My new ESL student walks in and he's gigantic, even taller than my 6'6'' dad. He's a Czech military medical doctor and an expert on Ebola and other nasty stuff. His desire for absolutely perfect English is rivaled by few.
He's usually both tough and cheery, but on his second visit, he admitted that he had a bit of a toothache. It was making it difficult to concentrate, but he said he didn't want painkillers.
So, I cautiously mentioned my work with herbs. We had a surprisingly frank conversation about the doctor-herbalist divide. He said he resents herbal hype by supplement advertisers. I agreed that the hype is problematic and that most "supplements" are of poor quality and ineffective, explaining that fresh, local and minimally processed herbs are much more useful.
"The important thing to me is that we see modern medicine as the primary health care and herbs and other alternatives as secondary," he said. We discussed the placement of the English article in that sentence--which is surprisingly complicated, if you get right down to it.
Then I went so far as to agree that while I use homegrown herbs for 90 percent of my family's health needs, I'm very glad for modern medicine when we really need it, such as the occasional lifesaving antibiotic or surgery.
He laughed and agreed to drink some herbal tea for his toothache. Every lesson since then he has wanted more herbal tea, even though his toothache is gone.
That discussion ended well, but his statement about primary and secondary health care stuck with me. I mulled it over for a few days, and realized that I actually disagree with that premise.
Homegrown herbs are definitely our first line of defense in health issues. Our doctor and pediatrician almost never see us and that is a good thing. It shows that we're doing something right.
During the late winter this year a series of particularly nasty viral infections swept through the local schools. Every family we know succumbed--whole groups of friends usually taking ill at once.
With a feeling of grim resignation, I dosed my children with a syrup made out of sweet glycerin, echinacea flowers and lemon balm leaves from our garden--a non-alcoholic substitute for antiviral tincture. I figured that with some advance preparation, our symptoms might at least be somewhat mitigated.
I never thought we would escape the epidemic entirely, while everyone else I spoke with was in bed for at least ten days and two of my friends' children had to be hospitalized with opportunistic pneumonia. But the frigid, gray end of winter finally gave way to a wet and chilly spring and now the sun has come in earnest, drying out the sickness and leaving us unscathed.
When this sort of thing happens, we never know for sure if our herbal concoctions have saved us or if it is more a combination of luck and eating vastly more vegetables than the rest of the town.
This was the first year in four that we didn't fall to the viral epidemic of the winter and also the first year I had been able to make the antiviral glycerate. Cake-decorator's glycerin is a strangely controlled substance by local pharmaceutical regulations.
So I don't exactly have proof that my herbal antiviral concoction was what saved us, but I have enough evidence to enthusiastically try it again.
In many other situations the results are so obvious that denying them is ridiculous. Even my children know that a paste of plantain leaf will almost instantly relieve the pain of bee and wasp stings, nettle tea will immediately wash away the burning of an allergic reaction to nettles and a cough syrup of honey, plantain, thyme and mullein will quiet relentless hacking. They've seen it happen again and again.
Sometimes the same results can be had with a white, pink or colorless substance from the pharmacy in town. But too often for comfort, those substances are ineffective or cause nasty side effects.
I take yarrow tincture just as any woman would take pain-killers for particularly bad cramps. It is as easy as popping a pill and results in no follow-up headaches.
When my daughter caught a very unpleasant skin parasite from dangling her arms in a murky pond last summer, the local pediatrician spent six weeks proscribing medicated creams and harsh disinfectants. I am not used to skin ailments that don't quickly bow to my herbal salves, so I carefully followed the doctor's instructions.
Finally, in despair because the weeping sores on my first-grader's arms showed no improvement either with herbal salves or the latest in pharmaceuticals, I cut large slabs of goo off of the aloe vera plant that sat mostly forgotten in our living room and mercilessly taped them on every single sore.
Then I covered the child's entire arms with bandages each night. After a week, the infection was gone. And though the aloe vera plant had been reduced to a nub, it has now rebounded to three times its former glory in time for another summer of wild children.
The military doctor is unimpressed and calls my observations, "anecdotal." I agree that I love scientific studies--like those that have greatly advanced the use of lemon balm as an antiviral in recent years.
"You just have faith in herbs?" he asks in what appears to be genuine curiosity.
If you want to call it that. My faith doesn't have to be "pure" and unquestioning. I do have trust. It's a faith I can see and touch.