I walk past the patient with the mechanical heart to visit his roommate, on whom I performed open-heart surgery earlier in the week. I am surprised to see a woman slowly waving her hands over the victim's chest. Wearing a purple turban on her head and several large silver medallions interspersed with crystal pendants draped around her neck, she asks, "Do you believe energy meridians affect your health?"
In the West, we have adapted a biomedical understanding of illness. We seek the cause of ailments by evaluating their concrete manifestations or symptoms. When gladiators in my ancestral home of southern Asia Minor were mortally injured, Galen--a father of Western medicine--would vivisect the athlete and identify the cause of injury. Modern equivalents, such as physicians in the Framingham study, perform autopsies on deceased middle-aged executives, observe a blockage in the main vessel of the heart, and claim that the death was caused by the sudden closure of a vessel, resulting in a heart attack. We seek concrete explanations with easy-to-identify causes, then educate our population about how to avoid those risk factors. Fine. However, a global world demands that we be less provincial in seeking answers to health--a reality driven home by the observation that half of the heart attacks in this country occur in individuals without traditional risk factors that one would predict.
For centuries, Ayurvedic, traditional Chinese medicine, and related traditions in Asia assessed health by the individual's energy state. As a physician proud of my tradition, I join my colleagues in scoffing at the notion that energy meridians, which cannot be measured or seen, could cause a disease as seemingly concrete as a heart attack or broken arm. But what of ailments that are less tangible and challenge modern Western medicine? More important, do the solutions we offer in the West help the public to maintain health?
The quandary leads to an even more profound question: What is life? Philosophers, artists, or lawyers may quibble over a definition, but the scientist has the advantage (and limitation) of drawing conclusions from the study of the most basic element of a living being--the cell. Several million years ago, a random aggregation of minerals somehow coalesced into a single entity, which was able to maintain an energy gradient across a membrane that gave birth to life on Earth. …