Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Above all, do no harm.
The pastor of our church has a marked antipathy toward “faith healers” who claim they can cure illnesses with prayer in a way similar to the healings described in the New Testament, performed not only by Jesus, but by his disciples.
“I don’t discount the power of prayer. I know that prayer can heal–sometimes. What I don’t like are those who claim they can do this on a regular basis. I’m not naming names, but there are a few in particular whom I have in mind. And, to put it mildly, I take great issue with their claims and practices.”
He might have been talking about another place of worship just outside of town, which holds weekly healing sessions. They appear to have a “charismatic” style of worship, with exhortative preaching, drums, hands in the air, and so on. I found out about it from our local Cable Guy, who claimed, “My wife was cured of diabetes there. I was cured of bipolar disorder.” And his daughter was cured of impetigo, I think he said. He was pretty much sold on the whole thing.
Then there was the Lakeland Revival phenomenon. In April of 2008 Canadian biker-turned-evangelist Todd Bentley started a controversial series of “healing” services in Lakeland, Florida, which steadily increased in size over the next few months, attracting 140,000 people from 40 countries. Eventually Bentley was found to have proverbial "feet of clay," and although there were many first-person accounts of miracles, there were no medically documented cures.
Our pastor also stated that according to the best current estimates, 70-90% of the ailments presented to primary care physicians today can be termed “stress-related,” hence psychological, rather than systemic ailments, the very type of ailment that can be "cured" by psychological and/or spiritual means. Clearly, though, there are some conditions that will only yield to the surgeon’s knife, or to modern, sophisticated pharmaceutical treatments.
With all this in mind I was extremely alarmed when a younger friend of ours, a botanist with a somewhat troubling inclination toward a magical world-view, announced that he had “performed some cures” with concoctions made from Petiveria alliacea, a tropical plant also called Anamu, among a dozen other names. He became aware the herb while doing a research paper on the botanicas (Latin-American herb shops) of South Florida, and later saw it in use among Native American tribes in South America.
“How can you know this stuff is safe?” I asked. “Don’t you know that the first rule of medicine since ancient times is primum non nocere, ‘first do no harm’? Have these people checked with their doctors about this? And aren’t you likely to stir up false hopes? Or maybe prevent them from seeking the regular medical care that they need?”
“No, no, no,” he claimed. “I’ve taken it myself many times, for one thing. And all three of these people are close friends. Each of them begged me to prepare this drink for them. They were quite aware of all the risks.” He went on to explain that all of his “patients” had been receiving conventional cancer treatments, assumed to be a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. One was an older woman from Cuba or Colombia who was already familiar with Petiveria. The other two were reportedly younger men.
Whereas herb companies sell the dried leaf to be made into a tea or to be taken in capsules, the botanist had a different recipe that he’d seen prepared by tribal curanderos. They used only the root, he said. He’d start with a large quantity of the roots, removing the outer bark with a vegetable peeler, like you’d peel a carrot. Then he’d cut the roots into inch-long sections and boil them in water for an hour or so. He’d then cool the mixture and strain out the roots, leaving a yellow, garlicky-smelling tea. The treatment consisted of drinking three approximately 16 ounce portions of this tea in a single day.
In each of the three cases where his friends took the herbs, he claimed, subsequent medical tests showed accelerated improvements in the patients’ conditions, and eventual remission, much to the surprise of the regular medical professionals, according to this fellow.
I pressed him on why, if this stuff was so effective, that the regular medical community had not picked up on it. His answer was vague, about the cost of research, the tyranny of institutional thinking, and so on. I warned him again about the seriousness of playing doctor, and he agreed that he would never present himself as such, but that in the cases cited the individuals had specifically asked him about the herb, and requested that he help them prepare the tea. “They came to me,” he said.
And would the results would have been the same without this modern snake-oil treatment? I don’t approve of what he did, and don’t advise anyone to take this or any other kind of herb without medical supervision. He did explain, however, that the herb grows wild in South Florida, in vacant lots and along roadways, and people have been using it for years. He even showed me three places in Key West where it was growing out of the sidewalks.