People / Let's Talk
When East Meets West
Step into NTU’s Chinese Medicine Clinic and you’ll be greeted by a new generation of young physicians, well-versed in both the western biomedical sciences and traditional medicine. One of them is Karen Wee, the founding Chairman of the newly formed NTU Chinese Medicine Alumni Association
By Lester Kok and Wang Meng Meng

Amidst the hustle and bustle at NTU, a young, research-intensive university, an ancient Chinese art that is more than 2,000 years old is being practised. Don’t dismiss Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as old-fashioned hocus-pocus from the Orient steeped in mystical concepts such as yin and yang, with a person’s health indicated by his qi, a life force and energy flow that you thought can only be found in Star Wars.

Nestled on the ground floor of the School of Biological Sciences is the NTU Chinese Medicine Clinic. There, Karen Wee is one of eight youthful resident physicians recruited from the university’s pioneer batch of graduates with a double degree in Biomedical Sciences and Chinese Medicine. At 26 years young, she is a great believer of the benefits TCM brings.

Looking every bit a modern medical doctor in her white lab coat, Karen combines her duties as a TCM practitioner with mentoring her juniors. On top of that, she juggles administrative work, picks herbs in the dispensary and even fills in at the reception counter in a typical 10-hour day.

She is also the founding Chairman of the newly formed NTU Chinese Medicine Alumni Association, which has more than 100 members made up of graduates and current students of the double degree programme. Most recently, Karen and her team organised the association’s first English-medium TCM symposium.

“The fact that TCM can last for centuries up to now, it must have some form of clinical efficacy,” Karen says, underlining her faith in her profession.

“When I was an intern at Beijing, I also saw the effect of TCM and what it can do. But because TCM is different, not everyone can accept the principles and the belief in it, so that is why I think having more scientifically-run clinical trials can help prove its efficacy.”

Stepping inside the clinic, it is clear that NTU’s brand of TCM is a marriage of tradition and modernity. Automated queue numbering makes for an efficient work environment but the tang in the air coming from the dispensary, which stocks drawers full of dried roots, barks and animal parts, makes it unmistakably TCM.

Cups, needles and computers
Benches for acupuncture, tui na (acupressure therapy) and cupping adorn the consultation rooms where TCM doctors use their fingers as stethoscopes, taking pulses and recording the vital signs in computer databases. Explains Karen:

“Taking one’s pulse is only part of the diagnosis process. We look at their tongue, ask the right questions, even listen to their cough if there is one, in order to diagnose the root cause of their problems or syndrome.”

Karen’s passion for TCM is evident throughout the interview as she excitedly shares what she has learnt from practising it. But she readily admits that this passion was nurtured only during her undergraduate days at NTU. Growing up, she saw Western doctors and only very occasionally did her grandmother take her to see a Chinese physician.

“However, after going through the five-year double degree programme, I have come to appreciate the many health benefits that TCM can bring. Also, I have always been very interested in biology and had thought of becoming a doctor,” the St Andrew’s Junior College alumna reveals.

Growing up in a bilingual family, the Radin Mas Primary and New Town Secondary School student was a good pupil who scored straight As for her A-levels. This double degree programme was her first choice, with the classes at NTU taught in English and those at Beijing University of Chinese Medicine in Chinese.

Karen fondly recalls the two years she spent in Beijing as part of her undergraduate training. When her class was learning a therapeutic kind of massage known as tui na, they had fun practising on one another.

It was not all amusement and games, of course. Before heading to Beijing, the entire class had to undergo a gruelling course that involved completing two 100-hour modules in about half the usual time. This meant one exam every two months and even during recess weeks. But for this lass with the adventurous spirit, that episode toughened her up and she says the two years in Beijing were one of the most interesting times of her life.

Today, the girl who once cringed at the sight of needles is a fully certified acupuncturist. “In Beijing, we had to practise poking needles into ourselves first before trying it out on one another’s non-vital acupoints, such as those on the hands. Initially, the idea of poking the needle into someone else scared me,” recalls Karen, adding that they had to learn the location of all 361 acupoints and by practising on herself, she eventually became confident enough to do it on others.

Karen sees great promise in the TCM sector with complementary and alternative medical treatments gaining popularity. She hopes to have more clinical practice and do research and teaching to improve herself further.

She gets lots of “practice” at social gatherings. A flurry of questions is usually what Karen receives when she introduces herself and her occupation to people she meets for the first time.

“Usually, after they get over their initial surprise, they start to ask for solutions to their health problems. Sometimes, they want me to take their pulse too,” says Karen, smiling wryly at how they try to get a “free consultation”.