Eliot is a graduate of Reed College and the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine (OCOM). He spent his childhood in beautiful Southern Oregon and has lived in Portland off and on since 2003. In addition to completing a four year master's program at OCOM, he has studied abroad in Nanjing, China, and volunteered as a practitioner in rural Nepal through the Acupuncture Relief Project. He is a board-certified herbalist and a supervisor in OCOM's large herbal medicinary. He also practices Chinese massage (Tuina) and offers instruction in Yang Style Tai Chi in the Portland area.
My introduction to Chinese Medicine
Even in this multicultural world, the core ideas of Chinese Medicine are quite foreign to most of us. It's a system of medicine that began in China thousands of years ago and has continued to change and evolve to the present day. Although its roots are in folk medicine, there is also a long literary and scholarly tradition of theory and commentary, most of which has not been translated into English. It represents a way of thinking of health and human bodies that developed independently from Western culture, philosophy, and medicine.
Despite growing up in a multicultural household, the ideas of Chinese Medicine were foreign to me before beginning Chinese Medicine school. My mother is Korean, and she did at one point get us herbs from a relative who is an herbalist in Korea. I remember being obliged to gulp down the hot brown liquid that stank up the house for 40 days straight, knowing only that it was supposed to help me grow bigger (I was quite small for my age). My sister got a formula for her digestion, which was a shorter duration. Mine was no picnic, but hers was nasty enough that she poured a good number of dosages down the sink. I did eventually have some substantial growth spurts, but it was hard to tell how much to credit the herbs. We lived in a small town in Southern Oregon and so I didn't have much exposure to acupuncture growing up. It would never have occurred to my high school self that I would ever consider a career in Chinese medicine.
Tai Chi & Reed College
I went to a college that emphasized the classics of Western culture. The required freshman course was in Greek and Roman studies, starting with Homer’s Iliad and ending with St. Thomas Aquinas. I was immersed in studying the Western intellectual tradition for the next four years. I majored in philosophy, studying Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, logic, epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of language. Although there were excellent Chinese language classes offered at my school, I didn’t take them. I instead studied German as my second language, which fit the heritage of my dad’s side of the family. My only exposure to Chinese philosophy at the time was, unbeknownst me, in the principles underlying the tai chi form I was learning in my twice-weekly PE classes.
I attended tai chi classes throughout my four years at Reed College, long after fulfilling my PE requirement. On clear days, we’d meet on the front lawn to practice, near the cherry trees, to enjoy the peaceful calm that we found in the movements and one another's company. Tai chi balanced the heady life of academia. We took our studies extremely seriously, to the point that when I left with my BA in philosophy and the assurance that I had very important ideas in my head, I had very little idea of what to do with myself. Though I also thought about trying to continue in academic philosophy or going to law school, this is when I first began considering Chinese Medicine. I worked a variety of odd jobs over the next few years, lived for a season with relatives in Korea, and finally took a road trip to visit graduate schools around the country before deciding to enroll at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland.
Chinese Medicine school (OCOM)
Chinese medical school was grounded in the realities of living in the physical world in a way that most academic philosophy is not. We pored over topics such as sleep quality, bowel movements, pain levels, heart and lung function, and energy levels, using the perspectives of both Western and Eastern medicine. In addition to our book learning, we developed skills with our hands and refined our senses of vision and touch. We acted as practice patients and models for our classmates, sought treatment from student interns, observed them treat others, then spent our final year treating patients in the student clinic ourselves. Finally, we underwent the rite of passage of studying for and passing national board examinations to test our knowledge in Chinese medical theory, biomedicine, acupuncture, and Chinese herbalism. The process completely transformed the way I approach health and human bodies.
Some Chinese Medical Theory
Despite the vast differences, there is overlap between Eastern and Western medical theory. They agree on the basics of organ function - the Lungs breathe air, the Heart propels the blood through the vessels, the Kidneys pair with the Bladder to produce urine, the Stomach digests food, and so on. In Chinese medicine, however, these basics of physiology were discovered through the lens of philosophical concepts such as Yin and Yang and the Five Elements. Generally speaking, this encouraged holistic and associative thinking, so that instead of isolating and defining each organ as a precise, separate entity, each physical organ was seen in a web of correspondences to other parts of the body and the outside world.
