Good Medicine

Good Medicine   –by Jinny Batterson

Our American health care system has provided me with life-saving surgery and medicines. However, as I age, I’ve come to question a view of health care which can too often promote a fragmented “symptom treatment system,” rather than overall healing and health. 

Nearly twenty years ago, I had a brush with aggressive early stage breast cancer. After consulting with several specialists, I opted for radical surgery, then six months of adjuvant chemotherapy.  The oncologist who oversaw my follow-up treatments honored my request to experiment with what I called “complementary medicine. ” I wanted to be an active participant in my return to health. So, in addition to taking the drugs prescribed to help prevent a recurrence, I explored ways to maintain a positive outlook, to reduce or deal with side effects, and to bolster my immune system. First I sought out a mental health counsellor who specialized in patients with life-threatening and/or chronic illnesses; later I found a hairdresser at a retirement community who excelled at making thinning hair as attractive as possible; partway through my treatments, I joined a support group. 

Then I branched out further. I tried approaches more common in Chinese medicine: acupressure, acupuncture, healing herbs, meditation, qigong exercises. I couldn’t tell if my experiences were typical, but I felt better, while being nurtured by people I sometimes did not know well, whose primary language I could not understand. 

Since then, during multiple travels to China, I’ve witnessed more of the range and depth of Chinese traditional medical skills. Some of its underlying beliefs align more closely with how I’m coming to understand illness and health.  Traditional Chinese medicine views a person’s body as a unified energy system, with flows intersecting and overlapping throughout. Each person’s body is unique, though overall energy flows are similar. Energy can be blocked or distorted for long periods before external symptoms appear. Likewise, it can take a longer period of treatment with traditional remedies before health is restored. As a person ages, overall energy, or “qi,” gradually diminishes. Qi can best be maintained through healthy eating, exercise, and sleep, and bolstered through wise use of a variety of healing therapies.

When I’ve puzzled over seeming contradictions between “body as organ systems” (a “Western” model) and “body as energy flows” (“Eastern”), it helps to recall a similar theoretical anomaly in the quantum physics theory of light—light as both particle and wave. When dealing with acute bacterial or viral infections, the body may be appropriately viewed as a collection of “particles,” susceptible organs and organ systems. For some more chronic conditions, viewing the body as “waves” of energy flow may yield better results. 

My continued aging includes some of the chronic conditions older people face: stiffening joints, memory lapses, blood pressure and circulatory irregularities, maybe even cancer. I keep searching for a more inclusive model of illness and health. It turns out I’m not the only one.

Recent research in the biology of aging has led some in the global medical field to propose changes to traditional Western models. A paper co-authored by Sven Bulterijs in 2015 under the auspices of the U.S. National Institutes of Health hints at a more holistic approach:

“We believe that aging should be seen as a disease, albeit as a disease that is a universal and multisystemic process. Our current healthcare system doesn’t recognize the aging process as the underlying cause for the chronic diseases affecting the elderly. As such, the system is set up to be reactionary. . . . Our current healthcare system is untenable both from a financial and health and well-being prospective.”

Researchers and clinicians from multiple countries and regions (U.S.A., Australia, Austria, Brazil, China, France, Japan, New Zealand, Scandinavia) have organized a health care conference to be held in Beijing, China, in late September, 2016. Most countries on the organizing committee are now dealing with rapidly aging populations. While I don’t understand the technical terms for the sessions, I hope some may incorporate a variety of approaches to maintaining health during aging. Perhaps they’ll also incorporate an underpinning that becomes increasingly vital in our globalizing world—wherever we come from, whatever our life circumstances and beliefs, each of us is part of a larger whole. We are all one.    

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