Turning East for the Answers to Medical Mysteries

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Western medicine simply didn't know what to do with Terry Adams.

After suffering a stroke last summer that left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak, the 50-year-old former banking vice president listened anxiously to his physician's dire predictions about his future.

As Adams looked on, the doctor explained to his wife, Roxanna, that his chances for a normal life were hopeless, that he'd never tie his shoes again, let alone utter another word.

"The doctor thought Terry was too far gone to understand what he was saying," Roxanna Adams recalled. "But when he turned his back, Terry gave him the finger with his good hand."

With this not-so-fond adieu to Western medicine, Terry and Roxanna Adams decided to seek their medical answers in the East. After consulting with friends, they visited the Santa Monica offices of Beijing-born Dr. Baolin Wu.

A year after beginning his thrice-weekly treatments of acupuncture and the ancient Chinese self-healing art of qi gong, Adams has undergone a remarkable medical transformation: He has regained the use of his once paralyzed right hand. He has begun to speak and now even drives to his treatments.

"I have seen a miracle," Adams said recently, slowly measuring his words.

Added his wife: "Terry's victory is over the patronizing attitude of Western medicine. Doctors scoffed at qi gong, said we could put Terry in a corner and throw chicken blood on him if he thinks it's helping. Now they're all impressed with Terry's progress. But I've stopped caring what they think."

The Adamses are part of a growing fascination with the centuries-old art of Chinese exercise, including qi gong and tai chi, as a rehabilitation tool for stress and stubborn maladies such as migraines, insomnia, high blood pressure and chronic back pain.

Like yoga, the disciplines stress regulation of the breath, purposeful body control and deep relaxation. Students move in graceful patterns, accompanied by deep controlled breathing to center their bodies and direct their vital energy to achieve maximum health.

Signs of interest abound:

* The Arthritis Foundation says tai chi may be the ideal exercise for arthritis sufferers. Studies are underway on its possible uses in treating the elderly for loss of balance and frequent falls.

* Daniel Wang, a Chinese master in martial arts living in Santa Monica, has in recent years offered free qi gong classes to people with HIV and is seeking funding to begin new classes. Many students reported that their "immune systems got a bounce."

* Researchers at the New Jersey Medical School's University of Medicine and Dentistry found that qi gong (pronounced "chi gong") reduces the pain and swelling associated with reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a disabling neurological disease, in a study sponsored by the Office of Alternative Medicines at the National Institutes of Health.

* And countless over-stressed professionals nationwide are performing the easy-flowing low-impact workout provided by qi gong and tai chi, also known as "Chinese ballet."

"Over the past few years, there has been a considerable increase in the number of people practicing qi gong and tai chi as a way to exercise and calm their minds," said Marvin Smalheiser, editor / publisher of the nationally circulated T'ai Chi magazine, which has been published in Los Angeles since 1978.

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A soft-spoken 46-year-old with jet-black hair, Wu has become a local embodiment of this trend. His office has become a one-stop clearing house for Eastern medicine and meditation.

Trained by monks in Beijing's White Cloud Monastery, Wu is a master of the Taoist tai chi discipline known as chang san feng, one of countless variations of the ancient art.

Every weekend in the shaded parking lot outside Wu's office, actors, doctors, lawyers, teachers and bus drivers study the technical movements of qi gong, tai chi and the graceful routines of a version of tai chi using a sword.

Wu is not only a martial arts master, but a medical doctor whose expertise is in Chinese herbal medicine and dealing with stroke victims.

Having received his training in Oriental medicine in China--and with a doctorate in physiology--Wu offers medical wisdom of both the East and West.

His patients include actors Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone. And Wu treated musician Frank Zappa in the last stages of his unsuccessful fight against colon cancer.

"They come in wheelchairs and leaning on walkers," Roxanna Adams said. "Most are desperate people who have been told that nothing else can be done for them."

Of course, there are the nonbelievers. But others--researchers and medical experts included--aren't so ready to dismiss what the East has to offer.

"Except for a few academics and Chinese scholars, few knew about acupuncture until 20 years ago, when Nixon went to China," said Wayne Jonas, director of the Office of Alternative Medicines.

"The West has no clue how these techniques work. But there are a lot of things that seem to work that we have no explanation for. Like prayer. We've just got to investigate them."

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Wu himself was once a patient of his own medicine.

At age 4, he was found to have leukemia. As a last resort, his parents sent him to the White Cloud Monastery for treatment that included acupuncture, qi gong and herbal medicine.

"For months," he recalled, "I was so weak that I couldn't lift my head."

Slowly, monks there introduced treatments that included molding clay with his hands, moving his arms in small circles and, eventually, jumping from a shallow hole with sandbags tied to his ankles, he said. After years of study and meditation at the monastery, the regimen, he said, cured his leukemia and fueled a scholarly interest in Eastern medicine.

In 1989, four years after the Chinese government sent him to Japan to study Western physiology, Wu defected to the United States rather than return to a China dominated by political unrest. He settled in Santa Monica and opened the Beijing Chinese Medical Center.

With his limited English, there were immediate problems reaching an American audience, so Wu chose a few proteges to learn the 464 movements required for tai chi and qi gong.

Gerry Hariton and Vicki Baral, married production designers from Silver Lake, spent months studying tai chi sword under Wu.

"He taught us whole sets of beautiful and complex moves without the benefit of language," Hariton said. "He would grunt and make hand gestures and, if that didn't work, he drew maps. Amazingly, it worked."

Last year, Wu took 30 of his students to China to visit the White Cloud Monastery. Many have learned to apply the lessons learned there to their professional lives.

George Gerdes, a 48-year-old actor with roles in both movies and television, including "The X-Files," says his studies with Wu have taught him how to be graceful in his craft.

"Acting is all about being in the moment and not being tense," he said. "I play a lot of psycho killers. You want to be fluid."

The key to the body's strength lies in harnessing its qi, or life force. In a healthy body, Wu explained, qi flows freely along invisible paths called meridians. Adverse physical conditions, stress or emotional tension may cause blockages or deficiencies of qi, which, he said, eventually lead to disease.

For those too sick to practice qi gong on their own, Wu offers one-on-one therapy in which he clears the body of unhealthy, stagnant qi. The in-office procedure involves him moving his hands over the patient's body, focusing on problem areas, actually drawing the bad qi into his own body, which, by a series of exhales, he releases.

Roxanna Adams said such treatments have worked for her husband.

"All the experts clicked their tongue saying this was obviously a madwoman in denial that her husband is a vegetable. They were saying I no longer had a husband, that I had a patient on my hands for the rest of my life."

This year, Terry Adams' first faltering words came like a symphony to his wife's ears.

"I have my husband back," she said. "I have a companion again. I have more work to do, but he's back. Terry Adams is back."

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