Growing up in Taiwan, where her parents had their own import-export business, Karen Wei-Ru Lin was only 15 when her father died from an illness. Four years later, her mother died. These devastating losses, which left Lin and her three younger siblings orphaned, are what steered her toward a career devoted to healing the sick.
“When your parents leave you at an early age, you feel hopeless and helpless. I wanted to learn the secret of medicine,” says Lin, a family physician who today lives in Piscataway with her husband and two daughters. She is an associate professor of family medicine at the UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.
Lin will kick off a new lecture series at the Suzanne Patterson Center of Princeton Senior Resource Center on Thursday, June 17, with a talk titled “Healing: Eastern Meets Western Medicine.” She is one of those rare physicians schooled in both Eastern and Western medical practices. In this first lecture of a series called “Expanding Horizons” Lin will introduce alternative approaches to healing and address cultural differences in thinking about wellness, differences between healers and health care providers, what to expect from complementary and alternative medicine, and how to integrate food therapy into daily life.
This is a talk she gives frequently at senior citizen centers, where health and pain management are hot topics. “People want to know about vitamins. They want to know about pain, sleeping problems, allergies, supplements, all of those concerns,” Lin says in a phone interview. “What I show them is that there are different ways to think about treating these conditions.”
Traditional Chinese or Eastern medicine dates back more than 5,000 years. Rooted in the ancient philosophy of Taoism, it is today practiced side by side with Western medicine in many of China’s hospitals and clinics. A survey by the National Institutes of Health in 2007 found that an estimated 3.1 million adults in the U.S. had used acupuncture, and approximately 17 percent of adults use natural products. Acupuncture and herbal remedies are the most common methods, but other Eastern medical practices include cupping, mind-body therapy, and dietary therapy.
It was acupuncture that first captured Lin’s attention. At college in Taiwan she joined the acupuncture club. “In Taiwan, they have clubs for things like acupuncture, like you have clubs for different things here,” she says. “It’s not a big deal because there people can decide whether they want Eastern or Western medicine.”
After graduating, Lin moved to New Jersey for graduate studies at Rutgers, followed by UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In 1992, she joined the faculty at UMDNJ. Numerous awards have come her way since then, including the 2007 New Jersey Family Physician of the Year and the 2010 Rutgers Graduate School Distinguished Accomplishments in the Biological Science, in recognition of her commitment to medical education, clinical care, and community.
Soon after beginning her work as a family doctor, Lin began thinking about how to integrate Eastern medicine into her practice. “After medical school I was treating so many people with pain,” she says. “And I realized all we have is medication. It feels like we are really passive. All I learned (in medical school) was how to write a prescription. So I spoke with the chairman of my department and asked permission to bring acupuncture into practice.”
Lin today is a board-certified family doctor who also provides acupuncture and complementary medicine to patients on an out-patient and ambulatory basis. As a faculty advisor, she lectures about acupuncture, nutrition, and massage at UMDNJ, where students can study these practices as an elective course.
“They can observe how I integrate acupuncture into family medicine,” she says. “They get some exposure, so by the time they graduate, I have planted a seed. In the future if a patient asks them about it, they can have a more informed discussion, even if they don’t practice it.”
While she encountered some resistance at first from doctors unfamiliar with Eastern practices, today Lin gets a lot of referrals from her colleagues. Acupuncture is used most frequently to treat back pain, nausea induced by chemotherapy, depression, and osteoarthritis. Some patients feel relief immediately. Others take more time, but most respond and some find they no longer need medication, she says. Chinese herbal medicine is often used to treat cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and HIV/ AIDS.
In New Jersey, anyone with a degree in medicine or osteopathy can get training for acupuncture. Those without a degree can attend school for Oriental medicine, which takes from three to four years. Underlying the practice is a unique view of the world and the human body that is different from Western medicine concepts.
According to the National Institutes of Health, “This view is based on the ancient Chinese perception of humans as microcosms of the larger, surrounding universe — interconnected with nature and subject to its forces. The human body is regarded as an organic entity in which the various organs, tissues, and other parts have distinct functions but are all interdependent. In this view, health and disease relate to balance of the functions.”
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) embraces the yin-yang theory of two opposing yet complementary forces that shape the world and all life. In the TCM view, a life force circulates through the body in a system of pathways called meridians. The TCM approach uses eight principles to analyze symptoms and conditions: cold/heat, interior/exterior, excess/deficiency, and yin-yang. It also uses the theory of five elements — fire, earth, metal, water, and wood — and says they correspond to specific organs and tissues in the body.
Sometimes Western and Eastern medical philosophies collide. “In Chinese medicine, food has different categories,” says Lin. “There is hot food and cold food. When someone has just had surgery, they are in a cold state and should not eat cold food. But what do we give them in the (Western) hospitals? Ice chips! It’s better to have a warm cup of water.”
When Lin gives lectures to senior citizens she always includes information about food, especially related to allergies. Vitamins are another focus. “They will come in with 10 kinds of vitamins. What they don’t realize is that certain ones interact with others,” she says.
Lin believes that television and the Internet have made people more aware and inquisitive about different approaches to medicine. “All the senior citizen centers in central Jersey invite me to talk,” she says. “They want to know about many aspects of medicine, and I am happy to enlighten them and answer their questions.”
Expanding Horizons Speaker Series, Princeton Senior Resource Center, Suzanne Patterson Center, 45 Stockton Street. Thursday, June 17, 10:30 a.m. “Healing: Eastern Meets Western Medicine” presented by Karen Wei-Ru Lin, MD, an associate professor of family medicine at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Register. Free. 609-924-7108..
Also, Wednesday, September 15, 2:30 p.m., “Food and Eating: What’s Cooking in Your Pot”; Friday, October 15, 2:30 p.m., “Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon”; and Friday, January 11, 2:30 p.m., “Is It Music or Is It Noise?”