Lanky and ginger-haired, Dr. Loch Chandler tucks his silk tie in between the buttons of his blue oxford shirt, leans over his supine patient and inserts four gleaming silver needles into the skin around the patient’s navel, forming a rhombus pattern. Using his forefinger, he taps them in with the clinical precision of a touch typist. An exotic melody carried by an erhu, wooden flute and bell wafts through the darkened room, the walls of which are adorned with Chinese calligraphy. When the body is in balance, there is health. The patient is a 67-year-old man who is recovering from prostate cancer. Chandler asks him whether he’s comfortable as he inserts more needles around the ankle, wrist, knee and skull.
Back when he was an undergrad, Chandler wanted to become an MD like his father, a hematologist/oncologist. But after he took pre-med courses in college, he grew increasingly apprehensive about entering conventional medicine. He fretted about the increasing specialization, the administrative wrangling, the emphasis on pharmaceuticals. When he tried to picture himself as an MD, he says, he had a vision of being trapped inside a vast concrete pyramid, “a huge monolithic structure” of endless corridors.
Drawn to the holistic philosophy of alternative medicine, with its emphasis on helping the body heal itself, he decided to become a naturopath and acupuncturist—despite some well-intentioned skepticism from his dad. “He used to ask me, ‘Where is the science?’ which I found sort of aggravating,” Chandler says, smiling.
Chandler obtained his credentials in 2001 and now practices at the Providence Integrative Medicine Clinic, where he specializes in the treatment of cancer patients for nausea, fatigue and various side effects associated with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. In many ways, the patient he is treating today is typical: a man who is battling side effects of anti-cancer drugs following surgery for prostate cancer last year. He comes to see Chandler once a week to boost his energy and relieve his hot flashes. The unusual thing about the patient, Stephen Chandler, is that he’s a doctor, too. In fact, he’s Dr. Chandler’s father.
Lying on the gurney, gazing at the ceiling as his son sticks him with needles, the elder Dr. Chandler confesses that his initial skepticism about acupuncture has long since evaporated. “I feel totally relaxed,” he says. “Like I’m lying down in a beautiful meadow listening to the birds with the sun on my face.”
A former Air Force flight surgeon who practices at Kaiser, Stephen Chandler explains that since his son became a naturopath, he has gradually come to appreciate the usefulness of alternative approaches to healing. “All I can say is that having Loch treat me has done an extraordinary amount of good,” he says. “The literature is evolving, in our own allopathic journals, as well as in the alternative literature. I feel there’s more and more supportive data. No longer do I feel like it’s hocus pocus.”
After the session is finished, the elder Chandler steps into the lobby and dons his raincoat to brave the blustery afternoon. “I don’t understand the flow of the qi,” he says with a shrug. “But I accept it. I trust it. There are a lot of things I don’t have an explanation for—in my own practice, as well as in my son’s. Sometimes things happen. There’s a mystery in medicine, and as I grow older, I appreciate it more.”
Ultimately, the source of rivalries among various medical traditions is power: the power to determine the nature of health, to declare who shall be worthy of the title of doctor, who shall be tainted with the label of quack, who gets big research grants and Medicare reimbursements. The dispute goes well beyond money and prestige, however—it reaches into the very definition of ideas like wellness and illness, concepts that are so basic to our society that we seldom stop to consider what they mean.
In their 1993 book, Magic or Medicine?: An Investigation of Healing and Healers, authors Dr. Robert Buckman and Karl Sabbagh suggested that while modern medicine is increasingly effective at curing disease, it has lost touch with one of its most important social and cultural functions—that of making the patient actually feel better. “Medicine may make the patient get well, but often it is magic that makes the patient feel well,” they argued. What is striking about the rise of integrative medicine is the way in which it manages to construct a sort of therapeutic power-sharing, marrying the magic to the medicine. Like any union, this one involves concessions and compromise, but it also holds a powerful promise: The former rivals can accomplish more together than they could ever do on their own.