Treating a child with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) therapies presents its own challenges and rewards. As Oriental medicine specialist Mitch Lehman points out, among the latter is the deep satisfaction of bringing families together to experience the power of childhood healing firsthand.
Some are sick. Some are gravely ill. Some are scared. Some are not only unafraid, but they're quick to allay the fears of their parents. All are very young, and all come to have their symptoms soothed, or even to be healed.
For Mitch Lehman, L.Ac., treating children with acupuncture and other therapies from the practice of traditional Chinese medicine is more than carrying on a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. It's a matter of being here now with a very young person who's in pain.
"I have treated children going through chemotherapy, children with cystic fibrosis, and children battling ADHD and much more," he says.
"I've been with kids who are facing very serious conditions. And what I've been part of, in terms of sharing in the experience of healing, has been amazing."
It's not that children come to Lehman's clinic – Select Health of San Diego (www.san-diego-acupuncture.com) – anxious to get started with acupuncture or to taste therapeutic Chinese herbal concoctions. To the contrary, there's a lot to overcome at first.
Getting Over the Hurdles
After 2,800 hours of school and 7,000 hours of clinical training, Lehman opened his own clinic in 1997 and has been in practice ever since. Today, his practice includes treating autoimmune disease
patients, fertility and gynecology, post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions, and, of course, pediatrics.
"My pediatrics instructor, Alex Tiberi, got his assistants deeply involved in working with children from the start," Lehman explains. "He would mark the points for e-stim, and we would do the actual work hands-on."
Pediatric acupuncture doesn't jump right in with acupuncture needles. Instead, most pediatric patients start with e-stimulation, a process that uses small-voltage electrical stimulation at key acupuncture points. "You can't start young children off with needles without a lot of preparation," he says. "With young children, I usually begin with e-stimulation, which doesn't hurt at all, and can even be kind of pleasant. Of course, e-stim doesn't work with older children, so I gradually introduce the idea of needles to them – by using them on myself or on their parents, so they can see how we react to them. That gives them something tangible to go with."
"A big challenge with pediatric patients is the fear of the unknown," Lehman says. "We all deal with that, even as adults, but for a child it's even more intense."
Children and their parents come to Lehman and find what looks like a medical clinic. "They're a little nervous, because they naturally associate medical clinics with not feeling good, or even pain," he says. "So I find that I have to develop a rapport with the child, to build a sense of trust through my honesty and by showing the child that I respect his or her opinion and will respond to any needs."
That means if it hurts, Lehman stops whatever he's doing and proceeds more gradually. "Trust is something we keep building together," he says.
And then there's that fear of needles. "I have to gauge their nonverbal reactions to the needles, too," Lehman says. "I'm communicating that what I'm doing is a good thing for the child, so he understands that this really is good for him. And if it gets too intense, I'll back off with what I'm doing and give him relief."
One three-year-old Lehman treats has taken to calling the herbal formula Lehman prescribes for him "those yucky tasting herbs." And they are certainly that, Lehman laughs.
"He's right," Lehman says, "but he takes it anyway, and he doesn't make a big deal out of it."
One current case Lehman is working with is that of a 10-year-old boy with Tourette's syndrome. TCM views Tourette's as a "tremor-related" disease, as Lehman explains, in the same category with Parkinson's and other conditions related to the concept of "wind." "In Western medicine, Parkinson's and Tourette's have nothing to do with each other," Lehman explains. "But TCM views them as being similar, and the treatment is thus similar."
Tourette's is a terrible, and often-misunderstood, disorder. Lehman's patient is at that age when symptoms begin to intensify in most patients, and the prognosis is not good most of the time. Treatment is limited to strong prescription medications that carry harsh side effects. But Lehman and the patient's family have worked closely together to forestall, at least, the need for medication. "At this point, his symptoms would be getting progressively worse without any treatment," Lehman says. "But he's actually stabilized in terms of symptoms."
Lehman says the young lad isn't crazy about the idea of needles, but he's making adjustments as he goes. "Right now, I've got him using a couple of ear needles, and his parents are very involved in helping him maintain their use between visits. They are very involved in his care and have really educated themselves on all the nuances of dealing with Tourette's."
That gets to the heart of a concept central to TCM and Lehman's practice. "I work as part of a team with my patients and parents," he says. "Everyone is crucial to healing in TCM. It's all interrelated – a part of who we are as family members, neighbors in towns and cities, members of communities, clients and vendors to each other, and so on. Interrelationship is at the heart of TCM. We all have to be doing what we are doing, and doing it in harmony."
The Youthful Spirit of Healing
That's what amazes Lehman about his young patients: They are very active in their own healing.
Lehman has even seen that in his sickest patients. "No matter what they are fighting – even kids with cystic fibrosis or cancer – they are still kids, and they want to be kids. I've seen even the sickest kids respond to the treatment with this spark of life, this vigor to really live. It is a joy to see that. So even though I can't necessarily cure a child in a case like that, I can be a part of the effort to restore her energy and zest for living. That's precious to each of us, whether we're sick or well."
Mitchell Lehman is a Licensed Acupuncturist in San Diego, California. He graduated from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in 1997. Lehman apprenticed for 7 years with such acupuncture luminaries as Pacific College co-founders Joseph Lazzaro, L.Ac., Alex Tiberi, L.Ac., and Rick Gold, Ph.D., L.Ac., as well as Matt Callison, L.Ac., Erin Raskin. L.Ac., and Rick Warren, L.Ac. In addition to his private practice, he is the Director of Integrative Medicine for the Veterans Village Stand Down and has served in that capacity for the last six years. Lehman can be found online at www.acupuncture-san-diego.com.