War on Health

The ouroboros, or serpent that its its own tail, a mythological figure to illustrate the limitations of sanctioned health care.Trust not the physician. His antidotes are poison and he slays more than you rob.

(Timon of Athens, act 4, sc. 3)

Medicine and religion share much of their structure of belief. To quote the inimitable George Carlin, “Religion has actually convinced people that there is an invisible man, living in the sky, who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And he has a special list of 10 things he does not want you to do – and if you do any of these 10 things he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, till the end of time…. but he loves you.”

Whatever the metaphysical opinions of my 25 readers may be, documented history instructs us that he who did not believe in the authority of the church was branded a heretic (i.e. someone whose belief was a heresy (hairesis, a Greek word meaning “a choosing for oneself,” a personal choice), with often very unpleasant consequences.

As an aside, in the early 2000, some authoritative theologians discovered and declared that hell exists, but is empty. Which should be of some comfort to the brethren who think they did not wholly comply with the proscriptions and may have occasionally fallen into any of the seven deadly sins.

But I digress.

Medicine does not have a pope, nor a declared theological foundation. In fact, it is understood or assumed that medicine is an empirical science. But the rulers of the medical, pharmaceutical and insurance industries exert a kind of equivalent authority, informally accepted and shared among the ranks.

In the circumstances, the occasional, but not rare instances when a respected member of the guild makes public ‘heretical’ declarations or statements, rejecting the quasi-theological tenets of the profession – his words should raise some interest.

In a recent open letter to the press, unexpectedly printed in the mainstream media, a respected European orthopedic surgeon, with over 20-year experience in various hospitals, said,

“Medicine is false. It is only an instrument of power in the hands of the Multinationals of Health. It is incapable to cure illnesses. At best it reduces the effects of the apparent symptoms, transferring them to other organs and generating new illnesses, which lead the patient into a vicious circle of dependence on the health-care system.”

Triggering his outburst was having witnessed the death of an 11-year old boy, with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (so I read), is a form of cancer that starts in the lymphocytes, which are cells of the lymphatic system and are part of the body’s immune system. The boy died following a treatment that included chemotherapy. The surgeon says,

“International literature claims an 80% survival rate after treatment with the new chemo-therapeutic protocols. Which appeared encouraging news to me, who also, for the first time was undergoing this (cancer) experience.
But there is an unnoticed misunderstanding. If, following the chemotherapy treatment, the patient dies due to liver or kidney failure, the statistics report the death as not attributable to lymphoma.
Today’s medicine considers the human body as a bio-chemical system, where a consequence (the symptom), follows every cause. The prescribed medicines aim at eliminating the symptom, without retracing a path to the cause.
But the concept of health is NOT the “not-illness,” as advocated by conventional medicine. Instead, or rather, health depends on an optimal equilibrium between mind and body.
As a consequence of the belief-system embodied in conventional medicine, the body remains ill, while the illness moves somewhere else.
For example, chemotherapy attacks the DNA of rapidly reproducing cancerous cells, but not only. The cells of our immune system reproduce rapidly as well. Therefore the combined effect is the destruction of the only system that can save our life.
Furthermore, chemotherapy cannot destroy 100% of the cancerous cells, but only 60-80%. Our immune system takes care of the rest.”

The ‘heretical’ doctor continues, “

“According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, iatrogenic illnesses (that is illnesses due to medical therapy), are the third cause of death in the US. Over 120,000 deaths are attributable to the well-known collateral effects of prescribed medications. Researcher Bruce Lipton explains as follows, “Every substance we introduce into the body interact with critical proteins, which can determine the functions of organs or areas completely different from each other. For example, the chemical components of a heart pill can interact with the central nervous system. All this happens due to the fundamental basic approach or tenet, the biochemical rather than the biophysical concept of health.”

The surgeon in question abandoned officially-sanctioned medicine for what today is called a ‘holistic approach.’ He says he eliminated some chronic pathologies, simply by rebalancing his ‘energy system.’

He was initially operated-on to remove the thyroid (thyroid lobectomy), and believed that from then on he would have to take a medicine called ‘Eurotix’ for life.

“Though I scrupulously followed the direction, I continued to suffer from muscular pain in the limbs, and exhaustion. I then decided to change completely my diet. I completely eliminated meat and most other animal proteins, using unrefined products and carefully balancing them. I completely eliminated the ‘Eurotix’ and other medicines, only relying on natural substances (i.e. my diet.). As a result, muscular pain has disappeared and the hematic values are normal.”

The quoted episode is not unique. In fact, the instances reported are so many that they have given rise to the holistic health industry. With a pinch of sarcastic salt, we may say that “if there is a buck, there is a way.”

The ‘holistic’ approach to medicine is not new. The term ‘approach’ (through its etymological Latin meaning), suggests coming nearer to a virtual door and entering a medical parallel universe, a somewhat mysterious world, populated by secret recipes and herbal concoctions, accompanied by sessions of mystic self-consciousness and psychological self-discovery.

But, stripped of the promotional glamour, the most essential common-sense rules of health-maintenance are as old as the Greeks. Shakespeare himself finds occasions to call them out – while showing his skepticism about complicated remedies (see the opening quote).

For example,

That rest is a medicine in itself,
“Our foster-nurse of nature is repose,
The which he lacks, that to provoke in him,
Are many simples operative, whose power
Will close the eye of anguish”
where the “simples operative” are sleep-inducing herbal concoctions, such as chamomile.

