Every new intern in Long Island Jewish Hospital (LIJ), where I interned, was told to read the book “The House of God”. Its author, Samuel Shem, was a nom de plume for a guy who was a resident at LIJ some years back. It is hilariously funny and shines a light of levity on the desperate, life and death struggles of medical interns. At the end, the protagonist laments that he “did not cure even one patient” and decides to leave medicine and travel. After my year at LIJ I felt exactly that way. I had eased suffering some, and prolonged life a bit, but cured nobody. There was free time at the year end which I spent in the hospital library. I stumbled across a book deep in the unread archives called Acupuncture Therapy, by Mary Austin. I took it out, the first one to do so in a decade, and was quickly engrossed. Here was a complete system of healing, with diagnosis and therapy logically wrapped together. If you buy the premise, that there are invisible lines of force that run through our bodies, the rest is satisfying and predictable. I bought acupuncture needles in Chinatown and began experimenting on my friends (it is a rule of acupuncture that you never treat yourself, a rule that I violated later, to my deep regret).
Was it happenstance or fate that I saw a sign advertising an acupuncture symposium in San Francisco later that month? I went, riding in the back of a van for three bumpy days. The symposium occupied all of a big downtown hotel and had dozens of meetings and lectures. I crawled out of the van and limped to the bar. I sat next to a tall, blond impeccably dressed man who had a tag “Lecturer”. He introduced himself as Dottore Luciano Roccia, of Turin Italy. I mumbled something to the effect that I was Paul, the small and meek, newly graduated from an internship in New York.
“Well” Roccia boomed, embracing me. ”You no waste your time here. You come to Italy, I teach you everything you need to know about acupuncture”. It was just the sort of outlandish proposal that intrigued a lost soul like me. I accepted.
My girlfriend at the time, Cheryl, loved the idea. I got yet another loan from my parents, and we were off to Turin Italy and a breathtakingly new career.
Italy was a delight. Little coffee shops on the corner, family restaurants (called trattorie), a fun and easy language to learn, trams travelling everywhere you wanted to go, cheap apartments, just a charming place. Of course Turin, in north Italy, was a factory town, home of FIAT (FIAT stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobilistica de Torino). It was so polluted many locals wore masks when outside. No matter, I loved it. You bought everything you needed from a family-owned small shop. One for milk, butter, and eggs. One for meat. One for bread. One for fish. Etcetera.
Luciano Roccia was true to his word. He taught me all he knew about acupuncture. The price for all this knowledge was that I had to work in his clinic 9-11 and 2-4 five days a week. Roccia begrudgingly paid me a salary too. I was there for two years. Always curious, I studied deeper into acupuncture, discovering a deep layer of knowledge Roccia knew nothing about, the pulses. Each energy path, called a meridian, was represented by a certain pulse at the wrist. Twelve meridians, twelve pulses. I used this to effect cures on difficult and often long-suffering patients. I invented an acupuncture point finder, a little gadget that lights up when the tip is near an acupuncture point. It works on the principle that acupuncture points have more blood vessels than other places.
At my instigation, we began doing work on acupuncture anesthesia. This required another invention, an acupuncture point stimulator. We had some success, especially about the head and neck.
Here is where I went wrong. In order to develop the point finder and the stimulator, I began inserting needles into myself, breaking a cardinal rule. One day I used needles I brought home from the clinic. One was infected with herpes virus. I got terribly sick. High fever, rash, vomiting, pain in my legs that was beyond tolerance. After the acute illness subsided, I was left with gnawing leg pain that gave me no peace. Eventually, finding no relief, I abandoned all my work in Italy and crawled home.