Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What is medicine anyway?

Maybe some of you have been following the story of the 13 year old Minnesota boy who is refusing chemotherapy treatment because of religious beliefs. As a strong supporter of alternative medicines and therapies, and one who regularly grows medicinial plants and makes and uses herbal medicines, I am fascinated by this case.

Here is part of today's Associated Press report, for those of you who have not heard about this case.

"NEW ULM, Minn. – Authorities sought to arrest the mother of a 13-year-old boy with cancer who refuses chemotherapy after she fled with her son and missed a court hearing Tuesday on his welfare. A judge issued an arrest warrant and ordered that Daniel Hauser be placed in a foster home and be sent for an immediate examination by a pediatric oncologist so he can get treated for Hodgkins lymphoma.

"The court's priority at this point is to try to get Daniel Hauser and get him the care he needs," Brown County District Judge John Rodenberg said.

The cancer is considered highly curable with chemotherapy and radiation, but Daniel quit chemo after a single treatment. With his parents, he opted instead for "alternative medicines," citing religious beliefs. That led authorities to seek custody. Rodenberg last week ruled that Daniel's parents, Colleen and Anthony Hauser, were medically neglecting their son.

The Hausers are Roman Catholic and also believe in the "do no harm" philosophy of the Nemenhah Band, a Missouri-based religious group that believes in natural healing methods advocated by some American Indians.

Colleen Hauser testified earlier that she had been treating his cancer with herbal supplements, vitamins, ionized water and other natural alternatives.

The family was due in court Tuesday to report the results of a chest X-ray and their arrangements for an oncologist. But only Daniel's father appeared. He told Rodenberg he last saw his wife Monday evening.

"She said she was going to leave," Hauser testified. "She said, `That's all you need to know.' And that's all I know."

Now, I have been following the story since it broke here in Minnesota. What I have found disappointing, yet not surprising, is how quickly any form of medicine or healing method that is not sanctioned by the allopathic establishment - i.e. mainstream western medicine community - is deemed either quackery or simply supplemental. This, coming from a group that has barely more than a century and a half of existence, I find rather funny.

I personally believe many of us worldwide - especially in industrial/post-industrial nations - have fallen into a fixed view about the nature and form of medicine. But given the Buddha's teachings about emptiness, it seems extremely important to ask "What is medicine anyway?" Is it a specific set of methods and/or drugs that are applied in certain ways? Is it something "natural"? Or is it completely dependent upon the conditions of the situation?

And beyond that, what are we talking about when we say medicine? A means to returning one back to a previous state? A method of healing body wounds and pain? An antidote to suffering? Or something else possibly?

I say all this, including my very ardent support for non-mainstream medicines, while at the same time questioning the decision of the boy and his mother. It may be that the best option in this case is to choose chemotherapy combined with a variety of other options, including herbals, accupuncture, dietary changes, and yoga and meditation. However, unlike the doctors and medical establishment, I wouldn't privilege the chemotherapy over the others, even though the chemo might be the only thing that saves the boy's life. Partly I say this to put pressure on the definitions of both "medicine" and "health," hoping that more people will question what it is they really believe when they speak those words. To me, chemotherapy can never make a healthy person, nor is it a medicine that truly heals. However, it may be an essential step on the path for this boy, so in that way, maybe it can be viewed as part of a group of antidotes to suffering.

There is more to this case though. It's littered with layers.

The Hauser family are members of a group called the Nemenhah Band. The Nemenhah Band is based out of Missori, and is organized around indigenous traditions and beliefs, but does not appear to have any significant level of indigenous people as part of it's membership. In addition, the group seems to be built on a foundation of payments, both for membership in the group, and for services such as teachings to be a medicine man or woman. You won't find this kind of focus in Native communities, which leads me to the broader issue.

Historically, and on into the current day, indigenous peoples around the world have been exploited, and their traditions and ideas, co-opted by others in positions of power or influence. Here in the U.S., there is a long, devastating tradition of white people claiming indigenous teachings, romanticizing indigenous peoples, and making money off of indigenous teachings, products, and even indigenous names. the Nemenhah Band appears to me to be just such a group, and the Hausers have bought into this group - to the tune of hundreds or maybe even thousands of dollars - and as a result, have a son who claims to be a medicine man.

There's another issue in this case - the right or not to choose one's course of medical treatment or healing. The family has been court ordered to resume chemotherapy against their own wishes. And now, the mother is a fugitive because she does not want her son to undergo the treatment. Even though I question the view to forgo the chemo, I am very concerned about the precedent this kind of decision sets. Will we now have courts and government officials slipping into other cases involving medical decisions, especially those that are about weighing non-mainstream options against what the medical establishment offers? Will this be a way for insurance companies to tighten the ratchet on alternative therapies, which they already find suspect, and only support due to intense, long term consumer and doctor/nurse pressure? There's something way off about court ordering specific forms of treatment for people - and I say that knowing this is by far not the only case where it has been done.

I truly believe that living out the Buddha's teachings requires one to question the very topics that seem to beyond questioning. In other words, what is considered "normal" or "common sense" cannot be accepted as such if one is truly living Buddha's teachings, and the teachings inspired by Buddha. It may be that after thorough investigation, one comes up with the same view as is considered common sense or normal. But that is very different than just saying, for example, it's just common sense to do chemotherapy when one has this form of cancer. Without questioning even those things that seem most stable, there can be no liberation in this life.

So what is medicine anyway?

1 comment:

Brenda said...

I think you're right that we shouldn't just succumb to a knee-jerk reaction that discounts any "alternative" medicines people choose to use when they are sick.

I think the answer to the question, "what is medicine?" is that medicine is what heals us. It's the thing that takes away the physical pain we are feeling and restores our spirit so we feel like ourselves again. Being in great pain takes away one's sense of self, and medicine restores that.