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Traditional Medicine Surviving in a Western World

Celisa Perez is at a small shop in the heart of Orlando’s Vietnamese community, not far from Little Vietnam, getting small needles pushed into her face.

Perez has had migraines for 30 years. She’s tried three different medicines to prevent them, but none of them worked. She tried a chiropractor and herbal supplements, but still the debilitating migraines came two to three times a week.

So now Perez is trying acupuncture.

“Deep…breath in…and out,” says Van Nguyen, an acupuncturist.

Nguyen puts the small, sterile needles in Perez’s brow, behind her ears, on her arms, and down her ankle. Perez keeps her eyes closed, wincing as the needles as the needles go in.

She said the past two months of treatments have helped.

“I’m down to one migraine every 10 days,” Perez said. “And the intensity is not that intense. I’m not going to emergency rooms any more. If I take just half of the pill, I’m OK.”

Her neurologist recommended acupuncture, but she was skeptical.

“They all recommend it. I just never thought it would work taking my pain away,” Perez said. “And I never thought about it. I’m totally amazed, actually.”

Perez had her doubts because her husband works for a pharmaceutical company – a bastion of western medicine.

Eastern medicine is ever present in Orlando’s Little Vietnam neighborhood. Many of the migrants who fled during the fall of Saigon 40 years ago came to Central Florida. And today, Orlando's Vietnamese community is the state's largest.

As an acupuncturist, Nguyen understands the tension between eastern and western medicine better than most. She initially wanted to be a surgeon. But she studied eastern medicine and philosophy in Vietnam at a Buddhist temple, and almost became a nun. Her mentor steered her back toward healing.

Nguyen said she sees western medicine as only treating half of the problem. Western medicine often suppresses pain. But pain shows your body where the problem is.

The needles used in acupuncture stimulate your body’s natural reactions and healing, she said.

“It’s not only the nerve,” Nguyen said. “It’s the channel that encloses the nerve’s pathway, the blood vessel and the lymphatic system. It’s more than the nerve.”

While acupuncture is probably the most recognized eastern medicine practice here in Florida, it’s certainly not the only form of eastern medicine practiced in the Vietnamese community.

For example, another way to treat a cold or flu is an eastern remedy called cao gio, or coining.

You start by taking a coin or, really, anything hard. You use an oil or balm, and scrape along the back, starting near the spine and going out. You do this in one direction over and over again until a bruise forms.

If you visit the Vietnamese grocery and health stores in the Little Vietnam area, you’ll often times find supplies for cao gio. On shelves next to boxes of herbal teas and menthol oils, there’s an end cap with coining tools.

If you’re buying some of those supplies in Orlando’s Little Vietnam neighborhood, you might run into the Bui family: father Guat and his son, Mau.

Guat Bui is more than a shopkeeper. He’s a traditional medicine doctor, a 12th generation traditional medicine doctor at that. The Bui family owns four shops selling supplies, including the one in Orlando’s Little Vietnam neighborhood.

Mau Bui said he worries traditional medicine is fading away with the new generation of Vietnamese growing up in Central Florida and far from Vietnam.

“Especially in Orlando, in U.S. right now, not a lot of Vietnamese people believe in traditional medicine,” Mau said. “Some do, and some don’t. I want to learn both.”

Mau said he wanted to learn traditional medicine, but his family worried about its financial rewards.

“Yes, they’re saying traditional medicine over here, they don’t make a lot of money,” Mau says with a laugh.

So he has a big plan: Go to medical school, become a western doctor, and then learn about traditional medicine.

That idea may seem far-fetched, when looking at the differences between eastern and western medicine treatments. For example, if you have a fever, the typical treatment choice for a western medicine practitioner would be recommending an over-the-counter drug such as Tylenol or Advil.

But in traditional medicine, fighting a fever involves cutting a red onion into seven pieces for a man, nine for a woman. A patient puts the onion on a small plate and covers it with vegetable oil. Then, light the oil with a small cloth, cover the head with a blanket and inhale. The final step: eat a hot rice soup with an egg in it.

So what does Mau do when he gets sick? Advil, or onion?


He starts with Western medicine, and if that doesn’t work, he moves on to more traditional remedies.

“If it gets worse and stay for a while, I don’t think it gets better, at that point, I go for traditional medicine.”

But maybe that’s the point: A blend of both traditional and western medicine might just keep the eastern custom from fading away.

Abe Aboraya is a reporter with WMFEin Orlando. WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.