Healer to the stars
Xiaolan Zhao is among the most sucessful practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine in Canada -- Michael Ondaatje, Sophia Loren and Anthony Minghella all swear by her
BARBARA RIGHTON | Jan 05, 2006
In the cramped waiting room of Xiaolan Zhao's Toronto clinic, boxes of herbs vie for space with stacks of old-fashioned file folders. Nothing is high-tech here. Patients sit on mismatched, straight-backed chairs waiting for acupuncture or massage, specially brewed herbal tea and the application of various unnamed unguents. Helen, the receptionist, keeps up a friendly banter punctuated by incessant phone calls. "She sees a lot of cancer patients," Helen explains. Doctors, too. Not to mention a glittering array of international and homegrown celebrities. Sophia Loren, novelists Ann-Marie MacDonald, Michael Ondaatje and Susan Swan, British filmmaker Anthony (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) Minghella, and Roots honcho Michael Budman have all been clients.
Budman, 59, has faithfully gone to Xiaolan twice a week, every week, for the past two years.(Budman's wife, Diane Bald, introduced them -- she heard about Xiaolan from a girlfriend). Even Budman's 90-year-old mom comes up from Michigan once a month to go. "I wasn't sold the first time," Budman says, "but the more I went, the better I felt. And you should see my mother! She has never looked better!" Budman mainly gets an acupuncture/massage combo from Xiaolan("They go together like peanut butter and jelly"), and he swears that whenever he has a cold or feels tired, his treatment turns him right around.
As receptionist Helen chats, staffers quietly come and go, signalling patients with a gentle tap on their shoulders. "Don't I get to see Xiaolan?" one woman whines -- the healer is widely known by her first name alone. "I wanted to see Xiaolan." But no. This revered practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM, is going to see me.
It will be my first exposure. But millions of Canadians already think of TCM as a welcome holistic adjunct to Western medicine. In 2003, according to Statistics Canada, 3.3 million Canadians used alternative health care -- including acupuncturists, homeopaths and herbalists -- to treat back pain, migraines, and arthritis. Cedric Cheung, president of the Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture Association of Canada, boasts an accredited membership of 1,600. When he began the organization in 1983, it was 100.
What's more, Cheung notes that TCM, once considered "witchcraft," is now recognized by the World Health Organization. Does it actually cure the things that ail us? "Some diseases we definitely can cure," says Cheung. "With others, we can relieve the misery." Xiumei Wu, head of the Toronto School of Traditional Chinese Medicine(which offers a five-year program), notes TCM "treats many diseases with a minimum of side effects."
Minghella first heard of Xiaolan five years ago from his friend Ondaatje, and has kept in touch ever since, recently inviting her to London to see his production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly. It was a working trip: Xiaolan treated his entire family during her stay. Novelist Swan, meanwhile, has consulted Xiaolan for back pain and perimenopausal symptoms. "A treatment with her," she says, "makes me feel as if the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders."
For the uninitiated, Xiaolan provides an explanation of TCM in her new book, Reflections of the Moon on Water(Random House Canada). She gives recipes for age-old curatives like herbal chicken soup, and a section on TCM and sexuality. In her native China, she writes, TCM and Western medicine are working hand in hand. As an indicator of such acceptance here, she cites a 2004 National Institutes of Health study that found patients with arthritis in their knees showed a 40-per-cent decrease in pain and an equal increase in mobility when treated with acupuncture -- which brings me to my left knee.
After a brief consultation with Xiaolan(during which she felt my pulse and rightly diagnosed a number of maladies -- insomnia, stomach upset and a mad desire to go back to smoking), she had a close look at my puffy kneecap. "Have you ever had acupuncture?" she asked. "No, but one of my horses did," I said. "Ahh, you take better care of your animals than you do yourself." Bingo. In one treatment, my knee was better. "One-hundred per cent!" I enthused. "No," Xiaolan said patiently, "80 per cent."
It's this air of kindness and authority that so many rarefied folk find appealing(Budman says Angelica Huston plans to go the next time she's in town). For Minghella, a big part of the draw is the fact that she's "at once kind, holistic and wise. She heals with a hug."
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