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Illness as Teacher

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Medical treatment is sometimes flawed and can cause harm.

 I have long had issues with conventional medicine and a great interest in alternative practices. That bias will show up during the coming months, and I thought I should take a moment to explain how it came about. 

I have a substantial library on the history of medicine and routes to health, and my interest began as a young person. I was fascinated by historical fiction that touched on what healers did when there was no scientific knowledge. Healing is to me a very different field from modern medicine, and I have a growing skepticism about the latter because of the money issues involved. 

My interest in medicine may have been seeded by the fact that my father was troubled with stomach ulcers from the time before I was born. I was aware that he often didn’t feel well, and he hemorrhaged once and had to be taken to the hospital. The belief at the time was that ulcers were psychosomatic in origin, and his doctor eventually prescribed Phenobarbital, a sedative. After finally undergoing abdominal surgery, he suffered a stroke in the hospital and died at age 45.  

Twenty-six years later, we would learn that the ulcers had probably been caused by a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori. Of course you can’t blame the medical profession for science that hadn’t been discovered yet. However, the use of an unneeded barbiturate was somewhat disabling the last year of my father’s life, and the experience left an indelible impression: Medical treatment is sometimes  flawed and can cause harm. 

Then six years later, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had gotten into her lymph nodes, and after a radical mastectomy, her surgeon told me that she would probably live no more than two years. I doubt that she asked for her prognosis because she was never interested in medical details, and she proceeded to live another 24 years. 

I always wondered if the stress of my father’s illness, grief over his death, and the fear that must have set in afterward—she was 42 and had four very bright children to raise and educate–had played a role in the development of cancer. By the time she was diagnosed with cancer, she had begun to move toward what would become a very successful career in school administration. 

I can’t help but think that my mother survived as long as she did because (1) she couldn’t afford to die with years of very expensive education yet to provide and (2) she was excelling professionally in a way that must have been gratifying. This ineffable thing called “spirit” was probably afoot. 

The cancer may have begun to recur when she was diagnosed years later with endocarditis, an inflammation of the membrane lining the heart. She was placed on very aggressive antibiotic therapy that involved intravenous injection every eight hours for weeks. My siblings and I took turns walking with her through this therapy, and my oldest sister was present when she went into a reaction so intense that she had to be treated as a burn victim. 

My mother’s doctor was an internist not a cardiologist, and he was not board-certified, but she didn’t want a second opinion. After that grueling therapy, she went into steady descent, including kidney failure from which she recovered. It was only when a group of specialists became involved that one of them realized that cancer was on the move again. 

She underwent spinal surgery for a tumor and then chemotherapy, having had radiation therapy for the first episode. It bought her some time, perhaps, some time in morphine-altered reality as the cancer moved deeper into her bones. Eventually veins collapsed by the radiation therapy made further chemotherapy impossible and she soon passed. It was really a sad thing to witness, and the “essential Mama” was gone long before she died. 

Medicine is always advancing and has become extremely complicated, but doctors can work best with patients who are alert to symptoms, interested in procedures, and informed about options and standards of excellence. This was not my mother. The treatments she underwent were harrowing and debilitating, and some may have been unnecessary and even harmful. Chemotherapy is one that I suspect will someday be deemed as misguided as blood-letting. However, when you want to live and this is the only thing offered . . . 

By the time my mother’s ordeal was over, I had made up my mind: “I’m not getting this.” I was 46 and at high risk for breast cancer myself, and I moved forward on a couple of fronts to ensure that I never received that diagnosis. One approach had to do with conventional medicine and the other with alternative. At that point in my life, I was willing to balance the two. As time went on, however, my focus sharpened on alternative.  And for good reason, as I will relate later.

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