Thursday, September 22, 2011

Free Clinic

If you have read my very first blog story in July, you'd know that I was born premature. Because of that, and for a very long time, my mom thought I had hernia. Sure, my bollocks were not balanced (a condition I put down to development, not affliction). In time, I would be proven right.

Nevertheless, my mom took this one symptom of hernia and named it upon me. So growing up I was constantly advised not to exert or strain myself too much. I sometimes believed (erroneously) that my good testicle would overwork and burst like a shower, leaving me an eunuch with a high-pitched woman's voice. Ah doi!

Fortunately, I was an active kid and proved many times that I could run, jump and roll around as well as any non-hernia boy. The affliction thus became non-physical, more like a mysterious rash that needed to be gotten rid of. I did what every filial son would do: obliged my goodhearted mom and consumed her various medical concoctions without complaint. It was the same with the many trips to the Chinese "yee sung" or doctors, and to the TCM shops to buy Lo Fu Nai, or Tiger's Milk (see first blog entry, A Premature Baby). I liked getting out of the house so it was a non-issue for me. Plus, going out with my mom, there would always be something new to eat.

Fierce geese
In Geylang, there was a popular free Chinese clinic somewhere along Lor 20 or thereabouts. It was not exactly free, but a visit with prescribed medicine cost only 10 cents. It was only 5 cents if you returned the empty medicine bottle.

Because it was so cheap, my mum brought us many siblings there whenever we were sick. The medicines we got back from that dispensary were often in solution form and dark brown. That colour itself set alarm bells going. It meant that the meds were face-scrunchingly bitter to swallow - and they always were. But that's TCM. If it wasn't bitter, it wouldn't be Chinese medicine. Today, dispensaries add fruit peel extract to make it palatable, especially for the younger patients. My mom would help chase that bitter taste away by giving us some preserved fruit tidbits. Small packets of sourly, stringy stuff that my sister YF also liked.

Oftentimes we kids would go back to the clinic ourselves to take home additional medicines. On several occasions, I remember being chased by geese that wandered about the area. It wasn't in Lor 20 but a couple of streets away along a path that ran parallel to a block of apartments some four to five storeys high. It was painted in light blue and still is. Always there's this one aggressive gander that did the posturing, chasing, and pecking. The rest of the flock just followed his lead.

Dr Phang
If we were sick and needed a Western doctor, my mom would bring us to Phang Clinic. This clinic was situated along Geylang Road somewhere between Lor 27A and Lor 28 and run by a GP and his kind and elegant wife. We became their regular patients and they became good friends with my mom. We stayed in touch even after we moved away from Geylang years later. Whenever my mom visited her medium friend in Marine Parade, she would also drop by to see Dr Phang and his wife. They were a nice and patient couple with no airs about them. Like my mom, Dr Phang's wife was also interested in jade.

Despite the many changes in Geylang over the years, Phang Clinic remained in its location for a very long time. I think it closed only quite recently or had moved away from its present location. I don't see the clinic these days when I drive along Geylang Rd. However, I can still locate it on Google Map.

Visiting Dr Phang's clinic, I did not just get better educated on health and hygiene matters (the many wall posters). The good doctor liked to read National Geographic and would put out issues he had read in his clinic's waiting area. NG was not a common magazine back then. It was expensive both new and old. As a kid, I've seen old copies being sold at Sungei Road Market. The pictures of exotic animals and tribesmen would fascinate me, not to mention the well- illustrated infographics. There were the odd pull-outs and extra posters. I was most tempted to pinch these but the thought of depriving the next reader banished any such thoughts!

TCM - As good
Having been an oft-patient of these two schools of medicine, I've developed an open mind towards their methods and cures. Of late, I liked TCM better because it has improved a lot. It could cure the many general illnesses that plague us as quickly as targeted Western medicine can. In other words, TCM too have their Panadol quick cures.

As a Chinese, I think TCM works better with my body's constitution. In any case, I'm used to it, whether it is to swallow a bunch of small round pills (often eight at a go) or to consume a concoction brewed out of bitter herbs.

A recent bout of illness convinced me that TCM deserves better respect. In many crucial areas like eczema, high fever, internal injuries and spinal nerve rebuilding, TCM triumphs over Western med. But because TCM is still seen as a non-targeted remedy, some folks consider it more 'feel' than science.

But in truth TCM do have many targeted cures. If you are sick, it can send you right back to work after a couple of days of MC. You need not lie in bed to wait for that bowl of medicine - a scene commonly played out in Chinese stories and movies. Few people die or have allergies to TCM.

Mystery illness
Some years ago, I mysteriously came down with a cough after eating some chilli. I was very surprised as I am a frequent chilli and curry eater. I seldom also if ever come down with cough or sore throat before.

