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MY TURN

A healing ritual steeped in comfort

For a mother and her epileptic daughter, a Chinese herbal tea is sweet balm.

By Elizabeth Aquino

Special to The Times

December 24, 2007

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The herbs, tightly enclosed in a plastic bag then folded inside a brown paper bag, still manage to permeate the house with their earthy, overwhelming aroma. I store them in the laundry room off the kitchen, and when I open the pantry door, the odor always makes my nose twitch, however much I anticipate it.

The herbs themselves are an interesting assortment of twigs; flat, brown things; a rind of something. One time I thought I saw the dried carapace of a bug. They are mushroom-like in color, uniformly brown and beige. Their smell is at once sweet and musty, and lingering, like something dead. I've often described them as "road kill in a bag."

We get the herbs from our Chinese doctor, Joy Jin, a tiny, middle-aged woman who speaks passable English and, like all Chinese doctors, is prone to blunt pronouncements that somehow don't offend. When I first began brewing the teas in the hope of stopping some of my daughter's seizures, I was worried that I might do her some sort of harm. Dr. Jin assured me that the teas were "dangerous for you, not for Sophie."

This was in keeping with a friend's experience with a different Chinese doctor. That wise woman had continuously admonished my friend against an earlier brain surgery done on her own epileptic infant daughter. "Why you cut open her brain? That's terrible," she said, every time my friend brought her daughter for a visit.

The surgery had been unsuccessful, and my friend regretted it to a sickening degree. However, the criticism was so blunt and honest that it was hysterical to us.

Neurologists, on the other hand, have great difficulty voicing their opinions, especially when they don't know what in the world is going on with their patients' brains. That had been our experience, anyway.

I dutifully reported to Sophie's neurologist that I was taking her to a Chinese doctor and giving her herbal teas. Dr. T., a comfortingly disheveled doctor whom I had chosen to follow my daughter's progress after a long string of arrogant, best-in-the-field physicians, commented in her gentle British accent, "Well, they couldn't possibly be any more dangerous than the stuff we've been forcing down her throat for six years."

Chinese herbs are brewed twice. The first time, I open the bag into a nonmetallic pot and cover the mixture with water. Dust and pollen-like fragments float to the surface; I push them down with a wooden spoon and turn on the gas.

When the water begins to boil, I turn down the heat, and they simmer for 45 minutes. During this time, the odor is so intense that I usually open the windows and, weather permitting, the doors. It always crosses my mind that a neighbor or passerby, assailed by an almost visible smell, will think I'm making some sort of drug.

After trying more than 15 anti-epileptic drugs with no success, Sophie continues to endure multiple seizures a day. Yet I have still felt compelled to defend to my friends and family the unorthodox treatment I'm now pursuing. It's simpler to justify the hideous side effects of the accepted protocol than the benefits of the unproved.

The reverence with which I prepare this tea is such that I use the same pot, the same strainer, the same bowl and the same pitcher. I believe, as I brew the herbs. I believe. I believe that they will help her, that they are invested with the power of ancient wisdom and that if I do it correctly, with faith, they will work.

When the 45 minutes are up, I add a small muslin bag containing a special herb particular to treating seizures that must boil for only five minutes.

When that period is up, I strain the tea into a white melamine bowl. The liquid is dark, shiny brown, almost oily on top. The herbs are lumped together now and look even more disgusting wet.

So potent are the herbs that now I have to put them back in the pot, add a smaller amount of water and boil them again. After half an hour, again the sacred extra bag is placed in the water for five minutes, and then the liquid is strained into the first part.

The tea is finished, and I pour it into a tall, narrow glass pitcher and store it in the fridge, next to the milk and juice. It lasts for two days, and then it's time to brew another bag.

I have been taking Sophie to see Dr. Jin on and off for more than five years. During that time, Sophie's seizures have gotten better at times and worse at others, but we've weaned her from three antiepileptic drugs without the usual side effects of withdrawal.

She takes one medication now, a relatively benign one, and her seizures have improved considerably. She has gained weight and looks robust and healthy, whereas previously she would eat like a horse yet remain tiny, thin and fragile. She sleeps fairly well, sometimes through the night. Her constant agitation has given way to a spacey, contented demeanor.

She drinks the tea easily, although it is thick and foul. Her taste buds, we think, have been dulled by so much errant electrical activity in her brain.

And although she cannot talk and is limited in the way she can express herself, when she sees Dr. Jin, she places her lips ever so gently on the doctor's soft, bent-over face.

Elizabeth Aquino lives in Los Angeles with her husband and three children. She is currently working on a memoir about raising a child with epilepsy and severe developmental disabilities.