Thursday, November 30, 2006

The English patient

Film director Anthony Minghella is never in one place for too long and the hectic pace takes a toll on his health. Here he explains why traditional Chinese medicine plays such a key role in his life

There’s a good deal of irony in my heralding a terrific book about traditional Chinese medicine. First, because it’s almost exclusively aimed at women and, secondly, because I am far from an example of good health and fitness. But I’m convinced that the alternative treatments I pursue, from Pilates to Thai yoga massage and, in particular, the visits to a couple of great practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, have enabled me to manage a hectic transatlantic career that makes unreasonable demands on my stamina and focus.
As a film director, it’s not unusual for me to get off a plane in another country and start work as if no journey had occurred. The toll of these schedules is hard to quantify but, without maintenance, the body soon complains and fails. Typically, Western medicine is called on at the failure stage. Other forms of healthcare can start earlier, at the complaint stage.

Xiaolan Zhao lives in Toronto. Her book, Traditional Chinese Medicine for Women: Reflections of the Moon on Water, is constructed in chapters that take women through the stages of their lives. She writes about how traditional Chinese medicine began more than 5,000 years ago, 4,500 years before the scientific traditions of the West, in a culture that forbade human dissection. Practitioners relied on their powers of observation, developing a different understanding of the body and disease compared with the West. Dr Xiaolan worked as a surgeon in China, but also trained as a doctor of herbal medicine and acupuncture. She champions an integrated approach to health that is balanced between the traditions of the East and West.

I suffer from a chronically underactive thyroid gland, a condition shared by several members of my family. This results in a lack of the hormone thyroxine which, among other functions, regulates the pace of our metabolism. Thyroid deficiency affects many sites in the body, such as the skin, joints and hair. It also contributes to weight gain, tiredness and depression. None of these things is serious in itself; collectively they can be disabling. I can monitor my condition by how much my hands claw in the mornings, my joints ache, my waistline thickens or I am suddenly poleaxed with exhaustion at almost exactly four o’clock in the afternoon.

Since my condition was diagnosed by my GP in the early Nineties, I’ve been taking thyroxine in increasing dosages. Five or six years ago, on a visit to Toronto, I heard about Dr Xiaolan from my friend Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient (Minghella directed the film). He spoke of her as a great spirit, suggesting that she had saved many of his friends from invasive surgery by using traditional Chinese medicine. I went to see her. And I found her to be remarkable.

Source - Times

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