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Own Your Health: Choosing the Best from Alternative and Conventional Medicineby Roanne Weisman
This is a book about healing journeys. It is not just a "how to" book, but an inspiration derived from the deeply moving stories of individual people, both patients and practitioners, who have grasped the challenge of illness and sought a meaningful way of achieving and owning health. In large part the book is an exploration of an approach to medicine that is broad and inclusive of many healing traditions. This vision of medicine embraces all of the wonders of modern medicine and the huge strides it has made in overcoming life-threatening diseases and acute trauma, but it also embraces the rich diversity of life itself by including approaches from other cultures and schools of thought. Perhaps most importantly though, it is an approach that attempts to right what has been called "the leaning Tower of Pisa of modern medicine." For all of the advances and great technological breakthroughs in health care over the last century, medicine has fractured the person it aims to cure into parts, even infinitesimal parts. In its focus either on the germ that causes the disease, the system or organ of the body that has been attacked, or the gene that predisposes a person to be susceptible to that germ, modern medicine has come to neglect the patient as a whole being with emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and cultural and environmental influences-all of which can also contribute to making that person sick, and . . . well and healthy again. Ultimately, this book is a celebration of the desire of people to re-humanize medicine, to reclaim a role in their own healing, and to be educated about and have access to choices in treatment.
My own journey to find a new way of healing began with the stories told to me by my own patients. It also began out of the frustration I felt when, as a young, fully trained and qualified doctor, I listened to these stories and felt the only thing I had to offer was a prescription pad or a surgical procedure. Like most aspiring doctors I had started out in medical school with all the altruistic ideals of alleviating human suffering and bettering the lot of my fellow man. Fortunately, my experience as a medical student only whetted my passion. Out of a desire to experience cultures other than my own in the United States, I had chosen to go to medical school in Ireland, and there I was embraced by a way of life that at that time was less technologically advanced than in the United States but was rich in unhurried time for personal interaction and storytelling.
Tagging along on the ward rounds of some of Dublin's hospitals, I saw the value of this emphasis in some of the clinicians who were my mentors and teachers. These caring individuals taught me that medicine was much more than the test results we were interpreting or the diseases and drugs we were trying to match up. Each patient had a story to tell, and the doctors were there to listen. I realized at the time that I was privileged to be witnessing true masters practicing the art of medicine, and though I took these gems with me when I went on to my residency training in the United States, disillusionment began to creep in.
Residency is a grueling experience with long hours, yet little time to give to each patient because of a hectic and overloaded schedule, and a great deal of information to learn and incorporate. By the time I finished my three years of training in family practice I was respectful of the tremendous achievements of medicine, but I was also exhausted and frustrated, ready to quit a profession that I felt had lost its heart.
On the one hand, I was aware that we have made huge advances in diagnostic testing and in understanding how the body functions down to the molecular and genetic levels as well as in improving public health and the management of acute trauma. On the other hand, however, I felt medicine had become a slave to technology, economics and the large machine of the pharmaceutical business. What was more, chronic diseases continued to baffle us, and in all truth, we had little to offer to alleviate symptoms, let alone cure. If anything, our powerful drugs were at best only giving us a false sense of accomplishment that we were "doing something" and at worst were allowing us get people in and out of our offices quickly, not to mention causing problems of their own, so-called "side effects." There had to be a different way of practicing medicine, I thought, one that was more fulfilling and effective than this.
From these beginnings I went on to dedicate much of my career to learning about other medical traditions and approaches. Many of these therapies fall under what we call in Western countries "alternative" or "complementary" medicine. I began to integrate these techniques into my medical practice and, as I did so, felt a greater sense of satisfaction with what I had to offer my patients. In learning about systems of medicine, such as traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy, I gained new insights into illness and healing patterns and how to consult with my patients. At one level I felt my practice was enriched because I now had more tools added to my medical black bag, but at another level I realized I was being challenged to reevaluate my thinking and my role as a doctor.
First of all, these approaches did not fit neatly into the scientific paradigm of my conventional training. They talked of concepts such as Qi and vital force and used diluted medicines or techniques such as acupuncture, which were almost impossible to comprehend. What was this idea they shared of a life force that if blocked could cause illness and if stimulated could restore health? It is a concept that continues to fascinate me and one that I hope my own research and that of other medical scientists or even physicists will begin to decipher. Perhaps we will gain new insights that are as groundbreaking as the discovery of the nervous system! However, at this point in time, life force is not too far-fetched when we think of it in terms of the healing response, or the natural ability of the body to cure itself. Put differently then, the focus of these therapeutic approaches is on activating the body, the individual, to self-heal. And this is the important emphasis.
In incorporating these approaches into my practice, I realized I would lose their essence if I saw them only as other potential magic bullets. When it came down to it, whether using conventional techniques or alternative approaches, my role as a doctor was to be a partner with the person who will do the healing-my patient. The word doctor comes from the Latin docere, to teach, and as I altered and broadened my practice, I realized it was more important for my patients to feel in control of their own self-coping than rely on my treatment.
In Own Your Health the stories you will read are about people who have come to a similar realization as my own about a new approach to medicine and healing. The stories weave together themes of human suffering and dignity, and they uplift and as a whole paint a picture of the possibilities contained in the mysteries of life and the potential contained within each one of us. Sometimes it takes the experience of adversity, such as sickness, for us to realize we need to open our horizons as well as reclaim our own power. For me as a newly trained doctor I had felt gravely wounded and had to embark on a journey that led me to question many of my ingrained beliefs and turn away from some of my medical indoctrination in order to heal. In taking responsibility myself for what was right for me as a doctor and healer, I felt a great deal more strength and satisfaction even though initially I was really out on a limb and ostracized by many of my colleagues.
Fortunately, things are changing and the idea of "integrative medicine" is beginning to take hold. In the early 1990s when I first started a program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine dedicated to scientifically evaluating complementary and alternative therapies and investigating their integration into a mainstream medical setting, we were pretty much lone wolves. Now, however, many medical institutions are taking up the challenge (including the National Institutes of Health) and have centers or programs looking at integrative medicine. The academic institutions with integrative medicine centers have also formed a consortium to promote the advancement and understanding of integrative medicine with committees focused on research, education and clinical care. This is an important first step and opens the way for a cooperative effort to look at the best of both worlds, conventional and alternative, in order to transform medicine.
The Chinese have a character Wei Ji which translates as "crisis." This character can be broken down into two parts, the top part meaning "chaos," and the bottom part "opportunity." Health care in the United States and many other Western countries is at a point of crisis. Increasingly it has become depersonalized, expensive and overly focused on drugs and technology. In facing its own adversity and chaos, however, the medical establishment has its own unique opportunity to look beyond its boundaries to seek positive change. By exploring that which is unfamiliar or foreign, medicine may have the opportunity to rediscover meaning in its own practice; a practice that not only incorporates new tools that may be gentler and less invasive, but one that also puts the patient, the individual, squarely back into the center of focus. By and large, it is people such as those who have shared their stories in this book who are driving the greatest changes in medicine. They are demanding to be seen as whole, complex and multifaceted individuals who wish to be in control of their lives, know about their choices, and be involved and valued as partners in a healing relationship.
Brian Berman, M.D.
¬2003. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Own Your Health by Roanne Weisman with Brian Berman, M.D. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.
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