“Bai ji” I said to the Chinese doctor timidly. She was a small, elderly woman, charmingly dressed in a short sleeved shirt, with long cutoff sleeves of another fabric safety-pinned to the short sleeves underneath. “Bai ji, to stop bleeding.” “Bai ji?” she repeated, “is that Chinese name or American name?” And so it went, back and forth for a few moments, until finally, triumphantly, she said “oh, bai ji!” It sounded ever so slightly different the way she said it, but although it had seemed that my pronunciation was good enough, clearly it was lacking in something essential. She went and got me a packet of bai ji, and sure enough, it looked just like what I had seen online, when I was searching for herbs that might stop Shel’s bleeding.
And then she said, with audible disappointment, “but only one thing, only one,” by which I understood that she wanted to mix several things together. The result is as you see it. There’s bai ji in there, alright, along with a dozen or more other plants, twigs, stems, pods, and grasses, none of which I can name or pronounce correctly, but all of which are now simmering slowly in a large pot on the stove, ready for Shel to drink later this evening.
Because Western medicine isn’t helping us here. The radiation treatments were supposed to stop Shel’s bleeding. It’s a tumor that’s bleeding, and it’s deep inside his throat, and I have a terror that although it’s merely seeping now, at some moment the faucet will really get turned on and I won’t be able to do anything about it and disaster will ensue.
Yesterday at the hospital the young doctor said she had nothing to offer to stop the bleeding, there was nothing she could do about it. Today at the Chinese herbal medicine store the much older doctor, trained as an oncologist in China she said, assembled five brown paper bags full of herbal litter. Something anti-cancer, three things to stop bleeding, something anti-cough, and possibly other remedies that she didn’t know how to explain to us. “Very bitter” she said “okay to add sugar.” Let me add that she just looked at Shel and said “thyroid cancer” which is not at all the obvious thing to say. And when she heard he’d just finished radiation she asked “first time, or second time?” Shel and I exchanged glances, because it was the second time and it is thyroid cancer and if she knew all that without being told, then maybe, just maybe, her concoction will work as she said it would.
“Come see me Thursday” she said “tell me how you are, I will adjust medicine.” And so here we are, about to sip a bitter and unknown brew rather than live with the bitter realization that Western medicine is failing us now. And that realization is one that no amount of sugar can sweeten, and that young doctor didn’t say to come back on Thursday or any day.
Bai ji, you say the bai with a rising inflection, rising like hope.