PROLOGUE IN THE RAIN FOREST
LET ME TAKE YOU with me to a faraway place I visited more than twenty years ago: the sandy bank of a wide river on a sultry afternoon in 1972. The river was a tributary of the Río Caquetá in the northwest Amazon, near the common border of Colombia and Ecuador, and I was lost. I was searching for a shaman, a Kofán Indian named Pedro, who lived in a remote hut somewhere in the huge, dense forest, but the trail that was supposed to take me there left me at an uncrossable river with no sign of how to proceed. It was getting late in the day.
Two days before, after a long, hard drive, I left my Land-Rover at the end of a dirt road and took a motorboat to a tiny frontier settlement, where I spent a restless night. The next day, I found some Indians who took me by canoe to the beginning of a trail they said would eventually bring me to the clearing where Pedro lived. “Half a day’s walk,” they told me, but I knew that half a day’s walk for an Indian might be more for me. I had a backpack with essentials, but not much food, since I expected to be staying with the shaman. After several hours in dark forest, the trail forked. No one had said anything about a fork. I listened for the whisper of intuition and decided to go to the right. After another hour I came upon a clearing with several huts and five Kofán men painting each other’s faces.
I was terribly hot and thirsty and asked in Spanish for water. The men ignored me. I asked again. They said they had no water. “No water?!” I exclaimed. “How can that be?” They shrugged and continued to apply their makeup. I asked for the shaman. “Not here,” said one of the Indians. “Where can I find him?” There was an offhanded indication of a trail beyond the huts. “Is it far?” I asked. Another shrug.
This was a new experience for me. In the hinterlands of Colombia I had always found Indians to be exceedingly hospitable. It was the inhabitants of the rough frontier towns, the mestizo fortune hunters, who were unfriendly and intimidating. Once I passed through them to Indian territory, I always felt safe, assured that the native people would take in a stranger, help him find his destination, and certainly give water to a thirsty traveler.
The five Kofán men were young, handsome, and, obviously, vain. They wore simple cotton tunics, had long, glossy, black hair, and were intently devoted to their cosmetic art. After one would apply new markings to forehead or cheek, the recipient would spend long minutes evaluating the additions in a broken piece of mirrored glass, grunting approval or requesting further embellishment. This was clearly going to take all afternoon. My presence held not the slightest interest for them, and after half an hour of being ignored, I put on my pack and continued down the trail, until, several hours later, it disappeared in a dense thicket at the edge of the big river, leaving me stranded.
It was strikingly beautiful there, although I was inclined to view the river and forest more as obstacles than as sources of sensory pleasure. Big, billowy cumulus clouds floated above the canopy of trees. The river was swift and clear. There was not a sign of human presence, no sounds except those of insects and birds. Were it not for the sandflies, small biting pests that are out in great numbers from dawn to dusk, I would not have minded camping there. I had a hammock and mosquito net in my pack and could have spent the night if necessary, but I felt anxious at the prospect of being lost, and discouraged by the fruitlessness of my quest.
This shaman, so difficult to reach, was said to be a powerful healer. In a year I spent wandering in South America, most of the shamans I met were disappointing. Some were drunks. Some were clearly out for fame and fortune. One, when he learned I was a doctor from Harvard, was interested only in persuading me to obtain for him a certificate from that institution testifying to his powers so that he could one-up his rivals. I had plenty of adventures during these travels, but in the end, none of them had taught me how to be a better doctor. Pedro was my last hope. He was unknown to the outside world. I would be the first gringo to visit him, and I had high hopes that he would teach me the secrets of healing I had so long been searching for.
But now I was lost, and the brilliant Amazon sun was taking on the rich golden tones of the end of afternoon. Night would come quickly here, meaning surprising chilliness along the river and no chance of reaching a habitation. I’m not a smoker, but I lit up three cigarettes at once, Pielrojas (“Redskins”), the local cheap brand, with a picture of a North American Indian on the pack. I puffed on them and blew smoke all around me, hoping for the usual temporary relief tobacco smoke brings from biting sandflies.
When in doubt, eat. I broke into my meager stores and found a packet of cocoa mix and some dried fruit. I set up a little butane stove, boiled some river water, and soon was sipping the hot liquid, which never tasted better—a bit of comfort and familiarity in this, for me, strange environment.
I was in this remote part of South America because I was searching for something I believed to be exotic and extraordinary, something worlds away from my ordinary experience. I was looking for insight into the source of healing power, and the interconnectedness of magic, religion, and medicine. I wanted to understand how the mind interacts with the body. Above all, I hoped to learn practical secrets of helping people to get well. I had spent eight years in a prestigious institution of higher learning, four studying botany and four studying medicine, but I had found no clear answers to my questions. My botanical studies awakened a desire to see the rain forest, meet native practitioners, and help rescue fast-disappearing knowledge of medicinal plants. My medical training made me want to flee from the world of invasive, technological treatment toward a romantic ideal of natural healing.
Three years before, in 1969, when I finished my basic clinical training, I made a conscious decision not to practice the kind of medicine I had just learned. I did so for two reasons, one emotional and one logical. The first was simply a gut feeling that if I were sick, I would not want to be treated the way I had been taught to treat others, unless there were no alternative. That made me uncomfortable about treating others. The logical reason was that most of the treatments I had learned in four years at Harvard Medical School and one of internship did not get to the root of disease processes and promote healing but rather suppressed those processes or merely counteracted the visible symptoms of disease. I had learned almost nothing about health and its maintenance, about how to prevent illness—a great omission, because I have always believed that the primary function of doctors should be to teach people how not to get sick in the first place. The word “doctor” comes from the Latin word for “teacher.” Teaching prevention should be primary; treatment of existing disease, secondary.
I am uneasy about the suppressive nature of conventional medicine. If you look at the names of the most popular categories of drugs in use today, you will find that most of them begin with the prefix “anti.” We use antispasmodics and antihypertensives, antianxiety agents and antidepressants, antihistamines, antiarrhythmics, antitussives, antipyretics, and anti-inflammatories, as well as beta blockers and H2-receptor antagonists. This is truly antimedicine—medicine that is, in essence, counteractive and suppressive.
What is wrong with that? you may ask. If a fever is in the danger zone, or an allergic reaction is out of control, of course those symptoms should be counteracted. I have no objection to use of these treatments on a short-term basis for the management of very severe conditions. But I came to realize, early in my hospital days, that if you rely on such measures as the main strategy for treating illness, you create two kinds of problems. First, you expose patients to risk, because, by their nature, pharmaceutical weapons are strong and toxic. Their desired effects are too often offset by side effects, by toxicity. Adverse reactions to the counteractive drugs of conventional medicine are a great black mark against the system, and I saw more than enough of them in my clinical training to know that there has to be a better way. Botanical medicine appealed to me because it offered the possibility of finding safe, natural alternatives to the drugs I had been taught to use.
The second problem, less visible but more worrisome, is the chance that over time suppressive treatments may actually strengthen disease processes instead of resolving them. This possibility did not occur to me until I read the writings of a great medical heretic, Samuel Hahnemann (1755–1843), the German prodigy and renegade physician who developed homeopathy, one of the major schools of alternative medicine. Homeopathy relies on very small doses of highly diluted remedies to catalyze healing responses. I am not a homeopath. I disagree strongly with the many homeopaths who oppose immunization and find the whole system puzzling as well as incompatible with current scientific models of physics and chemistry. Nonetheless, I have experienced and observed homeopathic cures and admire the system for its use of treatments that cannot harm. What is more, I find some of Hahnemann’s ideas useful.
Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Weil, M.D.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.