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The Baby Maker
Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai has helped hundreds of infertile women get pregnant, using acupuncture, herbs and boiled twigs
When, in the mid-1990s, Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai began using traditional Chinese medicine to treat infertility, her Harley Street practice was confined to a couple of rooms, each no bigger than a stationery cupboard. Patients would climb the four flights of stairs to sit on a hard chair in the tiny hallway outside her room, like lost and frightened children waiting to see the headmistress.
Along with the usual complex and paradoxical emotions felt by those desperately trying for a baby, the swings from optimism ("Yes – this could be the month it happens!") to panic ("I'll never have a child. Why me? Why me?"), there was also for many of them the feeling that Zhai was another guilty secret, in addition to their infertility. If these women revealed to friends and family, but especially to their mainstream gynaecology and fertility consultants, that they had resorted to acupuncture and brewing up bits of twig and moss to help them get pregnant, it would be the final proof that, in their quest to achieve what most women take for granted, they had lost the plot completely.
I first met Zhai more than six years ago, when Michael Dooley, a gynaecologist and fertility consultant, formerly at the Lister hospital in London and now running his own clinic in Dorset, told me about her success rate in getting women pregnant. Between 1995 and 2000 she had treated 224 patients (average age 37) with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). After treatment for at least six months 76% of the women had become pregnant. Of these pregnancies, 77% resulted in a baby, and of the 23% who miscarried, 69% went on to have a baby later. In 2000 the fertility clinic at the very top of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority league table was claiming a success rate of up to 38.8%. Zhai's success was in the 70s.
"I don't know what she does," Dooley told me. "I don't understand it at all, but her results are amazing and I'm keeping an open mind." He'd begun sending his most difficult patients to her, many of them poor candidates for IVF due to age or egg supply or FSH levels (a measure of the perimenopause); women who, by normal diagnosis, did not stand a hope in hell's chance of conceiving naturally or through assisted treatment (many of them wouldn't even qualify for treatment in some clinics). Zhai, with her herbs and her acupuncture and all the bizarre practices that go with a TCM consultation – more of which later – was Dooley's last-chance saloon.
As it turns out, it was just the beginning. Today, as I sit across from Zhai, she is still the tiny, polished woman I first met, except that her once stiff, bowl-like bouffant has now grown into soft shoulder-length curls. If a hairdo can ever be a metaphor for the relaxing consequences of success and acceptance, hers would do perfectly.
"I've seen so many women," she says smiling, "I know what I do works."
That is putting it mildly. Her practice has more than doubled in size in the past five years. She sees between 50 and 80 women a week, some of whom fly in from other countries. She now has two clinical assistants and a PA; the rooms are five times bigger and there are more of them. Her patients still come to her by word of mouth, but an increasing number are referred by mainstream consultants such as Michael Dooley and Stuart Lavery, director of the IVF unit at Hammersmith hospital, who work in conjunction with Zhai to maximise women's chances of success of conception. Read more.