Traditional Medicine in India and Back:
A Student’s Study Abroad Perspective
Since the mission trip to the Dominican Republic, I had been longing for further opportunities to promote health abroad. Then, the door was opened to make my personal, professional, and academic goals a reality by a fellow student who received support from the Gilman Foundation shared with me her life changing study abroad in India organized by Child Family Health International. That night is so vivid in my memory, marked by the overwhelming sense of excitement and urgency upon discovering that if she could make the trip happen, then so could I! Sweet epiphany enveloped me as every preconceived doubt about my capability due to financial limitations fell away. Immediately, I made the deposit for the program with a little envelope of saved tax returns, and absolutely no idea how to fund the rest of the trip unless I also received the scholarship. The funny thing about all the best decisions I’ve ever made, is they have began with this sort of plunge into the unknown, into an abyss of irrationally almost, only full of hope that things will turn out right— and then they do.
In order to be eligible for the Benjamin A. Gilman scholarship, students must receive academic credit from their institution for the program of choice. The way I did this was by sharing my exuberant decision with a professor who was then able to create a personal Independent Study course during the semester I was to be abroad. Next, I began working on the personal statement and follow on service proposal required by the Gilman application. This is important to begin as soon as possible to allow adequate time for your best work, as the five drafts and consecutive reviews by the writing center took around six months for me. The strenuous effort was more than worth the experience that resulted. Just one day prior to when the lump sum for the final payment was due, I received the scholarship funds—without which I would have had no means of going. What goodness to behold in the midst of uncertainty!
Fast forward to Rishikesh, home of the holy Ganges River. An unparalleled place located at the foothills of the Himalayas, bustling with thousands on a pilgrimage to the yoga capital of the world. Two narrow suspension bridges packed with travelers, cows, monkeys, and motorbikes allowed for a protracted passage into the heart of the city. The densely populated dirt paths were contrasted by whimsical entryways, ornate yet deconstructed architecture marked by colors that were once so primary and vivid but now worn by the constant movement of the crowds. There is no shortage of cattle nor what they leave behind. The flies swarm from the feces then grace the street food, which was made by locals roasting corn on the ground (who do not bother to swat away the insect army).
I continued to journey up the busy streets towards the base of the mountains where my ashram was located. Not far off, the sound of the Ganges catches my attention above the honking, scent of sweat, dung, and grease all accompanied by an occasionally delightful whiff of burning incense. A man with young child on hip approached me with some crispy papadum to offer to the calf blocking the way, which gladly ate from my palm. The young local photographing myself and the other incongruous American students catches my attention and we shared a laugh since I resolved to always take a photo of them back, amused with camera in hand. We reached our lodging amidst the dense fog that rested atop the lush, jungle covered mountains with its obscure phalange-like trees that produced the sense that I had somehow arrived on another planet. My cubic concrete room, wooden cot, and bucket shower was also shared by a rather large community of insects that came and went by the window which always remained open to create natural air conditioning. At six the next morning, tinkling of light rain on gumdrop shaped trees woke me, refreshed and just in time for the morning meditation and yoga lesson. This was much different from our conventionalized Western ‘yoga’, which typically focuses on the asanas, or movement aspect of the practice. In Sankrit, yoga actually translates as connectivity to the Supreme Being. It is traditionally a lifestyle where asanas, prana (breath), and meditation treat one’s soul, unconfined to a mere sixty-minute class. Understanding that yogis principally adapt their perspective, rather than force their way in ultimately uncontrollable situations, shed some light on this culture experienced on the chaotic streets.
