Unexpected Recoveries

Photo courtesy Bob Wong

Photo courtesy Bob Wong

When it comes to your health and wellness, you can’t find a better three words. I’m reminded of the truth of these words every time I have a patient who does so much better than I thought they would, or who got better under my care after struggling for years to find some path to recovery.

A living organism is an amazing thing. Our bodies are the result of millions upon millions of years of tinkering. To look upon our bodies as somehow defective, as somehow poorly engineered or incomplete, is to seriously underestimate the wisdom inherent in our earthly form. Whether you believe we came by it through cosmic dice-rolls or guided by some intellect makes no difference; either way, the sheer number of logical operations that have taken place in the millions of years we have taken to get here – choices that determined the placement of every cell in our being -- are beyond the computational power of every computer and human brain on this planet put together. So how can we say we’ve got all the answers, or even most of them, when it comes to medicine?

I have a patient, let’s call him Joe, who started seeing me last summer. He had injured his back at work a few years ago and was sent for surgery. They took out one of his discs, fused his spine, and sent him back to work. Joe was in constant pain. The muscles of his back had gotten so tight he could barely tilt forward. He had tried everything before he finally tried acupuncture. I told him I thought his pain might get a little better, but his back would never bend. Things were not promising at first. His pain increased, unexpectedly, the first month of treatment, leaving me scratching my head. But he wanted to get better, he trusted me -- for some reason, despite my “voodoo” making him feel worse – and let me try a number of different approaches to try and find something that worked. Finally, he started to get better. After a few more months, his pain was lower, and he could even bend a little. A few months after that, to my great astonishment, he could nearly touch his toes. He was missing a piece of his back, yet he had more flexibility than many able-bodied folks. How he was able to do that, given a lower back that was solid bone, was beyond my knowledge. But there he was, plain as day, defying all accepted wisdom because he refused to accept the fate he was handed.

One time I was treating a hospice patient, Frank, for cancer pain. Frank was close to death, was on morphine and wanted to stay lucid as long as possible to enjoy the company of his family. His cancer was pressing on his neck and jaw, a solid lump that made it difficult for him to swallow. I didn’t have high hopes for anything more than a mild, even placebo effect. When I came back for his second treatment, his wife said he had hardly requested any morphine since he had acupuncture. I was surprised, and thought that perhaps it was a fluke. I treated him again. The next week, the same thing. I kept on treating him, and he was able to remain lucid and communicative up until a few days before the end. The acupuncture’s efficacy went beyond anything I would have predicted, blocking pain more than I had experienced with any other patient. But Frank wanted to be there, awake and aware, to enjoy his last weeks with those that he loved. And so he was.

The desire of life to find any avenue to reach its full measure expresses itself not only in the human animal, but in all creatures. An elderly dog belonging to someone I knew well was in great pain from arthritis and bad hips. The dog was on painkillers that were in danger of destroying her liver, and yet her pain was still great. She lay around, panting all day, barely able to stand up or sit down, and her owner was thinking of ending her misery. Since I prescribed Chinese herbs for humans, she figured she’d go out on a limb and ask me if I had something, anything, that could help the dog stay around in a little less discomfort for a few more months. I gave her a bottle of a formula for arthritic pain, telling her to use a very small dose. A week later, the dog was so mobile that she injured herself further jumping off of a moving car’s tailgate. After a little recuperation, she was walking around and getting into trouble like her younger self. She was even able to take less of her pain medication, sparing her liver. In fact, she continued like this for almost two more years before she finally threw gave up the ghost. Told that the dog was at the end of her rope and probably better off dead, that dog and her human companion decided that they weren’t going to take no for an answer. So they found a way to help her make the most of the living she had left. And lo, she lived even longer than anyone had hoped.

If you think I’m just tootin’ my own horn here, this has nothing to do with me; some folks don’t get better through exploring my particular corner of expertise. What unites these stories is the awe-inspiring ability of that force we call life to find its way like water through the cracks in the orthodox medical landscape. Being told that there’s nothing that can be done should be the starting point of our inquiry into what we want out of our lives and what’s possible. Being handed a scenario of life-long disability or illness, being made reliant on expensive and/or dangerous drugs for the remainder of our years – don’t take it lying down, I’ve learned. As my patients have taught me, if one avenue dead-ends, turn around and find another. Someone out there may know something, may have the skills to do something, that can help you. It may turn out, at long last, that you have gone as far as you can and need to achieve some sort of peace within yourself: a wellness of spirit, if not of body. Until that point becomes self-evident, however, keep searching.

Never give up.


Unexpected Recoveries • Written by Benjamin Hawes