As a matter of fact, I consider myself someone with a rather strong and resilient throat. I have never smoked nor drank and led a rather healthy lifestyle. So, for that to happen, it was extremely puzzling and distressing.

In any case, the cough got very bad, especially at night. It became phlegmy and gave me a headache too, not to mention chest pains from some very bone-wracking coughs. I could not eat anything that was oily, chilli, curry, coffee nor chocolate. Each time I did, my throat would irritate and produce phlegm. It went on for two long years.

During this time I searched the WWW a lot and learnt to make various nourishment soups. But while they seemed to work for other people with chronic coughs, they had no effect on me whatsoever. In between soups, I went to see my GP. As expected, he gave me all kinds of cough syrup and antibiotics (narrow spectrum, broad spectrum). But none worked. In the end, he was so desperate he asked if I would try asthma medicine. I told him no. I might have had 'hernia' but I definitely knew I did not have asthma. So I stopped seeing him.

Search for a cure
It was then that I decided to see my Chinese doctor, someone I knew since my teens. But good as he was, I did not agree with his diagnosis. He kept insisting that I was 'heaty' because of my type of phlegm. I'm not a young fella anymore so I ought to know if I was heaty or not. I had also not consumed fried foods very much. In the end, I ate half the medicines he gave me and found them quite useless. The rest I threw away.

One day, while travelling past a block of flats, I saw a Chung Hwa Free Clinic sign. It made me smile as I remembered the free clinic of my youth. (I think that old clinic was run by Red Swastika or some "man zhi wui" society) Right then it occurred to me to go see CHFC about my cough. I knew they were a big chain with many clinics so maybe within that population of doctors, one might know a cure to my condition. It turned out to be quite the inspired idea.

I visited that Chung Hwa free-clinic near my home. I am not sure if it was serendipity or pure luck but the first doctor I saw actually solved my problem. He prescribed me some Western-looking capsules (read: C-A-P-S-U-L-E-S, not the usual TCM brown pellets) and a bottle of greenish-brown solution. After four days, the pills worked. My cough and phlegm were both gone. That night, I slept like I've never slept before. I was so happy I could just hug that Chinese doctor who treated me - kiss him even. If I had known of those pills earlier, I wouldn't have had to suffer so much over the last two years.

However, the joy was short-lived. Happy as I was, my condition did not go away completely. It came back some months later after eating oily and spicy stuff again. I had to take those capsules again. Fortunately, they worked each time. But at the back of my mind, I was still looking for a permanent cure.

Left-field suggestion
One day, I met a doctor who suggested that I try a course of complex B vitamins. Sounded a bit left-field, but as it was harmless, I decided to give it a try. Lo and behold, my throat did not irritate anymore and became stronger; I was soon back to my old curry self again! Over time I was able to eat and drink anything under the sun like any normal person. But still, no coffee or dark chocolate. Somehow they still stress my throat out. I told myself never mind: in time matters might change.

During those years when my throat was problematic, I had completely given up on coffee. So never say never about giving up some long-term addiction. Coffee for me now taste rather offensive and bland. Except perhaps expresso, my all-time favorite.

Pig's gall
So my question at the time was: how could these TCM capsules work so well whilst the rest couldn't? To solve the puzzle, I took a look at the cough medicine container label at Chung Hwa's dispensary and found that the pill itself had only three ingredients. Only three? But what was inside will surprise you. Two were very common herbs found in over-the-counter cough syrups and in cough sweets such as Hacks. The third was...wait for it.... PIG GALL.

It's not a misprint. If you break open the capsule and smell the brown powder inside, it is pig's gall. So how did it work? I don't know. I doubt the doctor who prescribed them to me knew too. He was actually an expert in cupping and acupuncture. But I guess if one were to dig deeper, there must have been a concoction in the past that used pig gall to treat sensitive throats. TCM is not hocus-pocus; it's both an art and science that has a long established history.

Just as pig gall worked, maybe that stuff called Tiger's Milk my mom spent good money on when I was a kid was no fantasy herb. It might not have cured my so-called hernia but it gave me back a testicle. I am now as endowed and balanced as Nature intended. Roarrrrrr! Amen to that.

Note: Those TCM capsules that I was prescribed were prescription only; they cannot be bought from the local TCM shop. (Trust me, I tried - in the whole of Yishun). Because they were so effective, Chung Hwa clinics would always run out of them. When I was coughing again, I would actually call the clinic first to check on stock before popping by.  In September 2011, I decided to google "Tiger's Milk" on a whim. It was the first time after all these years that I actually tried to better understand the herb. To my surprise, there was a major news item about it in Malaysia's The Star newspaper. Please see Anecdotal Links for the full story. When I told my eldest sister about this article, she asked if Dr Mahathir had also unbalanced testicles. Well, frankly, I rather NOT know! 

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