Western medicine views the body as a machine, a complex mechanism that can be understood, modified and repaired. Our physicians work best when they can identify and eliminate a known cause of disease that comes from outside the body, and our surgeons are unsurpassed in dealing with acute trauma. However, in much of the world, Western medicine is too expensive, is unavailable, or is presented in a way that is inconsistent with traditional beliefs.
In Western society, health is defined in strictly clinical terms by physicians, with the fate of the spirit being relegated to religious specialists who have little to say about the physical well-being of the living. Yet we must understand that for most societies around the world today, priest and physicians are one, for the condition of the spirit determines the physical state of the body. Sickness is disruption, imbalance, and the manifestation of malevolent forces in the flesh.
Health is a state of balance, of harmony, and for most societies it is something holy. Issues that lie at the very heart of traditional medicine - ideas concerning the spiritual realm, mind/body interactions, ideas of the interplay between humanity, the environment and the cosmos - are dismissed by Western medicine because they do not fit into its scientific model. There has been a shift away from the idea of the patient as the center of the healing process, and the physician has come increasingly to the fore as the dominant force in the healing process. Although there is an increasing sense that certain ancient and esoteric healing practices, long ignored by Western science, may in fact represent profound insights into the very nature of well-being.
Science will continue to give much to modern medicine, but the mysteries of health and healing cannot be easily extracted from the totality of the human experience. People throughout the world will continue to benefit from the wonders of modern medicine, and we can only hope that Western medicine will draw from lessons derived from other types of healers who, lacking the technical ability to dissect the human body, chose instead long ago to embrace the human being as a whole. For many traditional peoples around the world, the Western distinction between physical and spiritual health does not exist.
For the past ten years, we have had the opportunity to meet with a significant number of patients from many cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. In caring for them we are always reminded that Hippocrates viewed the treatment of disease as a dual process. One part was represented by systematic medicine. The other part was the full activation of the patient's own healing system. In the isolated mountain villages of Latin America, the patients we treated, were not content to be passive participants in their own illness. They did not rely exclusively in our treatment, but took an active part in the quest for recovery.
This quest for recovery involves looking to the spirit world as a source of healing, most accomplish this task through religious rituals, or the candles, herbs, potions, and charms found at the botanica, or herbal stall. The botanica is a common sight throughout Latin America, with its merchandise intended to help the user improve their health, financial standing or love life. All of them are living out an ancient idea, that the healing system is connected to a belief system where attitudes play a vital part in the recovery process.
The medical community, has acknowledged the human brain's ability to exert a measure of control over the autonomic nervous system, and that the human being is capable of generating powerful responses to disease. These powerful responses will not cure every disease or illness, but by beginning to recognize that the personal experiences of the healing process differ radically with people everywhere, nurses can enhance vital elements of the healing process. Experience the beautiful and mysterious power that one human being can have on another through the mere act of caring and understanding. The first step in the power to heal, is finding The Healer Within.
We cannot ignore the wondrous progress in medicine over the last century, nor can we dismiss the healing techniques of the mind, of attitude, and of the possibility of a spiritual component in healing. Prompt and consistent medical intervention is obviously the treatment for any disease. However, treating physical illness without paying close attention to cultural beliefs, ideas and emotional needs of the patient can have only a partial effect.
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