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Unearthing the Spirit of Preserving and Defeating Barriers:A Woman’s Quest to Succeed

GUEST EDITORIAL Nadia Volf, MD, PhD - MEDICAL ACUPUNCTURE - Volume 34, Number 5, 2022

Why would we mention the contribution of women in the development of acupuncture in the world in particular? Since ancient times, if women wanted to learn and practice acupuncture, they had to overcome a tremendous number of barriers. My personal experience is one little example of all these challenges.

I started studying acupuncture when I was 13 years old. During that time, my family and I lived in the northern part of Russia in the city of St. Petersburg (formerly, Leningrad). It was particularly cold in the winter, and my father had contracted very severe pneumonia. He was treated with new antibiotics with strong toxic actions, provoking the worst asthmatic condition—status asthmaticus. Nothing was helping him; all the classic medications we tried could not relieve his breathing problems. Watching my father suffer so much, I was terrified and truly thought that he could die. After 10 days of this battle for the life of my father, things were almost hopeless. Then, a friend of our family—a professor of surgery—came to visit us with a woman. She appeared to be very old, as she had white hair that she wore tight in a bun. Our friend presented her as a medical doctor and acupuncturist working in his clinics. Her name was Maria.

Maria did not speak much; neither did she ask any questions, but she examined my father from head to toe. She observed his ears and tongue carefully; palpated his abdomen; and took his pulse. After that, she explained to us that my father’s asthmatic condition was only the consequence of an underlying chronic hepatic condition. She told us that, instead of treating his bronchi, we should focus on his liver. Indeed, during the Second World War, my father had gotten malaria, and since that time his liver had been weak. That is why his body overreacted to the medications; his liver was too weak to neutralize the toxicity of the antibiotics he was given. According to Maria, that was the inner cause of his strong allergic reaction, leading his status asthmaticus. Maria treated my father with acupuncture. While she needled one point after the other, I could hear his breathing becoming better and better. At the end of this acupuncture session, my father fell asleep. He was breathing normally for the first time since the beginning of his disease.

That night, I stood behind his door listening to his breathing as my father slept deeply and peacefully. I realized that the danger was over. The next morning, I waited for Maria in front of our house, and, when she arrived, I asked her to teach me acupuncture. Of course, I realized that I was too young to become her student, as only medical doctors were allowed to practice acupuncture. However, I could not wait, because I was afraid that, if my father would fall ill again and if Maria was not with us, nobody would be able to help him. So, I wanted to learn acupuncture to be able to help my father in any event. Even now, more than 45 years later, I cannot understand why Maria took such good care of me, as I was only a young adolescent without any medical knowledge. But she allowed me to follow her to the hospital where she worked. Since that day, all my life has been devoted to studying acupuncture. I followed Maria in the hospital every day; before and after school; during all weekends, holidays, and vacations. She used to start at 7 am and never finished before 9 pm without taking any days off.

Knowing her personal story, I could understand her total devotion to her work. She had no family and lived alone, as her only son, her husband, and all her in-laws had been killed in front of her eyes during the Cultural Revolution in China.

After the Second World War, while studying in medical school, Maria fall in love with a young Chinese student from the agriculture faculty. They married and Maria followed her husband to China. According to their tradition, they lived in the family house together with her in-laws. Her father in-law and grandfather- in-law were practicing Chinese Medicine, and their office was situated on the ground floor of their home. As Maria was a medical doctor, trained according to an Occidental paradigm, grounded in evidence-based medicine, at first, she did not believe in acupuncture. But, little by little, observing what happened to a great number of patients coming for the treatment every day from early morning until late evening, she could not ignore the efficacy of acupuncture. Finally, she was so convinced, that she asked her father-in-law and grandfather-in-law to teach her acupuncture. However, during the Cultural Revolution all of her family was killed, and Maria was allowed to return to Russia because she had a Russian passport.

In Leningrad, Maria was accepted in the hospital, but without official permission to practice acu- puncture, as it was not recognized and nobody admitted to believing in it. So, Maria’s office was situated in the underground level of the building. She had only 1 treatment room, including 2 treatment tables, which she separated by a white curtain. Thus, she was able treat 2 people at the same time. However, during the day, many hospital personnel would go to her treatment room to receive acupuncture, in- cluding nurses, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, the hospital director, and all of the patients with the most difficult cases wanted to be treated. Thus, Maria worked from morning to evening nonstop. As she had no assistant, I became her volunteer assistant. Every morning, I cleaned the room, changed the sheets and covers before and after each patient, and prepared needles. I was allowed to assist her in all treatments that she gave. When she had a moment to talk during the exposure of needles, she explained to me briefly what she was doing and the aims of the point selections. Little by little, Maria taught me how to remove needles at the end of a session and then how to insert them at the beginning of a session. I was learning the Chinese names of all acupuncture points, their locations, and techniques of needling. Yet, she never allowed me to treat any patient before I had graduated from medical school.

When I entered medical school, I was always thinking about acupuncture: What is the anatomical location of acupuncture points? What are their histologic properties? What are physiologic explanations of their actions? When I was bombarded with such questions from our professors, everybody laughed, as nobody considered acupuncture seriously. So, I wanted to convince them with scientific evidence that acupuncture worked effectively. More than that—if acupuncture worked so effectively—as I saw every day in Maria’s office—I wanted to show that it was due to the existence of particular physiologic mechanisms in the body underlying acupuncture’s actions. At that time during medical school, I started doing scientific research using the same animal models as those used in pharmacologic studies. I thought that, if acupuncture’s actions would be validated with modern scientific methodology, nobody could contest them. In the beginning, nobody believed me, and I had to repeat all my tests 10 times more than required for normal statistics. However, finally, my experiments were accepted, and I graduated from medical school with MD and PhD degrees.

I’ve dreamed of introducing acupuncture training into courses of fundamental medical education in medical schools. But that dream was utopian, as the common programs of medical education were established in all universities and nobody believed in acupuncture seriously. I had to prove its efficacy. Yet, in this journey, I’ve always had a chance! One day, I was called to treat the president of the university, Leningrad, Russia, who was suffering from the severe neuropathic pain after a trauma to his shoulder was resistant to all medication. After the acupuncture session, he was so relieved, that he was immediately convinced of the necessity to teach acupuncture to medical doctors. However, he could not change the program of medical studies himself without permission of the Ministry of Health of Russia. How to get it? The challenge seemed to be impossible. Yet, we were young and strongly believed in the rightness of our cause.

After promoting the positive success of acupuncture to colleagues of the Minister of Health in the hall of the Ministry of Health Building, we were granted a meeting and the Minister signed all the official documents necessary to include acupuncture into the medical education program for 6-year students. Henceforth, all medical students had 60 hours of acupuncture in their program of medical education.

This is just a small part of my journey. Later, I faced a lot of other challenges, in Russia and in France, where we moved together with my husband and our 5-years son, following the same dream to study and share knowledge of acupuncture, explaining its benefits in a scientific modern way that would be acceptable to medical society and medical caregivers. Yet, I agree deeply that all the challenges that we meet in our journeys are necessary, as they push us to consolidate our determination and develop new capacities to overcome these hurdles, and thus lead us to elevate our consciousness as a part of our evolution.

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