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?”