Dr. Xiaolan Zhao is not taking any new patients.
For the hundreds of them who attended her book launch last Wednesday at the Roots flagship store on Bloor Street in Toronto, this news will come as a relief --although Zhao has become the talk of the town, their appointments are safe.
Zhao is a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and thanks to the fervour with which her clients speak of her talents, her patient list has grown steadily to its current 7,000 since she opened her clinic in 1992. A who's who of Toronto literati, among them Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, sing her praises. Zhao has never advertised or even published the clinic's phone number. The clinic now employs a staff of six.
"When people feel better, they tell people," Zhao explains the day before a book signing in the non-descript house in Toronto's west end that houses the clinic.
Zhao will only see a new patient in the case that an existing one pleads with her to take a look at a relative. Right now, her primary aim is to look after her current roster.
For the rest of us, Zhao has penned a book, Reflections of the Moon on Water: Healing women's bodies and minds through traditional Chinese wisdom.
"I didn't write the book to get one more patient. Quite the opposite," explains the 50-year-old doctor. "I wrote the book because I want people to empower themselves, to look after themselves."
Rob Cohen has been under Zhao's care for the last four years and he emphatically credits her with saving his life following a nasty divorce that took an emotional and physical toll on him.
"I was almost dead. I had double pneumonia and shingles and I was off work for six months," he says. Zhao treated his infections and detoxified him with the typical TCM treatment of herbs, acupuncture and massage.
As her book's title suggests, women make up the bulk of Zhao's patients. When the clinic first opened, she was perplexed to see so many women struggling with fatigue, depression, menstrual difficulties, chronic pain and cancer. She treated them with TCM and saw results.
"Gynecology is not treated with much in Western medicine. The only thing they use is hormones," she says in her quiet, gentle voice. "I feel women are not honouring their body."
Reflections of the Moon on Water makes recommendations for emotional and physical self-care during menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause based on traditional practices.
For example, with the start of Zhao's first period, her parents told her what foods to eat to look after herself. Both her father and mother prepared special soups when she was menstruating, as Zhao explains it is common for Chinese men to have an understanding of foods that offer therapeutic value for women's health.
Zhao, who was born and raised in China's south-west Yunnan province, grew up with a very different view of her body than her counterparts here. In Chinese medicine, menstruation is referred to as Heavenly Water. The month after childbirth is called Golden Month and menopause is known as Second Spring -- not the end of youth. And before Zhao came to Canada, she had never heard of PMS.
"I don't think the symptoms are very strong in China. We are very into prevention. I was shocked these symptoms associated with Heavenly Water were named a syndrome ... Maybe you just need some balancing, maybe you didn't get enough rest or food."
In China, Zhao studied Western medicine and worked as an abdominal surgeon at a hospital that put emphasis on TCM. Witnessing the effectiveness of herbal remedies, she went back to medical school and finished a degree in TCM.
"Chinese medicine is not a science -- it's common sense," says Zhao. "It's intuition, it's inside you. I just want people to understand you can do something for yourself. I have people coming in here and they expect me to do everything and I say, that's not fair, right now I do 50 and you do 50. In the future you do 90 and I do 10. You've got to understand, I don't have dinner with you at night. It's your body."
One thing she has heard from patients time and again is their MD is not working for them anymore."They say the doctor didn't give me any hope, no solutions and they have a lot of pain and they've been given pills and more pills," says Zhao.
While Zhao admits that is problematic, she has not turned her back on Western medicine and believes the two schools of thought should be used in tandem. The feeling appears to be mutual. Of the cancer patients she treats, many are doctors.
One of them, an MD with a brain tumour so entrusted her health to Zhao that when Zhao was returning to China for a holiday, the woman insisted on going with her. "I put her in my hospital where she received all the Chinese herbs plus Western medicine and her brain cancer went into remission," recalls Zhao. "She then quit her position here and went to China for five years to study TCM and now has a practice in Vancouver."
Zhao explains all this with utter modesty. "People think I have magic. I really don't. I'm not a special healer. I'm just a simple doctor."
In addition to the acupuncture, massage and herbal treatments used in Chinese medicine, prevention is the primary tenet of Dr. Xiaolan Zhao's guide to good health. Here are some of her basic guidelines:
THREE SQUARE MEALS Zhao never misses a meal. A typical day might consist of seven-grain porridge with almond milk for breakfast, a soup of fresh soy beans and coriander for lunch and steamed fish and vegetables with brown rice for dinner. She always eats fresh food, never packaged. As is typical of most Chinese diets, she doesn't eat dairy or bread.
MENTAL HEALTH CARE Zhao believes there is a strong connection between physical symptoms and one's emotions. In her clinic's atmosphere of trust, Zhao's patients often open up to her.
NEVER STOP EXERCISING Zhao does Tai Chi every weekday morning, and her energetic 80-year-old parents practice the calisthenic martial art in a local park seven days a week.
WATER Drink lots of it.
SPEND MORE TIME IN BED (I) People in North America don't get enough rest, Zhao says. She recommends eight hours a night.
SPEND MORE TIME IN BED (II) In Chinese medicine, sex is as important as food and sleep. Zhao credits it with increasing overall energy, physical well-being and wholeness.