Getting to the point

Updated: 2011-09-30 09:20

By Todd Balazovic (China Daily)

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 Getting to the point
Barry Disch at work in Beijing, where he practiced TCM. "I do more than just ask about the physical symptoms. I ask them about their life - are they happy," he says. Wang Jing / China Daily

After almost 10 years in Beijing, a TCM doctor shares his experience with Californians

With a dexterous flick of a finger Barry Disch skewers a needle directly into the center of a patient's forehead.

"Relax," he says in a low soothing voice as he prepares to repeat the process on another vital limb.

Several pinpricks later the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) doctor, maintaining his calming speech as he applies the ancient art of acupuncture, is diagnosing his patient, identifying the problems with not only the body - but with the spirit as well.

"If you don't first treat the spirit, the patient can never fully recover," Disch says.

The 54-year-old California native has spent a majority of the past three decades traveling back and forth between China and the US, toting the mysteries of TCM to curious Americans in search of nonconventional medical treatments.

With an increasing number of Americans turning away from the largely pharmaceutical based Western medical practices, Disch says TCM, which focuses largely on natural cures such as therapeutic massage, herbal remedies and acupuncture, has seen a burst of popularity.

"It's a good time to be doing TCM in the US right now as it's becoming increasingly popular as an alternative medicine, while in China it seems to be growing less popular," Disch says.

But decades before TCM became a recognized form of treatment in the US, Disch was pioneering the field in California, studying with Chinese masters, and looking after the spiritual health of the terminally ill.

His journey into the alternative medicines came quite by chance.

Disch's initial voyage into the field of TCM came in 1981, when, as a young traveler, he visited his sister who was studying the ancient art in Australia.

Having time on his hands and an interest in what his sister was doing, Disch skipped the step of enrollment and began sitting in on his sister's classes at the New South Wales College of Natural Therapies.

"We called it 'auditing', but basically I would just go to class with her everyday. They knew I was a traveler and wouldn't be there long," he says.

But the classes struck a chord with the young Disch and he found himself fascinated by the idea of medicine that treats more than just the physical symptoms.

"It seemed kind of cool. It seemed like it was something I could do to help people. I've always wanted to help people and serve. I was also interested in becoming healthier and more balanced," he says.

Returning to his home in California, the aspiring physician enrolled at University of California San Diego School for Alternative Medicines, one of the few places to teach TCM in the US during the 80s.

"Back then, when I told people what my profession was they'd all say ' you do what? you study what?'. Not many people knew about Chinese medicine," he says.

After earning his master's in Chinese medicine, Disch was determined to visit the point of origin of his newfound career path, so, in 1985 at the age of 28, he traveled east where he took an internship at the Medical Research Institute of Hangzhou, a TCM hospital.

He was the only foreign intern the hospital had accepted in more than a decade.

Studying under Yuan Xiaoxin, one of the leading TCM doctors in the area, Disch was given a free reign to observe and practice at the clinic.

"I learned a lot in China then, not so much about the theory, but how practical it was in a clinical institution. I got to see so many patients and because I was a foreign, I was pretty much able to do my own thing," he says.

He returned to the US to find there were not a lot of job opportunities available for practitioners of alternative medicine, so Disch once again hopped borders, heading down to Tijuana, Mexico, where he worked for the Gerson Clinic for his first job in the field.

"My job was to give acupuncture to critical patients so they wouldn't have to take pain medication," he says.

"It was very frustrating, I wasn't very mature at that time. I just wanted to cure people of their illnesses. But a lot of the people were in stage-four cancer and I just couldn't do it."

While the Gerson Clinic was a sobering start to a career that would later see Disch open his own clinic in San Diego before moving to China in the early 2000s to take up residency at the Beijing United Family Hospital as an integrated medicines expert, it was a job that cemented his belief in the spiritual side of medicine.

"The body can't be separated from the emotions, they're all the same thing. Any imbalance, any excess emotion can cause physical problems," he says.

"When I treat a patient, I do more than just ask about the physical symptoms. I ask them about their life - are they happy? Are they doing what they want to do? Why do they think they're here this time around?"

It's the emphasis on the spirit that has generated deep interest in places like Disch's home in San Diego.

Since beginning his studies almost 30 years ago, he has seen interest in TCM procedures rise exponentially, transforming from a city with less than a dozen practitioners to one with more than 1,000.

"It may not be as many as in Beijing, but it's a hell of a lot more than it used to be," he says.

Using his understanding of TCM as a foundation, Disch has continued his education in alternative forms of medicine, adding skills such as the Japanese stress reduction technique Reike, the osteopathic massage method, cranialsacral, and Thai massage to a long list of alternative medicine techniques.

His most recent pursuit, Bioacoustics, is an experimental form of medicine which examines the properties of using sound waves tuned to certain tissues as a form of muscle therapy.

After nearly a decade working in Beijing, Disch returned to San Diego earlier this year to help provide care for his ill stepfather and further his education in the field of alternative medicine.

While he may no longer be living in the East, Disch says he will continue to push himself further in the field of spiritual healing.

"It's a lifetime study," he says.