My Turn: Natural medicine has its value and its limitations

Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I've bragged for years that the last time I went to the doctor was 1983. "Conventional" medicine was good for other people, but I didn't need it. Eating well, exercising and using natural remedies to build immunity would be enough to ensure longevity and a lifetime of good health.

I was wrong. What I didn't reckon on is that there are some situations which natural medicines and strong immunity will not inoculate you against. One of those is malaria, especially the P-falciparum variety of malaria parasite, which attacks the brain. I picked up malaria in Ghana while visiting my wife, Mary Alice, and daughter, Alice, who were volunteering at an orphanage. I didn't take any prophylactics before going - the side effects wore worrisome - but took simple precautions like sleeping under mosquito netting at night.

I started getting sick the day before I left Ghana. I thought I had food poisoning. The trip home was uncomfortable with lethargy, fever and chills. I felt better upon getting to Juneau and concluded I had turned the corner on my illness. However, the fever, chills and lethargy persisted to varying degrees for several days. I fiddled around with some natural remedies and ate foods that appealed to me, fruits and soup. I would frequently feel like I was recovering, only to relapse again.

The person who recognized that I might have a serious problem was naturopathic physician, Emily Kane. She grew up in Africa and knows how deadly certain forms of malaria can be. She came to my house during her lunch hour on the Wednesday after I got home and took blood draws on myself, Mary Alice and Alice. The results came back Thursday: Mary Alice and Alice had no traces of malaria, but my blood had high levels of P-falciparum.

On Friday, I went to the emergency room at Bartlett Regional Hospital. Dr. Kane communicated my condition to Dr. Lindy Jones at Bartlett. Dr. Jones was in contact with the Center for Disease Control consulting on treatment options when we arrived. I put myself in the capable care of the staff at Bartlett. That night I stayed in the cardiac intensive care unit because the medication I was on required cardiac monitoring.

The next day, my condition worsened. I lost consciousness, and when I came to, I heard that a medivac was being planned. I was only semiconscious at this point. What I remember of the experience of being transported from the hospital to the airport and then being medivaced was the extraordinary precision and care with which the process was handled. The amount of training involved was palpably evident even to someone as "out of it" as I was.

We landed in Seattle and were transported to the University of Washington Medical Center. Soon after arriving, Mary Alice was told by Dr. Conrad Liles, one of the country's leading experts on the treatment of this type of malaria, that the "drama was over." Although there were setbacks which required additional procedures including an MRI of my brain, I was able to leave the hospital the next Wednesday. We were home Thursday in time for a family Thanksgiving dinner.

My point in writing this is not to repudiate my former point of view, but to modify it. Good nutrition, exercise and natural medicine have tremendous value, but they also have limits. There are occasions where technological, allopathic medicine can mean the difference between life and death.

Having personally experienced such an occasion, I am grateful that we have the technology and expertise available here at Bartlett Hospital, as well as the means to quickly transport patients who require care beyond what is available here. Were it not for this health-care infrastructure and the competent, highly-trained professionalism, I might not be here today. Instead, you might be reading about a healthy 49-year-old man dying from a tropical disease.

Thankfully, this is not the case. I don't mind eating a little crow concerning my former skepticism about "conventional medicine." Suffice it to say, you won't hear me bragging anymore about not seeing a doctor for 20 years.

• Juneau resident David Ottoson has owned and operated Rainbow Foods for the last 25 years.

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