This First Person article is written by Kerry Yang, a first-year medical student in Calgary. For more information about First Person stories, see the FAQ.

When the plaques started appearing on my knees in Grade 1, my mom thought it came from all the kneeling I did on the carpet during reading time.

“Aiya! You need to stop kneeling,” she would tell me in Mandarin. “It’s bad for your knees.”

Soon, I was the only one sitting in my class and it was isolating, but I trusted her.

That was not the first time her well-intentioned advice caused more harm than good.

As the months passed, my plaques got thicker, redder, scalier and, worst of all, itchier. They started appearing on my elbows as well, and my mom took me to a doctor.

“It’s something called psoriasis,” the doctor told us. “You can’t cure it. It’s lifelong. You can only manage it.”

My mom stood up in disbelief. “What do you mean it can’t be cured?”

The doctor tried to explain: the psoriasis is from my immune system being overactive and causing inflammation that makes skin cells multiply too quickly. 

But my mom cut him off. 

“What’s the point of medicine if you can’t cure something?”

The conversation went downhill from there. Eventually, the doctor prescribed hydrocortisone cream (a weak steroid medication) and told us to come back if it didn’t improve. 

Yang as a young boy in a photo taken while on a family trip to China. (Submitted by Kerry Yang)

The cream didn’t help. My mom took this as confirmation that Western medicine didn’t work, and decided I should use Chinese herbs for my psoriasis.

My mom and I have a complex relationship. It’s not close in the way some of my Canadian peers experience closeness. She values independence, so even when she was home from her rotations working in the oilsands, my sister and I walked home from school. I watched with jealousy as our classmates got picked up. 

She was trying to raise us to be strong and wanted to provide a better life for us. I, however, grew to resent that most of our conversations were her providing advice about how something was bad for me. Again. 

But she was dedicated to fixing my psoriasis. Over the years, she spent thousands of dollars buying different herbal treatments. I tried creams, lotions and teas, but all they did was cover my plaques in pungent, brown substances, and leave behind a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.

I was lucky my psoriasis was relatively mild. Still, I suffered from it. Other kids avoided getting close to me and some parents physically pulled their children away. I didn’t want to wear T-shirts or shorts, and things got worse when my scalp started flaking. I learned to develop a thick skin — figuratively as well — to cope.

Last year, I started medical school at the University of Calgary. Psoriasis came up during a lecture, and I learned how effective its treatments, including corticosteroids, can be. Intrigued, I decided to give the steroids another chance, and was prescribed one of the strongest available.

Two photos of a knee, one with scaly white flakes.
A photo of Yang’s healthy knee is on the left. The photo on the psoriasis on his knee is on the right and was taken several years ago. (Submitted by Kerry Yang)

It worked. Within weeks, my plaques looked almost like normal skin. Years of embarrassment, cured, with a tiny little spray. 

I told my mom about it, and she didn’t believe me. She said the corticosteroid spray only cleared my skin and it was the Chinese herbal treatments that removed the blood stasis causing my psoriasis.

I felt frustrated, but I dropped it. Like her Chinese zodiac sign, the horse, she’s stubborn, and I knew arguing was pointless. Instead, I tucked away my herbal products, never wanting to see them again.  

Then one night, as I sprayed my knee before getting into bed, something shifted. As the white flakes melted away, I realized that all the money and time spent on Chinese herbs wasn’t just to cure my psoriasis. It was my mom’s way of showing love. I watched my anger fade away with the flakes. 

Three people stand in front of a water body with brightly lit tall apartment buildings behind them.
Yang, centre, stands with his sister Carolyn Huang, left, and mother Sandy Huang during a visit to Guanzh, China, last December. (Submitted by Kerry Yang)

I think Chinese traditional medicine has value. It’s a system of medical knowledge built over millennia. The holistic focus on all aspects of health, such as nutrition and physical activity, can complement conventional medicine. Some practices, such as using acupuncture for back pain, have shown effectiveness.

But my mom’s blind faith was a bit much.

In the end, I came to learn that for me, these herbs weren’t medicine for my skin, but for my heart. I’ve never heard my mom say wǒ ài nǐ (I love you). It’s just not part of our culture. But I don’t need her to say those words to know she does love me. 

She spent hours trying to find a cure for an incurable disease for me — asking every friend and every friend of friend for new herbal remedies. And every time she calls me, the first thing she asks is if my psoriasis has improved.

The herbs were my mom’s way of showing love. And despite all that I faced throughout my childhood, that’s something I’ll always be grateful for.


Telling your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary is running in-person writing workshops to support community members telling their own stories. This piece came from a workshop held at the Forest Lawn library in east Calgary.

Check out our workshops at cbc.ca/tellingyourstory and read more stories from these workshops below.

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