Pointing the Way With breakthrough acupuncture methods and on-demand herbal rededies, Dr. Yu Chen of Pikesville shows that old ways mix well with modern medicine.

December 02, 1997|By PATRICIA MEISOL | PATRICIA MEISOL,SUN STAFF

A strange smell, neither sour nor sweet, permeates the humble office above Field's Pharmacy in Pikesville where Dr. Yu Chen practices Traditional Chinese Medicine. Bottles and boxes of plants imported from China line the shelves of one wall. In a small examination room, an acupuncture patient waits.

The patient had struggled for each breath when he first came to Chen in early November. Two needles in his scalp and an herbal tea twice daily returned energy to his lungs. Now 10 days later, the pneumonia is gone. Yu Chen inserts needles into the man's legs to boost his immune system. She lights the moxa plant on the end of the needles so heat can descend into the man's body to take away its dampness.

"I'm 100 percent better," the patient says.

While a panel of American doctors studies the ancient healing arts of Dr. Chen's native land, she is pioneering herbal remedies and acupuncture treatments for American ailments -- and fighting for recognition among medical doctors in this country.

She mixed her herbal tea for pneumonia two years ago when tougher strands of bacteria rendered prevailing antibiotics helpless.

And it was here, in her Pikesville office, that Dr. Chen made her first breakthrough -- an acupuncture treatment for anxiety that she developed for an actor in the TV show "Homicide."

The five-minute, $15 treatment calls for a "plum," a seven-star needle, to be tapped on the back "shu" points, as acupuncture entry points are called. She first applied it to the actor Yaphet Kotto in 1995. He suffered from debilitating panic attacks for 33 years, experiencing them as often as three times a night, and other acupuncturists had been unable to cure him. "Miraculously, my panic and fear disappeared after only one treatment" from Dr. Chen, he said.

Since then, Dr. Chen says, she has achieved an 89 percent success rate using the treatment on patients who previously relied on psychotherapy or drugs. Of 37 patients who came to her after hearing about Kotto's success, 33 were cured, she reported in a paper delivered at an international acupuncture conference in Beijing last month. They included patients who overcame the fear of leaving their homes.

The report on her panic attack treatment generated letters from around the world. But the treatment is not likely to be used in her native country. A colleague in China told her: "This is an American specialty disease. There isn't the same stress here."

Winning recognition in the United States for original treatments is difficult even when many patients appear to be helped. Herbs are not considered a medicine -- they are regulated as a food in this country -- and only now are U.S. academics finding ways to measure and catalog acupuncture's benefits beyond patient testimonials. Researchers at the University of Maryland, for instance, recently developed a foolproof placebo acupuncture treatment that allowed them to test the effectiveness of acupuncture on dental pain. The conclusion: It helps.

Lack of controls

The lack of controlled study is the reason no one in this country has published Dr. Chen's discoveries. But she says giving acupuncture and its placebo randomly to patients isn't practical or even possible in some cases.

"If they insist [on such controls], Americans won't learn," she says.

What do you do about the rare malady -- like a patient with a half-body tremor? she asks. "I don't have a control. I have only one case."

The patient, a 69-year-old grandmother, came to Dr. Chen with a constant tremor in her left arm and leg. The woman sought Dr. Chen's help after three doctors and various medications couldn't solve her problem. Dr. Chen administered acupuncture treatments three times a week, and the tremors stopped after three weeks.

When Dr. Chen asked the National Institutes of Health for help with lab work in a study of the vaginal yeast infection suppository she invented, NIH addressed its response to her husband, a retired pharmacologist listed as a second investigator, and left off Dr. Chen's name completely. Then NIH insisted she reveal the molecular structure of her formula. Worried that NIH investigators would take credit for her invention, Dr. Chen threw out the letter.

She is nothing if not hardheaded.

From the age of 7 she knew she would be a doctor -- her father, an internist, directed her to follow in his footsteps. "In this field you will always have something to learn," he said.

She was trained in Western medicine in a Beijing medical school, where she was required to study acupuncture as well. While treating factory patients in Beijing, she was assigned by the Communists to study and practice Chinese herbology.

After a decade of doctoring in China, three months' study of English at Cambridge, England, and a fellowship at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, she accepted a research job at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. There she married an American and, like her colleagues, longed to make her own discoveries.

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