Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Witch Doctor

I get, on average, something like ten calls, texts, or messages a week from friends and family looking for medical advice of some kind, whether for themselves, their families, or their animals. One memorable occasion started with a photo of an ingrown fingernail, and a request for advice. It was not memorable for the photo, nor for the asking, but for the last line of text sent to me by my friend. When I had explained that indeed, it did not likely warrant the attention of her actual MD, and how I would go about treating it, she said to me, “Thanks. That’s what I thought, but I wanted a second opinion from my witch doctor.”

I thought to myself, “Woah. That’s totally what I am.” I mean, people ask me some really wild stuff, from how to check their children for intestinal parasites, to a chicken who got her head stuck upside down. I am the go-to girl for the unusual, or even sometimes just the questionable. I almost always have an answer, too, and it is almost always as wild or weird as the original question. I got to thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more it bore thinking about.

We here in the United States have access to some of the best medical technology in the history of the world. But you know what most of us don’t have? Access to the full attention of our healthcare providers when we actually need it. They are far too busy to see every one of their patients for an infected nail, or even for that funny cough that doesn’t really bother us much, or being tired all the time, or a hundred other things that can and do add up to really big health issues later. We’re all busy, and our time is precious, and most of us have a terribly long drive and wait in the waiting room to see the doctor. It’s just such a burden when we have kids, work, pets, social obligations, and in some cases livestock and gardens to deal with. Never mind the financial burden of going to the doctor. And you all know what happens when you call in to ask if you really need to come in. They say yes. They have to, of course, because the risk of being sued if they miss something is too high. So what happens is that we wind up with an extremely overburdened medical system, where every waiting room is full, and you lose half a day to see the doctor whether it is a sniffle or a broken bone.

What did we used to do? I mean, there are more doctors than ever, and they used to make house calls instead of limiting the time for each patient to ten minutes or less. Well, we used to have wise people, elders, and herbalists, of course. There used to be an intermediary between people and doctors, someone who could deal with small issues quite handily, and refer larger ones up the food chain to those with more formal training. Now, we have nurses and nurse practitioners for the same thing today, you might say, but the truth is that you pay the same amount, and you wait the same amount of time regardless of who you see in the office. And if you call and ask the question, “Do I need to come in?” you will get the same answer, for the same reasons. Yes, of course, better safe than sorry.

The truth is, we have largely been disenfranchised as to our own health. Most of us can manage only the most basic of first aide, such as washing and the use of self-adhesive bandages and anti-biotic cream. Mothers, once capable of stitching wounds, once the front line against epidemics, have now been relegated to Ace Bandages and ice packs. This is an area where, in my opinion, our consumerism has gone entirely too far. So far, in fact, that almost everyone suffers unnecessarily. For instance, the standard line from the medical establishment is that if something is viral and non-life threatening, you must just take your pills to lessen symptoms, and suffer through it until it is over. In fact, there are a host of well conducted studies that show that some forms of folk medicine actually shorten the duration and intensity of the common cold, and that certain measures can be used to halt all but the worst stomach viruses in their tracks. This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, it’s scientifically proven under rigorously controlled conditions. Why isn’t your doctor telling you this? Well, it’s not out of malice or greed, it is because they simply don’t have the time. Ten minutes per patient is not enough time to teach someone how to make elderberry syrup, or bone broth. They are also so overrun with paperwork and patients that they do not have time for research. And let me tell you, most of the things you can do to regain your health or slow an infection don’t come in a jar, bottle, or box. Pharmaceutical companies have a larger marketing budget than elder trees and peppermint bushes. Most of the time, your doctor simply does not know.

I nursed a relative of mine after surgery, and when she went in for her post-op visit, her doctor said she had never seen healing at that rate before, and that the lack of swelling and bruising was unbelievable. This isn’t a boast about my abilities (which are minor, at best), but rather a cry of frustration that her other patients experienced more suffering than was necessary. We are a population that has given up the responsibility of caring for our own health. We have placed that entire burden on doctors, nurses, and technicians, and then demanded that they be held accountable for the results, absolving ourselves of every responsibility. Then we have further demanded that these professionals be ever more financially efficient at the same time that we demand the latest treatments, machines, and technology. Is it any wonder that lines are long, visits are short, and health outcomes are declining? Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot get blood from a stone.

How are we to change this? It’s a bit of a conundrum, really. This used to be part of our education, before the industrial revolution and the advent of marketing convinced us that we were not capable of taking care of ourselves. So where do we go to learn now? In most cases, our elders don’t know any more than we do.

Well, I think we can start with our witch doctors. Nearly every community has one, and you know who we are. The thing is, we never really went away. We only went underground. There has been a very long running effort to make us extinct. This is not a persecution complex, on my part. It has been a necessary process. There was (and still is) a great deal of abuse and snake oil salesmanship, and we all got painted with the same brush. But here’s a hint, a good herbalist or witch doctor will tell you exactly what is in their medicine, and why it works. They will not use buzz-words, they will not use marketing terms, and they will not spout non-sense like “superfood”. In short, they will be more interested in educating you than selling you something. An excellent one will even be able to furnish you with peer reviewed scientific journal articles that back them up. An absolute litmus test? They will not be afraid to send you to an actual MD if you need it. Ever.

Even though I have recently realized that I occupy this role for some folks, I have witch doctors of my own; people I see before I see my doctor, people I check in with, or send a quick text to in order to check an assumption. This is a function of community. I don’t do this for fame, or recognition. In fact, I didn’t even realize that I was doing it until it was pointed out to me. When we are part of a community, we share information freely. The more I thought about this newly-acquired title of mine, the more I realized that this is a function of society that has fallen by the way-side largely because we as a culture have decided that nothing is worth doing without being paid or otherwise compensated. And I am certainly not recompensed. I share information just as freely as I share seeds. You know why? Prosperity helps all of us. Being healthy helps all of us. And being able to turn sunshine, good earth, and our sweat into food and medicine helps all of us. Being more self-sufficient means that we are less dependent on money, and being less dependent on money means that we have more choices. It means that we can make the choice to give freely of ourselves. We can give to our community without looking for something in return. Frankly, that’s the kind of world I want to live in. So, I am.

Lastly, I would like to make it very clear that I have nothing against doctors. They are, in my opinion, absolutely essential, and I use mine whenever I am in need of her. I would not choose to live in a world without antibiotics, sterile surgery, prescription drugs, or vaccines. I do, however, refuse to live in a world where those are my only health care options. Luckily for me, I know a good witch doctor.


  1. Love the term "witch doctor"! Thanks for writing this. We all need each other! My smarty pants little sister is in an MD/PhD program and I love connecting with plants and using herbal remedies. We always ask each other for advice.
    In my community I tease a friend that she's the "shaman at the edge of the village" because she's a bit of a hermit who everyone goes to when in dire need and her mom is the white witch. =)

    1. Welcome GrittyPretty, and thank you for reading! You are so lucky to have so many healers in your life. It is good to hear that they are thick on the ground. I like "shaman at the edge of the village" too, that's a good one. I'm sort of out in the boonies myself, and I do a creditable impression of a hermit all winter long. :)

  2. This is such a great post, Rachel, and a topic that I think we need to continually write and talk about because in just a span of a few decades we have completely forgotten that there is another way -- and perhaps a better -- to heal and be well.

    1. I can't agree more, Kerry. And I certainly do talk about this a lot! My Mother's Day present this year is two days of my husband's time, to help put in fence posts for my herb garden. It looks like I may get my garden after all this year, and I'm so excited!