The Grandma Doctor




THE so-called Grandma Doctor was in her 80s. Although not poor, she would daily receive new patients. Her epithet came about because going to her clinic was like paying a visit to your grandma. She would listen, nod and smile as patients told her everything that was on their minds. Only then would she ask questions about their health and take their pulses, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice.


As she hadn’t been feeling well for a while, the hospital director advised her to retire. She agreed, having considered this step. But beforehand she wanted to keep all her appointments. This, it seemed to her, would be the perfect full stop to her career.


The last patient she saw was a high school student from the countryside who was afflicted with a strange malady. After a certain time spent reading, phantom images would swim before his eyes. As this prevented him from focusing his academic scores dived.


His mother had fed him chicken broth and eggs, and done all she could to enrich his nutrition, but it didn’t help, she told the Grandma Doctor. She and the whole family were desperately worried because the boy was due to take the all-important college entrance exam in a few months.


The Grandma Doctor, however, was no stranger to the illness. She had suffered similar symptoms in her youth. TCM had cured it. This was what prompted her to study and eventually become a TCM practitioner.


“The herbal remedies I’ll prescribe are cheap and easily available,” the Grandma Doctor told the young man. “But their taste is bitter, and might make you vomit to start with. But you must persevere.”


She went on to say that there was a special method of decocting the medicine, and that she would adjust the prescription accordingly over the coming few months until the young man made a complete recovery.


The young high school student and his mother both agreed to do everything the Grandma Doctor said as long as it cured his illness. But they felt a little puzzled when she asked them to pick up the prescription the following day.  


When she came home, the Grandma Doctor searched through various boxes and chests till she found an old envelope containing a yellowed letter paper. On it were old Chinese characters written with a calligraphy brush, vertically, from right to left.


The Grandma Doctor sat down and copied out the old prescription in simplified characters – horizontally from left to right – and converted the units of weight from liang and qian, to grams. After finishing this rask she felt thoroughly exhausted, so thought it time to stop and take a rest.


The next day the Grandma Doctor gave the prescription to the young man. She told him to write to her in 20 days and to report on his state of health.


“You must tell me everything, in as much detail as possible,” she said, adding that she would reply without delay and enclose the next prescription. She asked the young man to write the letter in the form of an essay, as a way of practicing the written section of the college entrance exam. The young man agreed, saying this was a good idea!


The student had recovered completely by the time he took the exam. He wrote six letters to the Grandma Doctor, and received from her six replies and six prescriptions. The first reply began: “I have read your letter. You have adapted to the bitter herbs, and your health is improving.”


Her sixth reply ended: “My best wishes to you in the college entrance exam, and I hope you will serve society after you graduate!”


The young man applied to take the TCM major at the medical college that the Grandma Doctor had attended and was enrolled. After entering college, he went to the Grandma Doctor’s home according to the address she had given him on the envelopes containing her replies. After pressing the doorbell he heard the clear, gentle ringing of the bell, but no one answered. He pressed again, and again, and then knocked on the door. Still no one answered.


The security guard of the apartment complex probably knows where she is, he thought. But the guard told him: “The old lady passed away a few months ago.”


 “What!” The young guy was so shocked he almost shouted, “That’s impossible!”


 “Who would dare to joke about a death?” The guard answered. “Go and ask her daughter if you don’t believe me.”


The young man, armed with the new address, found the Grandma Doctor’s daughter in a different building at the same community. He introduced himself, and the gray-haired daughter was not at all surprised. She then told him the whole story:


“As a doctor, my mother knew exactly her state of health. After she had copied out the prescription that day, she became aware that her time left on this earth was soon to end. So in the days that followed she wrote all seven replies, seven prescriptions, and seven envelopes.


“She told me to send her letters after receiving yours. There is only one letter that I didn’t post, and that was in the event of a different situation. It read, ‘I apologize for not being able to help you, please consult a better doctor!’


“I reassured my mother, telling her that I would write the replies for her if she should pass away. But, she said, “You don’t know TCM, and the young man would feel puzzled at receiving a letter from you, because of the difference in handwriting. It would make him feel suspicious, and might even make him decide not to take the medicine. That would be disastrous at the time just before the college entrance exam.”


Tears filled the young man’s eyes. He said, “I want to go to your mother’s tomb and pay my respects.” “My mother doesn’t have a tomb,” her daughter said. “You will see her body in the lab when you have your anatomy class.”


The young man dissolved helplessly into tears.


LI KANGSHENG is a contracted writer of the Baihuayuan magazine.