Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Forgetting Our Roots: A Call for a Truly Modern Medical Field by Caitlin Pollard


            As we hiked our way up a mountain to look over Las Alturas Biological Research Station, two of our visiting professors were excitedly jumping from plant to plant. Recognizing different families and species, they listed unique properties of each part of the plant: the roots, the bark, the fruit. Taking some leaves into their mouth, they passed the plants around as we each cautiously put the strange leaf on our tongue. Some were bitter, which we found out meant that the plant was high in alkaloids. Other plants were simply broken up to produce different colors that we could paint our skin with. Some had red sap, which usually correlated with a hidden treatment for the blood. We tasted and painted our way up the mountain, traveling from plant to plant and listening to the knowledge passed on by hundreds of generations of ethnobotanists.
The view from the top of the mountain during our hike at Las Alturas.
            Walking past a large twisting fig tree, many of the pre-medical students questioned the professors about the different treatments and cures that each plant could produce. Within minutes, we were discussing the somewhat ironic recent development of the medical field. Centuries ago, all traditional healers and doctors had a dual profession: part doctor, part botanist. Back then, almost all treatments were manipulations of different plant parts: a tea made from leaves, a paste made from sticky sap, the benefits of a hidden super fruit. Yet, in the modern age, most doctors have become disconnected from the roots of their field… the somewhat literal roots.
Few doctors have extensive knowledge of local plants, relying on prescription medicines from the pharmacy. Yet, most prescription drugs have been created either directly from plants, or indirectly in a lab mimicking the natural compounds contained in medicinal plants. Further, almost every step of our hike in Last Alturas revealed dozens of cure-alls that local communities have used for generations to ensure their health. Despite drifting away from this basic medical use of local plants, doctors have also drifted away from the cultural awareness that traditional knowledge of local plants can produce. Even more applicable to the current medical field, many patients feel pressured to hide their natural plant medicines from their doctor in fear of being told the treatment is illegitimate. Not only is the assumption that natural plant medicines don’t work incorrect and an invalidation of the patient’s culture, but it causes a decrease in information-sharing in the crucial doctor-patient relationship. Rather, a more beneficial modern form of diagnosis and treatment would be for the doctor to weave both traditional and modern knowledge to create an open dialogue with patients of a different culture. Hopefully, I can successfully weave these together one day.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. I hope one day I can visit the place.

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