The organs of Chinese medicine are actually energetic organ systems which extend beyond the organ to include layers of body tissue, sensory orifices, emotions, seasons, and particular points on or near the surface of the body. These organ systems have complex interactions and relationships with one another, cooperating to create, store, purify, and transport the basic vital substances of the body. When the balance between organ systems is off, particular patterns of symptoms tend to emerge. The goal of the Chinese medical practitioner is to identify these patterns of disharmonies and treat accordingly. Acupuncture and herbal therapy were developed as modalities to affect the body’s functions in terms of this fascinating and very foreign take on human physiology.
Study abroad in China
My last official class at OCOM was a study abroad elective at a school in Nanjing, China, which is a historic city south of Beijing ("bei" means north and "nan" means south). It's a big city, with approximately the same population as New York. Living there was a fascinating variation on my stay in Korea: huge crowds of people, chaos for traffic, and beautifully efficient subway systems. My classmates and I lived in a hotel near the Nanjing International University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and observed how Chinese medicine was practiced in its affiliated hospitals. We were able to listen in on medical intakes and ask questions through our interpreters, an experience I wrote about consistently in my blog.
Besides observing these treatments in the hospitals, my classmates and I also traveled to the Chinese countryside to learn about the industry of growing, processing, and selling Chinese herbs. Our herbal field trip included touring a family's herb farm, visiting an industrial herb processing plant, and perusing the wares at various large-scale herbal markets. Afterwards I traveled with a friend to see more of China's country and culture and took some beautiful pictures, many of which I've used on this website.
Volunteering in Nepal
I next traveled to Nepal to volunteer with the Acupuncture Relief Project. My fellow volunteers and I were based in two small villages outside of Kathmandu called Bimphedi and Kogate. I was in Kogate, the smaller and more remote of the two, and ran a free clinic there along with a volunteer from Australia named Rachael, our two interpreters Mamta and Suman, and Lanka, our receptionist. We were open five days a week in a small, concrete building with blue plastic chairs, a single massage chair, and one low wooden bed for our patients. Without access to first world medical care, I learned to take responsibility for my patients in a way I hadn't needed to do before. Almost always, ours was the only treatment our patients were receiving for their complaints, be they common colds, sore backs and knees, digestive upset, high blood pressure, or diabetes. In addition to using acupuncture and prescribing herbs, we were called upon to dress and bandage wounds, rinse out irritated eyes, monitor blood pressure, and peer down ears and throats with pen lights as needed.
Chinese medicine is as foreign to Nepal as it is to America, and there's also less exposure to it. We were often asked if there was medicine in the needles, and we had to explain that the treatment came from the needles themselves. Despite this, I believe I learned more about the origins of Chinese medicine there than in China. The living conditions in rural Nepal more closely mirrored the conditions under which Chinese medicine was developed. Our patients lived close to the land, labored in their fields, and were exposed to the elements on a daily and seasonal basis. We noticed that the patterns of diseases tended to be clearer and closer to the textbook description in our Nepali patients, unmuddied by medications and the stresses of modern life. With such limited access to medical care, the patients were often very hardy and complained little. When our 6-7 weeks of volunteering were up, it was hard to leave their care to others, knowing that it might not continue at the same level, an experience I wrote about in this blog post for the ARP. But I'm grateful to the people of Kogate for what I've learned from them as patients and for the warm welcomes and farewells they gave me.
After my experiences abroad, I was happy to bring my practice to Milwaukie, Oregon. I initially joined with Dr. Joyce Shields, L.Ac, an alumni mentor of mine while I was a student. Following her retirement in December 2015, I opened Milwaukie Acupuncture in the previous location of her Healing Path Clinic. I share the space with excellent practitioners, including Roxanne Young, LMT, Michael Givens, L.Ac., and Dr. Ali Givens, ND.
I also work as a part-time clinical faculty member in OCOM's Herbal Medicinary. I teach the required Herbal Practicum class, which gives students real-life experience handling, preparing, and compiling the Chinese herbs prescribed by OCOM's student interns, faculty members, and outside practitioners.
Milwaukie Acupuncture is located in downtown Milwaukie at 2305 SE Washington Street, Suite 110.