Tom Ballard, ND's blog

A Cautionary Tale of American Medicine
November 1, 2008, 8:28 pm
Filed under: Commentary | Tags: , , , , , ,

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose there’s something wrong with our current medical system. No, not just that the insurance system is unfair and that doctors sometimes make mistakes. Let’s push ourselves to think there is something more fundamentally wrong. For instance, what if we dwelled on the idea that drugs and surgery should not be the first treatments considered, but the last. I know, it’s like saying that the system is upside down, but bear with me.

Now read a story that you’re probably already familiar with, but with a completely different conclusion, one that turns the medicine, and a boys life, upside down.

Johnny’s Story

Johnny childhood illnesses were not unusual. He experienced colds, flues and earaches. And like most children, instead of letting his immune system take care of these usually benign infections, he was given unnecessary doses of antibiotics. The antibiotics killed some of the good bacteria in his digestive system. These bacteria are responsible for processing food, manufacturing vitamins and keeping the digestive system healthy.

Johnny’s encounter with antibiotics caused him to develop colitis, an inflammatory condition of the bowel. The pain, diarrhea, and discharges of blood and mucous required him to be hospitalized several times and miss months of school. He lost weight. Several times he came close to dying.

Because his parents were wealthy, he was taken to several prestigious medical institutions including the famous Mayo Clinic. The best doctors were at his disposal, yet none of them suggested he be given a replacement dose of good bacteria for his bowels.

Instead Johnny was given steroids. Steroid medications stop inflammation such as with arthritis, asthma, and colitis. Natural steroids, from the adrenal glands, do the same thing, but are excreted in much smaller amounts than synthetic steroids.

With the “miracle” of steroids Johnny’s colitis was kept manageable. Although he was still quite thin and periodically suffered bouts of bloody diarrhea, he finished high school and entered college.

In his 20s Johnny started experiencing back pain. Again he sought the best medical help in the country. Higher doses of steroids and pain medications gave him temporary relief. But it was eventually discovered that his back pain was the result of the steroids weakening his bones. Finally, the pain became unbearable and he consented to surgery. He underwent a state-of-the-art back surgery that the surgeons called a success. He continued to suffer, both from his back and his colitis.

By this time Johnny’s adrenal glands, because of the high doses of steroids, had ceased making their own hormones. He was dependent on synthetic steroids to stay alive. His doctors also prescribed testosterone, amphetamines (speed) and antidepressants so that he could function. By this time he was married and worked at a high-profile job.

In order to appear healthy, Johnny hid his illness by pretending to be in good physical condition, even an athlete. In reality, he wore a back brace and concealed his pain by keeping in seclusion and avoiding physical activity, especially when people were watching. Few people knew that his favorite chair, a rocker, was sometimes his only reprieve from chronic pain.

Johnny’s condition reached a crisis when he was in his late forties. He was in constant pain and on so many drugs that he couldn’t focus, even having episodes of hallucinations. At this point he had the good luck to meet a doctor that placed him on a regime of vigorous physical therapy. Every day he did abdominal exercises, received hot compresses and other forms of therapy. The condition of his back improved and he was able to reduce his medications. He was by no means well – his adrenal glands no longer functioned, his muscles and bones were wasted and his colitis still

bothered him – but at least he wasn’t in constant excruciating pain.

Unfortunately, it was too late. After suffering a lifetime of unnecessary pain, just as Johnny was seeing some glimmer of hope, he was shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas. The last cruel twist to his tortured life was that he might have survived the first gunshot wound if the force of the blow had knocked him to the floor, but the back brace held him upright and vulnerable to the second shot.

Your Story

The story of President John F. Kennedy’s anguish, is not unusual. I’ve heard many versions of this same tragedy. It’s the results of doctors reaching for drugs and performing surgery when gentler, less invasive therapies are available. While drugs and surgery are sometimes essential, even life saving, their routine use as the first line of therapy can be debilitating.

My opinion may seem harsh, even twisted. You could certainly put a positive spin on Kennedy’s story – drugs and surgery allowed him to become President of the United States. That would be the American Medical Society’s interpretation. But if you’re willing to question prevailing attitudes, you can imagine a young boy not enduring such pain and disability, and a young man allowed to live.

However off-kilter you think my interpretation of the facts might be, I refer you to medicine’s own statistics showing that drugs and surgery are the third leading cause of death in the US. (Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol 284, July 26, 2000)

It’s your choice. How will you interpret the Kennedy story? More to the point, when you’re ill, where will you turn; drugs, surgery, or natural medicine?


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