Health Clinic. Do you have partnerships with other medical schools or clinics in the area? How does your knowledge and experience in TCM compliment other local medical organizations in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area?
MW: I am teaching some courses at Virginia University of Oriental Medicine. I’m always trying to increase the network of doctors who I can refer patients to and work together with. As I’ve been away for a long time it is difficult re-establishing connections here. Thankfully many of my patients have been impressed with treatment results and so have their general practitioners and specialists, helping me to expand my network.
L66: How are you keeping your knowledge of TCM up to date? Do you still maintain relationships with your teachers? How often do you have the opportunity to travel to Taiwan and China?
MW: I talk with Dr. Lee weekly. We’re still working on a book of case studies from his clinic in Taiwan, which I hope will come out soon. Additionally I enjoy creating course material for students at the university, doing some original translation and grabbing from current research findings.
L66: How do you envision your business developing over the next 5 years? Are you satisfied with the amount of work you’re currently doing? Do you have plans for offering new services or opening another clinic?
MW: I expect that it will grow, and I have goals of how I want to develop the clinic when I have some more revenue. But my focus is always on being available for patients at all times for whatever they need. Right now I’m just a very small one-man operation. But my plans include having an onsite herbal pharmacy/preparation area and involving other practitioners in the clinic. I enjoy working with a broad spectrum of patient conditions from minor aches and pains to serious debilitating diseases. Another of my goals is increasing public awareness as to the variety of conditions that can be treated very well with herbal medicine and acupuncture.
L66: Well congratulations on opening your clinic. It was years in the making and you must feel very fortunate to be doing something you love. Best of luck with everything. We’ll be sure to keep in touch.
MW: Thanks Ryan. Great talking with you as well. Let’s do this again soon. And to you and anyone who finds your blog, wishing you all health and harmony.
Learn more about Marc’s Flow Health Clinic here: