Healthcare in the Mist

Alt Medicine at UCSB

According to alternative medical lore, a young patient diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) was seen separately by two practitioners of alternative medicine while attending the international conference series Global Medicine Project (GMP) at UCSB several years ago. The two alt docs — one a native Tibetan healer, the other a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine — were given no information about the patient’s Western medical diagnosis and neither had prior experience with MS. Both doctors determined the patient suffered from a disease of or related to the kidney, a diagnostic conclusion that eluded Western medicine for decades; as recently as 1960, doctors in the U.S. attributed multiple sclerosis to allergies and prescribed antihistamines.

Such moments of alt medical transcendence are practically de rigueur for the GMP, which returns to UCSB this weekend after a three-year hiatus due to funding issues. The upcoming conference series, A Gathering of Shamans: Healing Arts of Indigenous Peoples, brings together four Incan Q’ero elders from the Andes in Peru, a Toltec Curandera from Mexico, a member of the Snake Medicine Lineage of the Cherokee nation, and a Native American Metis for a summit meeting of the traditional indigenous medicines of North, Central, and South America that goes to the heart of the GMP mission statement.

As explained by Dr. Wayne Jonas, former head of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institute of Health, there are 12 distinct, comprehensive medical traditions around the world that effectively treat and prevent disease. None of the 12, however, has developed successful treatments for all diseases, though the gaps in each tradition vary. Hoping to bridge these gaps, the Global Medicine Project has — since 1997 — worked to bring together doctors, shamans, and healers from all over the world to share and exchange knowledge and treatment plans. Additionally the GMP provides the public with reliable information about various indigenous medical practices by sponsoring college courses, translating ancient texts, promoting collaborative research, and starting a medicinal herb garden at Fairview Gardens in Goleta.

Faith in Tradition It’s widely accepted by most historians that disease was a significant contributing factor to Europe’s conquest and colonization of the Americas. As waves of European settlers spread farther west, never-before-seen diseases preceeded them, wiping out native populations. The inability of indigenous healers to combat the alien illnesses cast shadows of doubt and mistrust over the longstanding medical practices of the various cultures on two continents. As baffled as American Indian healers were by smallpox and tuberculosis, Western medical doctors have been helpless to prevent millions of deaths caused by diseases such as cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, AIDS — not to mention the thousands of people who die each year from colds and flus. And according to Global Medicine Project Director Dan Smith, a similar loss of faith in Western medicine has occurred, giving rise to more “patients unwilling to accept their doctor’s advice as to whether they are going to live or die.” Frustrated American patients have turned in droves to the healing properties of such “non-Western” traditions as Chinese medicine, acupuncture, yoga, shamanism, and others, spending $80 billion on alternative treatments in 2004 and more than $100 billion in 2005. Those numbers, said Smith, are proof positive that “the procedures and values of the American medical community are being challenged as never before”— by medical traditions with considerably longer track records.

Healing & Curing The 2006 conference kicks off Friday night with keynote speaker Dr. Alberto Villoldo, a psychologist and medical anthropologist whose research into the psychosomatics of the human brain led him to remote villages in the Andes of Peru and the Incan shamans who serve as the “doctors” caring for these communities. After more than 20 years of studying and living with the shamans, Villoldo brought their teachings — specifically their technique of healing disease before it manifests itself in the physical body — back to the U.S. with his Four Winds Society, and business is booming. Four Winds workshops sell out across the country as participants come from around the world to learn the finer points of “luminous energy field” healing. This week, more than 200 participants are staying at the El Capitan Canyon Resort on the Gaviota Coast and — according to Villoldo — nearly a quarter of the attendees are practicing physicians and nurses.

According to Villoldo, “There is a definite difference between healing, which is what shamans do, and curing, what Western doctors do. Clearly, you need both to attain optimal health.” Cancer that’s been chemotherapied into remission, only to return a few years later, is a prime example, said Villoldo; Western medicine has “successfully treated the symptom but not the underlying emotional cause.” And because “cancer is caused by anger,” cancer patients continue to have problems, Villoldo said, “until their luminous energy fields are cleansed and balanced by a shaman.” Villoldo brushed aside naysayers by pointing to yoga and acupuncture; it wasn’t so long ago, he explained, that these now-widely accepted practices were confined to the healthcare fringe.

As for the health and vitality of the GMP, Smith summed it up simply: “If you get sick — seriously sick — don’t you want all of the tools and knowledge of the world available to you?”

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