Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Western vs Traditional Medicine

By Leslie Hsu Oh

Photo credit:
“Yew, Mom,” I said, peering into the pot.  “I think I see a cockroach, some snake skin...”

“Les, please don’t look at it.  You’re not helping.”

We had driven from Southern California to San Francisco to see a Chinese doctor who, after examining X-rays of Mā Ma’s liver cancer, prescribed a soup made up of thirty-two ingredients. One of the largest Chinese pharmacists in Los Angeles prepared three bags for her to boil and drink each day. The house smelled of bitter licorice tinged with herbs for a month before Mā Ma decided she couldn’t drink a drop more.

Another Chinese remedy required boiling a long, weed-like grass with a blue duck egg. A friend who was cured of liver cancer gave us the name of an old school teacher who lived about an hour away. I yanked long strands of grass from this man’s yard, filling several plastic bags for Mā Ma. The teacher looked like those Kung Fu masters in old Chinese movies. He tugged on his long stringy beard while he gave us instructions on how to plant them in our yard.

Once a month, we drove to a duck farm where I combed rows of eggs for any that reflected blue. The owner of the farm was a kind man with a smile that seemed to disappear on the sides of his face and a bushy beard which shook when he laughed. He wouldn’t take Mā Ma’s money for the eggs, but accepted boxes of fruit and flowers. Then, one day, we started bringing fruit and flowers to a veteran’s hospital, where he lay on a bed looking weaker and smaller every time we visited. We stopped going to the farm after Mā Ma received a phone call. She cried all night long.

If it were up to Mā Ma, she would’ve tried traditional medicine only. She had her limits. She wouldn’t pay more than a certain amount of money on non-Western treatments. Drinking urine was out of the question. But her doctors and insurance company had limits that Mā Ma believed ended her life. The insurance company would not pay for anything but Western biomedical treatments. Bà Ba and I forced her to choose one Western treatment, even though we had watched my eighteen-year-old brother die from the same disease after aggressive Western treatments that included a liver transplant.  Finally, she selected chemo embolism, but still had doubts. She asked her doctor, “When you inject the alcohol around the tumor, won’t you be pulling out cancer cells into my abdomen through the needle track?”

Her doctor answered with annoyance, “Ninety nine percent I guarantee you that it won’t. Try to be a patient, not a doctor.”

In the end, she was right. About a year after her diagnosis, she died with numerous cancer cells clustered like grapes along her abdominal cavity.

Since Mā Ma’s death in 1994, I’ve dedicated much of my life to making it easier for folks to access traditional medicines. On the Navajo Reservation, a plan I developed in graduate school with Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Facility blossomed into an Office of Native Medicine where patients can see traditional healers and receive ceremonies performed in a hogan and a Native healing room. Alaska Natives can receive free services at Southcentral Foundation’s Traditional Healing Clinic. For non-Natives, most traditional healing services still remain out-of-pocket.

Living in Alaska allowed me frequent lunch dates, home visits, and medicinal plant harvesting trips with traditional healers such as the renowned Rita Blumenstein, whom I recently featured in a cover story in First Alaskans Magazine and offered our readers a sneak peak in “Native Traditions of Giving” and “Life Off the Grid.”

Rita Blumenstein talks to a plant before she harvests it.
Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh
On Mother’s Day in 2011, my kids and I drove Blumenstein to a secret spot where she harvests petrushki. My daughter Kyra, who was five, and my son Ethan, who was two, peppered Blumenstein with questions on the long drive. She blew them kisses and told me exactly what I needed to hear, that I am a good mother.

With sprinkles of water from gray skies cooling my cheeks, I followed in Blumenstein’s footsteps along the shore. Over a decade of being part of her life, I was still in awe that this internationally revered woman makes time in her packed schedule for me.

Tightening her bright blue hood around her face, she broke out into a mischievous smile and beckoned me close. She stretched out both hands, leaned down towards a round low shrub, and closed her eyes. Her lips moved and I wished I could have heard what she said.

She pulled out a plastic bag from her backpack and said to me, “Take just a little from each.”

Then, she snapped off several stems and whispered to the plant, “Thank you.” She brushed the leaflets against my nose. I inhaled a cilantro-like fragrance. “Petrushki!” she hollered happily and hurried off to the next shrub with the speed of a child collecting candy that scattered from a piñata.

As we harvested, Blumenstein taught me about some of the other plants growing in the area. She pointed out the ones to avoid. She kept saying to me, “I just love you so much,” filling the emptiness that my mother’s death had left within.

Ethan says "thank you" to a petrushki leaf.
Photo credit: Leslie Hsu Oh
When my kids tired of digging in the sand, they each drifted towards me on their own time. I repeated what Blumenstein taught me. To respect the plants. Talk to them. Say thank you. Leave some for other animals and people.

Kyra approached each shrub with all her masculine energy. I warned her not to step on the plants, to be gentle. Blumenstein watched in the distance as I instructed Kyra not to grab fistfuls of petrushki but just a stem at a time.

“Like this Mommee?” she asked, waving three stems bristling with leaflets in my face. Her cheeks flushed pink from the past hour on the beach.

“That’s better. Now, what do you do?” I asked.

Kyra grabbed the plastic bag out of my hands and stuffed some leaflets roughly in. Then, she punctuated two pats on each shrub with “Thank You.”

“Ethan, your turn,” she grabbed her brother’s arm. Both Blumenstein and I watched proudly as she repeated my instructions.

Before we left the beach, I asked both kids to give Blumenstein what they harvested. Blumenstein told us that she couldn’t think of a better Mother’s Day gift.

Now living in the Washington, D.C. area, I worry that my children are being deprived of the myriad of ways that traditional medicine can heal spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally. For those of you who live in big cities, I’d love to hear how you access traditional medicine?

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