About Medicine. A Letter To The Doctor by Hal O’Leary

About Medicine. A Letter To The Doctor by Hal O’Leary

About Medicine. A Letter To The Doctor by Hal O’Leary. About medicine: When it comes to the dispute between orthodox and alternative medicine, it seems that the extremes on both sides may represent a greater danger to the confused consumer…

About Medicine. A Letter To The Doctor by Hal O'Leary

About Medicine. Photo by Anna Langova


Dear Doctor:

The following represents my middle-of-the- ground position on a very perplexing question. I perceive myself as one who is caught in the middle of a raging and perhaps never-ending war between the orthodoxy of western medicine and the various alternative practices and treatments. As with any controversy, the preponderance of misinformation will come from the fanatic fringes of both sides, and the truth we seek has the unfortunate habit of eluding us. We must, most often, settle for nothing more than a reasonable balance between the two extremes.

To arrive at such a balance, however, we must identify the extreme arguments of both sides and either dismiss or at least seriously question them as well as the possible ulterior motives that may very well lie hidden behind them. The first arguments that can and should be dismissed are those that have no purpose other than to discredit the other side by innuendo. These arguments are seldom made by rational people, and far from providing us with helpful and reliable information, they actually erect barriers which inhibit the free flow of ideas and information we need. The appeal of this approach is never to reason, but to the emotion of fear, which is the greatest motivator of unreasonable and irrational decisions and behavior.

Once we have dismissed the extremes we can move to the center for more useful information. But even here, we must be cautious in distinguishing between what contributes to understanding and what might be motivated by and reflective of nothing more than self-interest. It is not unusual in such cases to find simple greed hidden behind unrealistic claims. What we need are rational arguments whose only appeal is not to fear or self-interest, but to reason.

When it comes to the dispute between orthodox and alternative medicine, it seems that the extremes on both sides may represent a greater danger to the confused consumer by being directly and consciously responsible for most of his confusion in the first place. Such confusion can only encumber a positive mental attitude so necessary to the healing process. On the one hand, we have the arrogance of orthodoxy, with its vast array of miracle toys and magic bullets bent on adapting the patient to the treatment rather than the other way around. On the other hand, we have the shameless hucksters bombarding us with elixirs without regard to or responsibility for the consequences of failure to seek professional help. Both should be damned and dismissed on the grounds of oversimplification. Only with the utmost reverence and humility should we begin to probe the unimaginable complexity of the human organism. Perhaps the relatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology will provide new insights in our quest to unravel the mysteries of life and the healing process.

We might begin by acknowledging that man evolved into his preeminent position long before the advent of modern medicine. This marvelous organism flourished because through natural selection it was able to adapt by means of its immune system to all the challenges that threatened its existence. It was able to combat infections and heal wounds by processes that may never be fully understood. While it is true that life expectancy may have been lower then (primarily because of high infant mortality rates), the species fared rather well. The immune system was able to keep abreast of environmental changes with whatever conscious and complementary assistance man could render. Perhaps then it would be in our best interest now to focus (or refocus) our attention on the word “complementary.”

With the dawn of modern scientific medicine, it seems that man may have unfortunately taken an all too mechanistic approach to understanding the human organism. All too often, this approach has amounted to supplanting nature’s own mysterious immune system with an arrogant insistence that “We know best!” For example, this arrogance and possible ignorance have led us to refer to certain genes as being defective. But, perhaps, the so-called defective genes have simply evolved for a reason which, if searched out, can be seen as once having imparted a distinct advantage to a specific group, at a specific time and in a specific circumstance. We can point to the sickle cell, which we now believe may have evolved as an effective defense against malaria. It is also a possibility that recurring diseases within a family may not necessarily be the result of defective genes at all, but of a myriad of other causes outside the purview of medical practitioners. It is difficult to imagine why a gene would evolve for no other purpose than to bring harm to the organism, suggesting that other factors may be involved.

Extensive research on the Pima Indians of Old and New Mexico provides a great example of the interplay between genetics and lifestyle factors. Pima Indians are genetically predisposed to type 2 diabetes. The Pima Indians who live in the U.S. have the highest rate of type 2 diabetes of any population in the world (77% of people 55 and older) and correspondingly high obesity rates. Pima Indians living in Mexico have much lower rates of type 2 diabetes (9% of people 55 and older) and obesity. These two groups are genetically similar, but their diets and levels of physical activity are very different. As a result, the obesity rate among the American Pima men is ten times that of Mexican Pima men! In fact, the Mexican Pima Indian rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes parallel that of other Mexicans living similar lifestyles, even though they have a genetic susceptibility to type 2 diabetes. Why? Because while Mexican Pima Indians eat calories and fiber in amounts comparable to other Mexicans living similar lifestyles, American Pimas have diets and activity levels similar to other Americans. It has been suspected, but not known for certain, that both the Mexicans and the Americans had evolved a means of coping with extremely sparse diets over centuries, which left the American Pimas deficient in certain enzymes necessary for proper utilization of the rich and plentiful American foods. The point here is that there is so much that we don’t know.

Now, shouldn’t the fact that we don’t know shatter the arrogance of the medical orthodoxy and shame the peddlers of panaceas? And, shouldn’t we who may not be of either extreme recognize that at this stage of our ignorance we cannot afford to arbitrarily dismiss any approach that has evidenced (anecdotally or otherwise) some previously unknown benefit? Should we not open our minds to the undreamed of possibilities that may yet be hidden in the rainforests or in the deep mystery of some tribal ritual, as opposed to rejecting out of hand such possibilities in a paranoiac defense of our own rather narrow and tenuous position? Perhaps we can piece together a revolutionary new concept of complementary medicine that will re-establish trust and truth in the profession based on intimacy between physician and patient. We might then dare to hope that such a revolution will in turn yield such benefits as a curtailment of the extremes, a reduction in unnecessary procedures and malpractice judgments, and a better-informed consumer who will not be swayed by the atrocious hype of unending TV commercials. It could even lead to a greater understanding of, and respect for, reliance on the body’s own healing potential.

These are my current views, doctor. I trust that you can respect them. If so, let us work together in a humble position of respect for each other as we face the vast, yet-to-be-discovered mysteries of this most complex human organism.


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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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