Friday, August 21, 2009

What's the Alternative?

As some of you know, I've spent a lot of time in doctors' offices and hospitals during the past almost three years now courtesy of my sweetheart's back. He had operation #4 the week after I returned from DC and, this time, has made it as far as PT.

I'm seeing a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. (Please, God, let it not be a train!)

Many years ago, I wanted to be a pediatrician. I worked in hospitals, nursing homes, and a school for mentally and physically handicapped children pursuing that goal. Then life stepped in, goals changed, but I never lost interest in the field.

I have always written, in one form or another, but a few friends convinced me to try my hand at fiction. Loving history as I do, I began writing a story set in the 15th century. It seemed natural for me to include a healer and delve into medicants of the time.

Brother Cadfael's Garden spearheaded my research and led to an insatiable curiosity about the medicines that mankind used for millenia versus the synthetic versions offered by today's medical establishment.

Hearing doctors, whose pharmacopoeia is less than a century old, refer to their practices as Traditional Medicine while labeling the herbal remedies used since the dawn of man Alternative Medicine struck me as off kilter considering herbals have few adverse side-effects compared to current prescription drugs which have literal laundry lists of potential problems, some of which are deadly.

Don't misunderstand: nature's pharmacopoeia can kill, and the poisons plants provide are well documented in literature as the murder weapon of choice--especially during the Renaissance. Chemical compounds are what they are, whether natural or man made, and some don't play well with others so negative interactions are a potential danger. Add that these medicants aren't standardized, and your results could be disappointing, at best, or life-threatening, at worst, if you don't educate yourself first.

A Brief Evolution of European Medicine

In the beginning, the vast majority of healers were women who harvested and used the local flora to bring their tribes or villages relief from pain, illness, or injury. Healers were treasured, often passing their knowledge from mother to daughter.

Enter Christianity.

Because healing traditions found their roots in pagan cultures, the Church was quick to accuse the practitioners of "congress with the devil." Some of these practitioners, accepting the new religion, entered nunneries and practiced their skills under the auspices of the Church within sanctioned infirmaries.

Those who retained the secular life became easy pickings for patients unwilling to pay for services or unhappy with the results of those services.

Witch burning became a spectator sport.

Medieval men had a problem with nuns (women) controlling such essential information. Women were chattel, they had no rights outside those allowed by men so leaving such knowledge in their hands gave them a degree of power over their lords and masters. Monks soon took care of that, first as overseers, then as practitoners themselves, adding to their arsenal remedies and treatments provided by those returning from the various Crusades.

Travel was less than convenient, so every castle had its stillroom. The lady of said castle was responsible for having the medicants her people needed, harvesting, drying, mixing, distilling and whatnot, with the help of her servants. Among these servants one might--and often did--find a hereditary healer who undertook some of the more onerous duties, although many a lady stitched flesh and cleaned wounds. Since most castles had resident priests or monks to conduct the daily religious offices and perform whatever rituals the castle required, and of course, the lady fell under the authority of her lord, the accusations of witchcraft at this level were few---but not unheard of.

In the 15th century, the Renaissance, with its more humanistic thinkers, blossomed on the European continent. Along with its music and art, new ideas about illness and the human body emerged. While the four humors /four element system dates back to the ancient Greeks, it became common practice throughout Europe to bleed or cup sick folks to balance these humors. (The elements are a whole other post!) Needless to say, blood loss often killed the patient before the disease since bleeding involved nicking or cutting a vein and could be required several times over the course of an illness. Cupping involved using a glass to cause bruising, thus bringing bad humors to the skin. Leeches were applied to drain them away.

The physician and his inevitable shadow, the quack, now take center stage.

The root of physician is physic, a medicine that purges; cathartic; laxative. As such treatments were primary tools of the time, the name seems appropriate.

Physicians began to travel, bringing with them their new ideas. There was no formal schooling, although the better phyisicians apprenticed under older practitioners, some of whom were herbalist monks. Still, without any kind of oversight, the rise in what we would call Snake Oil Salesmen proliferated.

In the latter part of the 15th Century Anton van Leeuwenhoek, after laboriously hand grinding various lenses, discovered a new world, earning the title Father of Microbiology. The word germ entered the lexicon meaning disease carrying agent as opposed to being simply the heart of a seed.

We had the word, but little else.

Medicine didn't change much during the course of the next four centuries. Grave robbers did a brisk business securing cadavers as surgeons and physicians sought understanding of the human body. The distillation of poppy juice into laudenum improved--and resulted in addiction for many. Bleeding and cupping, while still done, became less prevalent. Forceps came into being as did chloroform, just in time for the American Civil War, and in 1898, Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, discovered radium, giving Rontgen's mysterious X-ray a viable source.

The 20th century saw medicine become something one trained for, whether doctor or nurse, and the initiation of medical oversight. A chance encounter with bread mold led to penicillin. Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine for the scourge, polio. Medical knowledge advanced in leaps and bounds.

Medicants did the same. The willow bark tea grandma used for her aches and pains was distilled into aspirin. Foxglove revealed its heart-regulating digitalis. Opiates became available in stronger, more concentrated forms. But taking these things from nature was costly and time consuming.

Now the chemist commands the limelight.

Dickering with different compounds, chemistry expanded the parameters of many drugs, but still had to overcome the expense. So they began working on synthetic, easily mass-produced alternatives that made medicants more affordable.

Affordable, yes, but at what cost to overall health?

Think of the commercials for pharmaceuticals. They're scary. There are pills for everything and, while none of them tout a cure, all appraise the viewer of myriad hazards. Face it, there is no money in a cure. Healthy people don't need pills. Thus, they prescribe maintenance, keeping folks dependent until they shed this mortal coil. As a result, some have become disillusioned by the medical profession and its partner, the pharmaceutical industry, and are seeking the knowledge that was once handed down mother to daughter, looking to regain natural curatives.

So which is the Traditional Medicine? And which is the Alternative?

Have you considered or tried herbal remedies? Did they work?

I had planned to add a list of various healing herbs and their uses to this post, but even abridging the exhaustive information available didn't shorten it enough to allow for that. Thus, the list will appear next time---a week from now, if dh continues to improve.

In closing (and I'm being outrageously facetious here), picture this:
(Beautiful young woman approaches Young Hunk. When she begins to speak, he wrinkles his nose, waving his hand before his face.)

Young Hunk: Geez, Mary, haven't you heard of Breath Gone?

(Young Hunk grimaces and walks away. Mary turns her sad, puppy-dog eyes to the camera.)

Disembodied voice: Don't despair, Mary. Just one Breath Gone tablet will put an end to all your problems.

(A hand holding a little pink pill---that looks suspiciously like a breath mint---appears. Eyes wide with excitement, Mary grabs the pill and pops it into her mouth. Smiling smugly, she again approaches Young Hunk.)

Young Hunk: Hey, Mary. Something's different. You want to go someplace where we can talk?

(Young Hunk winks at the camera and the two fade into the crowd while the disembodied voice races through the disclaimer.)

Disembodied Voice: Do not take Breath Gone if you are nursing, pregnant, may become pregnant, have kidney, liver or eye problems, bleed red, or walk upright. Call your doctor if swelling of the tongue or throat occurs as this could be a sign of a serious problem which has, in rare cases, resulted in death by suffocation.

(Crescendo of Violins)

Disembodied Voice: Breath Gone. The sure cure for problem breath.