Amy Youngblood meets the person who gave her a new life on a Friday afternoon.
At the entrance of an acupuncture clinic, a three-tiered metal cart propped the glass door open. On the cart, a handwritten note was taped to a pump bottle of hand sanitizer––Wash Your Hands! Amy scoffed. She was only here to drop off sushi and ramen to the doctor, no need to wash her hands. She scanned the empty waiting room and wondered if the doctor had been equally obnoxious before COVID-19. In this small space––about 100 square feet––there were posters on every wall. Wear a facemask! Practice social distancing! Don’t shake hands! Don’t touch your face! Take your temperature every day! Sneeze and cough into your elbow!
Amy put the doctor’s lunch on a chair, then picked up a pen from the metal cart. On a poster that warned of the dangers of not wearing a facemask, she wrote: Everyone dies, why bother? She let out a quiet chuckle and was about to add R.I.P. when, from the other side of a wall, a black-haired woman emerged. She wore navy-blue scrubs, latex gloves, a facemask, and a face shield––a cross between a golfer’s visor and a welder’s helmet with a Plexiglas panel.
Amy stared at the woman’s protective gear. Gosh, is this necessary? It’s like swimming with a raincoat on!
“Can I help you?” the woman asked. Even though her facemask muffled her voice, her accent was detectable.
Amy dropped the pen back on the cart and picked up the food from the chair. “Dr. Chen? Here’s your order,” she said, handing a plastic bag to the woman. “I’m helping my neighbor with her restaurant deliveries in Salt Lake City today.”
Dr. Chen eyed Amy up and down. “You washy hands?”
“I––washed my hands––yeah––before.” Amy couldn’t remember when she’d washed her hands the last time, but she did remember having picked her nose in the car, on the way here.
Carefully, Dr. Chen used her thumb and her index finger like a claw to take the bag. She smelled like rubbing alcohol.
R.I.P. Amy thought as she turned to leave.
“Wait,” Dr. Chen called out. “When you wok in, I heard ke-cha, ke-cha, ke-cha. Pills?”
“Oh––yeah, painkillers.” Amy suddenly felt guilty, as if she’d been caught doing drugs.
Dr. Chen jabbed herself in the chest with a thumb, lifting her chin in confidence. “I help you.”
Amy had had her first migraine attack twenty years earlier when she was twenty-nine. Since then, whenever she didn’t have a headache, she thought about having one. All the doctors she’d visited had told her to try different painkillers. Last Christmas, her husband had given her a bottle of Excedrin from Costco. She finished all 300 caplets within six months. She kept a 100-caplet bottle in her purse, one in her pantry, one on her nightstand. She always forgot to pack something whenever she traveled, but she never forgot Excedrin. Amy’s migraines made her head feel like an overfilled balloon that could explode anytime. She imagined the puncture of a needle would release the internal pressure, so acupuncture for migraine relief made sense.
Amy purchased a ten-visit punch card from Dr. Chen. A week later, on Friday, she returned to the clinic. Dr. Chen met her at the door, asking her to sanitize her hands and to wear a facemask. After taking Amy’s temperature, Dr. Chen led her to a room and told her to lie on a massage bed. Amy noticed an anatomy chart on a wall, labeling countless pressure points all over an illustrated child’s body.
“Is there an age limit for acupuncture?” Amy asked. “Like, do you treat little kids?”
“I don’t needle kids younger than eight. I massage them. Eight-year-old body ready, yes,” Dr. Chen said with a nod.
As Dr. Chen stuck needles into Amy’s forehead, temples, and crown, Amy discovered that, depending on the locations where the needles were inserted, there were various degrees of tiny pain. “So, when you stick a needle in a human body, what part does it hurt the most?” she asked.
Dr. Chen pointed her right index finger at her left palm. “Here. The pressure points here connect to hot.”
“Heart?” Amy pointed at her own chest.
Dr. Chen nodded. “Sometimes people cry when I needle there.”
This reminded Amy of the crucifixion scene from the movie The Passion of the Christ––Jesus’s tortured body covered in blood and fresh open wounds, a crown of thorns on his head. Amy had grown up in a Christian home. Even though she hadn’t gone to church or studied the scriptures since college, she remembered some bible stories her mother had told her: Jonah and the Whale, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, and Noah’s Ark.
“What if––someone nails a spike into your palm?” Amy asked.
“Why?” Dr. Chen furrowed her brows.
“Like a––capital punishment, to kill you.”
“Silly!” Dr. Chen chuckled. “Nail in palm don’t kill you. You just hurt and cry.”
“Well, okay, how about a spike in each palm? Nail you to a human-size cross and leave you hanging forever?”
Dr. Chen fell in a long silence.
“You know Jesus Christ?” Amy asked.
“No, I from China. No Jesus Christ in China,” Dr. Chen said, her voice soft and gentle. “Someone nailed his palms and––killed him?”
With consideration for all the needles on her head, Amy made a slight, careful nod. “He didn’t have to, but he chose to die for us. I––I wonder if his heart was broken . . .”
“Oh, if someone did that to him, then his hot, lungs, hands, all broken. Sorry!” Dr. Chen said.
During Amy’s visit, Dr. Chen liked to talk about her childhood in China, about her cadaver dissection class in medical school, about her four-year-old Chinglish-speaking daughter exchanging her facemask with a friend in preschool. They talked about communism, about Black-Lives-Matter protests, riots, and looting. Sometimes they laughed together, sometimes they were solemnly quiet. Dr. Chen quickly became Amy’s new best friend. Friday afternoon with her quickly became Amy’s favorite time of the week.
By her sixth appointment she’d stopped taking Excedrin. By the eighth week, she’d stopped thinking about having a migraine attack. For years, she would gladly have thrown away all the Excedrin bottles she owned, but she had never thought it could ever become a reality.
At the end of her ninth appointment, as usual, Dr. Chen applied oil on Amy’s crown and then massaged her head with vigorous force. Instead of chatting about current events and COVID-19, she gave Amy instructions: get at least seven hours of sleep every night, take a thirty-minute nap in the afternoon, don’t sit directly under an A/C vent, avoid caffeinated drinks, alcoholic drinks, dairy products, chocolate, citrus . . .
“That’s too much to remember,” Amy said. “Remind me again next week.”
“You don’t need to come anymore. You done.” Dr. Chen smiled her eyes into the shape of crescent moons. “Two more things: wear mask, washy hands!”
Amy crosses out her acupuncture appointment on her desk calendar, wondering who will take over her Friday appointment slot. What will Dr. Chen and the new patient talk about? What will the new patient think about Dr. Chen’s heavy protective gear?
Suddenly, Amy realizes that she doesn’t know what the person who gave her a new life looks like. She googles Dr. Chen’s name and a grainy image of a woman pops up on her computer screen. Amy covers the lower half of the woman’s face with her hand, showing only what’s above the cheekbones. She enlarges the picture for a closer look at the eyes, paying attention to the shape and the distance between the brows and the lids.
It’s her, no mistake! Amy moves her hand away and stares at the image of an Asian woman with a bad perm and a stale face that looks like she hates the photographer. Maybe he was laughing at her hair when he took the shot. Amy could almost hear Dr. Chen say to the man, “Your head so broken, even I can’t fix it.”
“Ah, Dr. Chen”––Amy places her hand over her heart––“thanks for fixing mine!”