Macbeth asks the impossible of a doctor to treat the psychological decline of his wife,
“Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

The honest doctor replies,
Therein the patient
Must minister to himself
.” (2)

Today a regular doctor would probably prescribe Valium, Ritalin or I know not what, from a large selection of tranquilizers and opiates – possibly risking any of the several reported disastrous side effects caused by these remedies.

That rest and quiet are preconditions to soothe an upset stomach.
“Prithee, do not turn me about; my stomach is not constant.” (3)

Another suggested therapy is the type of recreational relaxation, which today we class under the category “outdoor-activities,”
“Sweet recreation barred, what doth ensue,
But moody and dull melancholy,
Kinsman to grim and comfortless despair,
And, at her heels, a large infectious troop
Of pale distemperatures and foes to life?”

The downside of a sugar-based diet was well known, way before diabetes was diagnosed as an illness in 1910,
“…the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little, is by much too much.”

I could continue (several more are found in the “Your Daily Shakespeare” dictionary), but I will add just one more, as a marginal contribution to my hoped-for widespread adoption of vegetarianism,

“I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm my wit.” (6)

What has been named the “medicalization of life” is, historically, a very recent phenomenon, 40-50 years maximum. And although the two concepts may seem unconnected, the medicalization of life has trailed and grown with the expansion of the neo-liberal philosophy, meaning extreme capitalism.

Capitalist culture leads people to consume both what destroys and what (allegedly) repairs the destruction, in the case of health. Qualified critics maintain that there are more doctors and more sick people. And the number of the sick grows in spite of the expansion of medicine – but also because of it.

The most widespread epidemic illnesses – cancer, cardio-vascular diseases, rheumatism, etc. – are all degenerative diseases, which are caused by civilization and which medicine can neither prevent or cure. More people are struck by these illnesses notwithstanding the use of sophisticated and elaborate medical technology – suggesting a link between the current lifestyle and the environment.

Civilizations more removed from the neo-liberal economy and associated lifestyle are less affected. And, according to an alternative school of thought, present even within the ranks of the medical establishment, of all the factors that maintain health, medicine is one of the least effective.

There are important cultural reasons why the medicalization of life itself contributes to the spreading of diseases. As a social institution medicine must reduce the symptoms that make the sick unable to work or to perform their social roles. By making the doctor a manager of illness, society exempts people from realizing the fundamental and long-term reasons for their ill health.

Furthermore, by suggesting a mythical idea of perfect health, medicine makes people believe that health can be purchased. Given the premise, it follows that health is proportional to the purchase price. And in a monopolistic environment (such as typically medicine is), competition is dead, along with the mythical and “invisible hand of the market.” No wonder that the increase in the purchase price of health is always way above the rate of inflation.

And yet, like the equally mythical ouróboros, (another Greek word for the serpent that eats its own tail), ‘illness is good’, just like ‘greed is good’, as per the famous line in the ‘Wall Street’ movie.

The cost of health (which is the Orwellian translation of the cost of illness), greatly contributes to the Gross Domestic Product. In 2013 health care expenditures were 3 trillion $ and all data suggests ever faster increases.

And where ‘greed is good’, every bit counts. For example, by lowering the threshold of ‘healthy’ cholesterol (another almost mythical medical creature), the American Medical Association found 20 million new sick people, overnight. Now, years later, heretical voices from the official milieu, suggest that the whole cholesterol business, more than a myth was a fraud.

How about preventive medicine? Some may ask. Does it not reduce the risk of illness? No, say the critics. Preventive medicine is not concerned about improving working and living conditions. And by tracking down early signs of diseases, it increases the number of sick people. According to the critics, “Compulsory check ups lower the threshold of tolerance to sick feelings, build a more self-indulgent relationship to the body, increase insecurity and consequently increase the subjective possibility of illness and medical recourse.” And according to researchers, “when people who were feeling fine were informed of their clinical profile, that was all it took to transform 90% of them into patients and bring on in most of them the appearance or worsening of symptoms that they had, up to then, ignored.”

The culturally orthodox reader may find these ‘heretical’ considerations blasphemous, as it is always so when faith is involved, be it religious, or here, medical.

The general problem of a optimal health-care management is not limited to one country. A very helpful social remedy was found long ago, for example, in China, with the institution of the “barefoot” doctor. A barefoot doctor can be trained quite quickly. He becomes the repository, conveyor and practitioner of the common sense rules of good health – and the dispenser of basic remedies, suitable for about 90% of the barefoot doctor’s interventions. For more complex cases, he refers the patient to a traditional doctor or a hospital.

Years ago, something similar was advocated in the realm of dentistry, in Texas if I remember correctly. But the dental establishment savagely fought to defeat that initiative, “out of concern for the proper dental care of patients.”

Therefore, an American ‘barefoot doctor’ is impossible to imagine, for reasons too obvious to be worth the listing. After all, during a famous congress of a vast multinational pharmaceutical concern, the president openly acknowledged that the financial prosperity of the industry depends on the invention of new illnesses.

Along with the war on terror and the war on guns, the war on illness (or health depending on the point of view), deserves equal regard. And given the abysmal success of the first two, the success of the third seems equally doubtful

** (1) King Lear
** (2) Macbeth
** (3) The Tempest
** (4) Comedy of Errors
** (5) King Henry IV, part 1
** (6) Twelfth Night

In the play (opening quote). Two robbers stumble upon Timon who has retreated and retired to a wood. He talks with the robbers and almost converts them away from their profession, by inciting them to pursue it.

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