People from all over the world come to the neighboring nature cure center for several weeks to a month in order to establish a balanced routine and restore health. A plant-based diet served in moderation to patients three times a day often included bitter melon, a surprising little vegetable known to regulate blood sugar. Depending on the prescribed treatment, one’s schedule might consist of meditation and yoga class, followed by chai masala tea, breakfast, adequate time to digest, an individualized massage and yoga session targeting problem areas, light lunch, hydrotherapy, sun bath, mudpack, and dinner. One woman I met had come for treatment all the way from New Jersey as a last resort to relieve chronic pain caused by a car accident. She was effervescent with enthusiasm because at last, after years of relying on pain medication she had found effective, tailored therapy and relief! Being a student at the center forever instilled the fundamental naturopathic principles: first, do no harm; treat the cause of disease; teach fundamentals of healthy living; heal the whole person through individualized treatment; emphasize prevention and assess risk factors; and ultimately support the healing power of the body by removing obstacles to one’s innate self-healing process.
My second week in India looked much like a scene out of Lost World. The bumpy ride in a safari style jeep up to the remote mountain village of Patti rendered an overwhelming sense of adventure, which the monkey families running in and out of the road only added to. Out both windows, towering flat leafs lined our wriggling path up the edge of the cliff. In and out of potholes we clamored, terrifyingly close to the drop that was constantly increasing in altitude. We were en route to a clinic established by Child Family Health International, a tertiary care center serving the some 400 villagers relying solely on the provision of Dr. Paul and volunteers. Well, 399 now Dr. Paul explained—last week he had to sign the death certificate for an elderly fellow killed by a leopard. The sense of adventure was now heightened by a considerable amount of fright. “Be sure to walk with a large stick and remain with the groups in case you are to encounter one. We may have to postpone our hike to identify medicinal herbs since the Monsoon season has brought out the pythons.” We were well in the depths of the jungle by then.
I changed the course of the conversation to inquire about the management of tuberculosis. Contrary to what I had derived from my own investigation, the primary issue was not a shortage of government provided anti-tubercular medication, rather difficulty accessing them after the monsoon flooding in these rural areas. Primary care facilities in the city limits maintain par amounts of the medication and distribute only as much as reported necessary to the second and tertiary care centers. The problem was compounded by a shortage of providers willing to take a significant pay cut to work (or even volunteer) in the plethora of isolated areas. We arrived at the clinic and stepped down stairs to the basement lodging, where Dr. Paul and students live during the week.
This place was everything my soul had been longing for. The air was cool and light, gracing the green, lush hills rolling out into the distance and seemingly sailing with the sherbet colored sky. Across the valley were three locals sitting with their grazing cows. Suddenly sweet bliss had found me! The warm scent of squash, chipati, rice, and lentil wafted into the courtyard. As we sat under the tin covering, rain began pinging atop the roof. I glanced over to see our neighbors still sitting in the same position, only with their umbrellas up—that unforgettable meal was satisfying to taste, touch, smell, and soul.
Directly after a quite necessary cup of hot and spicy masala chai in the morning, we went upstairs to the 9×9 foot doctor’s office (much too small for a hand washing basin). Eager to use my nurse training, I jumped in to begin taking vitals with the manual blood pressure cuff, mercury thermometer, and wristwatch. Patients were lined up outside the door for their abbreviated two-minute assessment so that everyone could be seen. A majority of the children were coming for treatment of infected abscesses caused by lactic acid left on the skin after playing barefoot in the rice crops or eating a mango. Each day during their course of treatment they had to journey to the clinic for dressing changes or a dose of antibiotics since tight control had to be kept over the limited supplies. At six in the evening, Dr. Paul closes for the day so I ventured out down the hill before dinner. There was a group of school-aged boys playing (many of which we had treated earlier that day) and giggling at my mispronunciation of Hindi greetings. The game looked rather like the beloved ‘red-rover’ of the West, and considerably more fun than attempting to converse any longer. How silly I must have looked to their mother, observing from her doorway in the pasture this gangly Caucasian nurse in scrubs—chased by children shouting ‘kabadi, kabadi, kabadi!!’ faster than they could catch their breath. In that moment I felt more at home than ever. This village, lacking basic necessities (such as shoes to prevent the majority of ailments treated that day) had given me the most essential realization that laughter is the universal language. In simple play, there was no barrier by language, race, gender, or age—only connection by means of everything unimportant on the superfluously cluttered plane of time falling away.
Check back next week for the continuation of this series!
Until next time,