How Cultural Bias Affects Our Medical Choices.
I sat on my grown daughter’s couch, quickly checking my email before heading out the door to meet a friend.
My daughter, Bianca, and my small granddaughter, were out on an errand. I glanced at the clock on the wall in front of me: 10:03. I better wrap it up and get going, I thought.
Then the wave came, building slowly at first, then more quickly. A thought turned into a dream about that thought which turned into a memory of the dream of the thought, and with each turn, every thought, memory and dream expanded outward in multiple connections with each other, exponentially spreading until my linear brain abruptly could no longer track them.
The tidal wave of multidimensional free associations crashed over me, dragging me down, down, down into the abyss of unconsciousness.
I came to, slumped into the couch. I glanced at the clock: 10:07. Clinging visually to the simple physical reality surrounding me — the couch, the floor, the table in front of me — I sobbed while the feeling of shaking overwhelm gradually, thankfully, passed. It took all the focus I could muster to call Bianca.
At the emergency room, they found nothing particularly helpful, but referred me to a neurologist and a heart specialist. Before I could even finish my account, the neurologist interjected, “Oh yes, we see this a lot. You have a partial seizure disorder with secondary generalization.” I had been having similar episodes occasionally for a few years, but I had never blacked out before.
The neurologist put me on an anti-seizure medication, and the real fun began.
I felt like I was drunk all the time. Seriously drunk. Almost falling-down drunk. And I hate being drunk.
For a while, my seizures actually increased, an odd side effect of my anti-seizure medication. I couldn’t drive for six months, even though my job in Taos, New Mexico was 15 miles away from my home in Pilar. First I rode the bus, then when winter seriously hit, I had a neighbor chauffeur me in my car since he needed a ride to classes at the local UNM branch anyway.
I fired him, ironically, for arriving drunk one day, so a traveling friend came and stayed with me and shuttled me to and from work. The medication made me stupid, tired and forgetful, and changed my personality in weird ways. I complained to my neurologist, so we tried another medication. Within hours of the first dose, I melted down at work, sobbing uncontrollably, and for no particular reason.
Switching back to the first medication, I feared my own incompetence, but found to my happy surprise that I could still do my job pretty well with only half a brain. Still, I wished I were dead, another side effect of the medication, but lacked the cognitive capacity to generate a suicide plan, much less implement it.
A friend suggested I try taking Jatamansi, an Ayurvedic plant medicine she had heard was good for seizures. Within a month, I felt noticeably steadier. I could think more clearly, and I didn’t feel so drunk. My memory improved. I had known many people who had been helped by Ayurveda, a thousands of years-old medical system originating in India, but I had never seriously considered using it before.
I decided to have a full assessment done at The Ayurvedic Institute, conveniently located a little south, in Albuquerque.
How different was my experience in that neat, unassuming, clinic under the watchful eye of the Sandia mountains, from that of a conventional clinic!
I was greeted by the receptionist with a genuine smile. Students and practitioners moved purposefully but peacefully. The intake form, filled out at home and sent back to be reviewed beforehand, had been extensive, containing many questions about every aspect of my functioning — physical, mental and emotional. Once in the examination room, they asked still more questions.
Here’s the crazy thing: they listened to my answers.
The student interviewing me and her supervisor looked at me, completely undistracted, fully taking in everything I said. They checked my pulses on my forearms, taking detailed notes.
An hour and a half later, they prescribed oils to rub onto the bottoms of my feet and into my scalp, a different oil to snort up my nose each night, a unique powdered plant concoction formulated specifically for me, to ingest before each meal, all in addition to the Jatamansi I was already taking. They made suggestions about what kinds of foods to eat and which to avoid.
They gave me an easy breathing exercise to do for a few minutes each day, especially if I experienced sensory overload, which I often did at work. Ayurveda does not do one-size-fits-all treatments.
And it worked. After nine months of improvements in my physical, emotional and mental well-being, including much that had nothing to do with my seizure condition, I told my neurologist I was going to try weaning myself off that horrid medication. He wasn’t thrilled, but said okay.
Bit by bit I cut back on the medication, and bit by bit I came back to myself, staying nearly completely seizure-free for the last three and a half years. The three seizures I have had have been very mild and brief. No more blackouts.
These changes seemed miraculous to me. But why? Why was I so amazed that Ayurveda, a medical tradition formulated in India, a place famous for churning out brilliant scientists, a tradition begun more than 5,000 years ago, and refined the whole way, could help me?
Western medicine is a paltry 200 years old at best, a tradition that until quite recently strapped laboring women onto their backs, a physiologically hazardous and torturous practice.
A tradition that lobotomized mentally ill people without their permission. A tradition that gave us Thalidomide, and its memorable birth defects. A tradition that today subjects its medical residents to 100-hour work weeks, as if it were some sort of Romanesque hazing ritual. Not to mention the patients whose care it entrusts to these overworked, undernourished somnambulists, however bright.
Why wouldn’t Ayurveda help? Why didn’t I go to them in the first place, as several trusted friends had recommended I do immediately following my diagnosis? Why did I initially dismiss their suggestions and march straight for our sadly neophytic system?
Cultural bias, that’s why. Although I am Indian-American, I was raised in this country. My own grandfather was an M.D. I grew up with, and am surrounded by, the same assumption as is everyone else in this country, that Western medicine is real, and other approaches are not. The power of cultural conditioning cannot be overestimated.
Western medicine split from the humanities sometime in the seventeenth century when Western science, including medicine, was given charge of the physical — the measurable, the palpable — while the humanities took charge of our creative, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects. Western medicine lost its heart, soul and mind.
So here we are. I present a seizure disorder and the doctor prescribes something that makes my life even worse than it was when I was having seizures. More recently, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and all Western medicine has to offer is a pill that will replace my thyroid, sure, but also causes it to atrophy. Instead of healing my thyroid, they want to destroy it altogether.
Of course I went back to the Ayurvedic clinic. Now, two weeks later, I already have more energy, decreased appetite, feeling calm, and still seizure-free.
There’s nothing inherently superior about Western medicine. Sure, there are some things it does superbly, such as surgery and imaging, and I think we should make use of all that Western medicine does well. But there’s no reason to limit ourselves to the limitations of Western medicine. We can look to well-developed ancient systems from other places, at least those left intact by Western conquerors.
Smart people have lived all over the globe since humans spread from Africa. They conceptualized health in different ways and built a variety of successful frameworks for cultivating wellness and treating illness.
Feeling let down by conventional Western medicine? Drop the cultural bias, as hard and scary as that may be, and try something else. We need not be imprisoned by our current health system. By seeking other choices, and sharing our experiences with others, we stand to gain greater freedom of choice and better health.
Laura Ramnarace, M.A. is an Indian-American who writes about whatever currently gets her goat, raises her ire, or twists her undies. She is not opposed to Western medicine, but thinks that it could use a little healthy competition from other, much older, health and wellness traditions from around the globe.