“Who cares for you?” said Alice (She had grown to her full size by this time.) “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”
At this the whole pack rose up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank, with her head in the lap of her sister, who was gently brushing away some dead leaves that had fluttered down from the trees upon her face.
`Wake up, Alice dear!’ said her sister; `Why, what a long sleep you’ve had!’
`Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!’ said Alice…
from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, pps. 123-4
I often wish I would wake from this curious, diseased dream, and find my eyesight restored, my pulse and blood pressure always boringly normal, my ability to function on six hours’ sleep given back to me, my memory as good as it used to be, and the raft of prescription medicines and supplements that I am taking disappeared from my medicine shelf–or, at least in the case of the supplements, diminished to what a healthy person would use to stay healthy.
Alas, dreaming is my only respite from awareness of my condition. In my sleep I don’t even have the tinnitus and deafness that used to be my worst medical complaint, and so it seems that the only waking that will dispel the physical suffering that is, in some measure, my constant companion, will be waking out of this life into whatever comes after it.
The pack of cards that harasses me is a constant stream of bills for medical services; so far, my debt is growing faster than am paying it down. This notion of medical debt seems bizarre to me. I am recovering from a heart attack and a stroke. and any doctor worth his or her medical degree would tell me to avoid stress; but it’s hard not to feel stressed about my deepening debts, especially now, with the economy tanking and the ranks of the unemployed swelling. On a homestead like ours, I always feel like I’ve got something better to do than go beat the bushes for a job, but money is still a concern.
And so, in spite of my best efforts (or, to be Buddhist about it, non-efforts) to maintain my equanimity, sometimes my heart rate soars and plunges, and my blood pressure along with it, and I find myself wondering once again if I am taking my final roller-coaster ride. So far, none of these episodes has lasted long enough to land me back at that painfully expensive emergency room, but just when I think I’m out of the woods and going to be just fine, I get another reminder that I am not a young man any more and that I am now, thanks to my stroke, as pharmaceutically dependent as any junkie. If things ever get to the point that I can’t get warfarin any more, I will just have to eat lots of raw garlic, smoke lots of weed, drink gingko tea, and stay calm. That regimen might work as well as coumadin in preventing strokes, but frankly I am not enthusiastic about the possibility that I will eventually be a human guinea pig for such an experiment.
Unlike what Alice found in Wonderland, the doctors I have dealt with (other than the humorless chap at the clinic) have not been a pack of nut jobs. The cardiologists I see are a couple of enthusiastic, open-minded young women, one from Africa and the other from the Middle East. They appreciate having a patient who is eager to be proactive, and greeted my desire to avoid statin drugs with tolerance, if not perhaps total understanding, and readily prescribed niacin for me as an alternative. (I should explain that I have remarkably high cholesterol readings for a vegan. I attribute it to, first, stress from my congestive heart failure, and second, inactivity. We’ll discover in June if renewed activity, getting over CHF, and taking lots of niacin have lowered my cholesterol levels.) (I have to wonder if eating a lot of unfermented soy products and large quantities of leafy green vegetables acted to disrupt my thyroid function, which can lead to heart irregularity.)
I regard statin drugs with a great deal of suspicion, Our bodies have good reasons for making cholesterol, some of which involve facilitating brain and muscle function, and the huge amount of money that statin drugs generate for their manufacturers makes me wonder if its serious drawbacks will soon be exposed in the same way that medical frauds like Vioxx and hormone replacement therapy turned out to be far more harmful than helpful.
This points to one of the main reasons we need to reform our entirehealth care paradigm. Private companies are out to make a profit, and only secondarily to serve the public good. Only when the first purpose of medical research is service and healing, and profits and shareholders are removed from the equation, will we have a truly unbiased medical system. There is no profit for private corporations in prevention, nor in herbal medicines people can grow for themselves, and these modalities will not get a fair hearing in our current medical paradigm.
The doctor I see most often is the guy who adjusts my warfarin levels, which need to get checked every couple of weeks to a month. He is, I suspect, more tolerant than enthusiastic about my interest in herbal medicine, as he occasionally lets out little things like “studies have shown ginkgo isn’t really effective, anyway, so you shouldn’t be upset about not being able to use it with warfarin.” That, as far as I can tell, is a half-truth; ginkgo has been found to be effective for some things and not for others, but often the slant of the mainstream medical press is to discredit herbal or vitamin-based remedies. They can’t be patented, so there’s no money in them, y’know?
One example of this is that research discrediting vitamin E has all been done with Alpha-tocopherol vitamin E only, while nutritionists are touting mixed-tocopherol vitamin E.
Another is the fact that the amount of resveratrol present in a glass of wine is not enough, when isolated, to have any effect on health–but when that amount of resveratrol is combined with the other chemicals present in wine, a synergistic effect takes place that results in health benefits. Thus the “French paradox”: the French diet is high in fats and other substances that should result in a much higher rate of heart disease than actually occurs in France. Western science, with its take-the-watch-apart-and-see-how-it-works approach, just doesn’t get it, and I doubt if my warfarin guy will either, so I don’t argue with him very much. We’re likely to have a long relationship, and I want to keep it friendly.
I have been through a major life transition since last August. I am no longer the oldest young man around; I’m now on the young edge of being an old man. I do my best to get to bed early, tend to feel like leaving social events no later than ten PM, and think frequently about when I need to take my next medications. I take my blood pressure twice a day, and listen to my heart with a stethoscope daily. I wonder if I will ever see the New Mexico back country again, or take the communion of Santo Daime or the Native American Church, or take part in a sweat lodge or even enter a sauna. I have been made painfully aware of my own mortality, and nothing can make me forget the ghost (my own) that stands at my side. I take responsibility for diet and lifestyle decisions I made. and emotional habits I allowed to continue, that may have helped rob me of my good health, but I also know that this probably wouldn’t have happened to me in a society with a saner health care system. I know my time and strength are limited, and I know I had better make the best use of them I can.