Death and Medicine

I am a fan and patient of some so-called alternative medical practices. I've seen a homeopath — and I have to tell you, homeopathy is, as the kids like to say, wack! — and many acupuncturists and Chinese medicine herbalists. I've also been loaded up with antibiotics and sliced open by a surgeon.

In this country — perhaps elsewhere but what do I know? —, these other practices — this homeopathy and this Chinese medicine — exist side-by-side with Western, institutional medicine. One may try to avoid taking antibiotics by ingesting some earthy Chinese brew or placing infinitely small amounts of, say, rattle snake poison, under one's tongue (I told you homeopathy is wack — but more on that later). But when you get really sick — I mean really really fucking sick — it seems skinny needles and sub-lingual sugar pills won't cut it. We head to the clinic, to the hospital, to the chemo and the knife and the statins: Keep me alive!

And so I began to wonder: is this a deficiency in homeopathy and acupuncture?

I then I realized: no, it's not a deficiency per se. It's that these practices don't rule out death. In Western medicine, we try to keep people alive at all costs — even the cost of their life (again, more on that later). It is a mad obsession to keep the patient alive.

Now, I happen to share this obsession, perhaps despite myself. That is, I want to live — at all costs and forever. That is what my scared, neurotic stomach and brain scream at me all the time. But there does seem to be some wisdom to these other practices, a fundamentally different logic at work about the role and function of medicine.

Homeopathy and acupuncture offer treatments to improve one's quality of life, not to extend life per se. Death is not anethema to their medical practice. And while I find that wise and while I may aspire to that level of contentment — a contentment that accepts death as the natural order of things, a contentment that does not recoil in dread and horror at the mere mention of death — I have to say that right now, prior to achieving this elusive enlightenment, I find it absolutely terrifying.


Daniel Schealler said...

Homeopathy reminds me of something my mother did about three years ago.

I was still living with her at that point. The two rooms downstairs were rented out - one of them was taken by a man who was going through a separation with his wife. He had his daughter for the weekend. She had recently lost some of her baby teeth, and her adult teeth were coming through. Her gums were sore, and she was getting distressed and teary.

The guest staying with us didn't know what to do, so he turned to my mother (his landlady). Mum swept into action, bundled up the daughter in her arms, oozing sympathy and matronly care and attention.

In that low, slow tone of voice adults use to try and convince a child that they're 'taking them seriously', my mother said:

If you made your gums cold, they'd go numb and wouldn't be sore anymore, right?

sullen nodSo if we put ice on them, it would be uncomfortable but eventually it would stop hurting, right?

sullen nodYou want to give that a try? (as if she didn't know)

emphatic shake of the headFair enough. Hey, we also have some strawberry ice-cream in the freezer. How 'bout I get you a big bowl of ice-cream? That way you can put something cold against your gums that isn't all nasty like ice! What do you think?

pause...tentative nodAnd the daughter didn't complain about her teeth again for the whole weekend.

So how does this sound as an analogy?

Western Medicine is like putting ice on sore gums. It'll remove the symptom about which you are distressed, but it will often be distressing in its own right.

Homeopathy is like using strawberry icecream instead. Whether or not it removes the symptom is irrelevant: either way, it will resolve your distress about the symptom that was causing you to seek out treatment in the first place.

roberto echeverría said...

remember ambrose's definition of homeopath: the humorist of the medical profession.

this, i think, is both pejorative and laudatory.

Anonymous said...

First of all, your podcasts rocks! Thank you for taking the time and effort to make it available.

As for your entry, I'd like to comment that Western medicine claims that we are all dying from the outside in. If you look at your own fingers, arms, or legs, any skin that you see is already dead. The only exception being the eyes, (but you cannot see that unless you are looking at a mirror.) In other words, We are constantly using something that's alive to look at the mostly dead things around us. Using your language, are we privileging life over death? or the other way around? Somehow this reminds of a line in Naked Lunch..."only dead fingers talk in Braille". If the tip of fingers are used to make sense of text which are also lifeless, maybe our eyes should only be used to look at things that are alive?

V said...

There is no doubting that Western medicine is obsessed with life -- the whole Terry Schiavo debacle proved that loudly and humiliatingly to the world. But, it's not clear to me that the comparatively greater efficacy of Western medicine when it comes to crisis intervention is necessarily evidence of this obsession.

It is obvious that, in medicine as in virtually all other areas of human experience, different systems have different strengths, and that we can and should call on those different systems as our wants and needs dictate. And the presence of a strength in one system need not be deemed a "lack" in a system with different strengths (do I "lack" math skills? or do I just not have them?).

Medical philosophy and its attendant applications would not benefit from a totalizing approach more than any other practice would.

Daniel Coffeen said...

V: I agree absolutely. I love that I can pick and choose from mutually exclusive world views. Such, it seems, is the luxury — and sometimes burden— of this historical moment. (Of course, I have no idea what that means.)

V said...

It is a burden but it's the very stuff of your...what do I call it...preaching? An infinitely multivalent world with the comfort of coherency, now revealed as a fraud, swapped for the rich possibility (necessity) of constant self-reinvention: a world in which that once startling Joycean embrace of self-contradiction is hopelessly quaint if comprehensible at all.

And with that, I am off to Thai lessons. If you ever want an object lesson in language as a study in difference, and the inseparability of form from meaning, learn an Asian language. But more on that later -- first I gotta learn the alphabet.

Sam said...

Funny you make out that the sequence of events is that one goes to the homeopath and accupuncturist first, then something big happens, then they go to the surgeon.

I think it's the other way around. When the surgeon can't do anything about the cancer, you go to the accupuncturist and homeopath. What does that imply about Western medicine?

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