A late night conversation with a pharmacist about herbal remedies
A healer by any other name
My stepdaughter, who’s been historically plagued by random and sometimes seemingly sporadic allergies, had just had a concerningly strong histamine reaction to — of all things — dates. Eager to avoid gluten due to her recent celiac’s diagnosis, I’d given her a bedtime snack in the form of a health bar made from three ingredients: dates, cashews, and chocolate. How could those three ingredients possibly go wrong?
After one bite, her lips and throat swelled and turned purple, and she began vomiting. My husband’s quick children’s bendadryl application brought the swelling down from their dangerous states, but I volunteered to run to the pharmacy to hunt for any other treatments I could find. It was about 11:00pm on a Saturday, so my options were limited to the pharmacy in our regional grocery chain out in the burbs.
Looking for epi pens, herbal antihystamines, and anything else I could get my hands on, I quickly gave up and relented to visiting the pharmacy counter. It’s worth noting here that my family has, historically, had less than positive experiences with the traditional medical community. Seven members of my family have died from cancer, so we’ve had plenty of experience to boot.
But I was desperate for help, so I told the nice-looking, dark-haired young man behind the counter what had brought me here. Looking like he couldn’t have been out of pharmacy school for more than a few weeks, he was quickly empathetic, and made swift recommendations for aquiring an epi pen, and assured me that my husband’s application had been the best and strongest remedy for the situation. We talked for quite a while about her symptoms and their causes, and the best ways to prepare for other such events in the future. When I asked him what my options were for herbal or wildcrafted antihystamines, an interesting thing happened.
He cocked his head in slight puzzlement, and guestured to the wall of prescription drugs behind him, and said,
“Well, everything we have here comes from plants. Willow bark, vervain, poppies, cannabis — it’s all what you could call “herbal” in origin. So it’s really just a matter of delivery method.”
I stared at him, shocked at his admission — as a pharmacist.
“That’s…so interesting that you say that,” I managed.
He went on to note that herbal remedies purchased on the shelves weren’t under the same regulatory guidelines as pharmaceuticals, simply as something to note in regards to concentration of active ingredients. He encouraged my medicinal wildcrafting, and for me to learn as much as I can about proper dosage and application.
“I probably have a somewhat different view from a lot of other pharmacists,” he admitted, when I plied him with my interest. “Healing work runs in my family; before my parents moved here from Lebanon, my grandmother, and great grandmother were medicinal alchemists. My great-great grandmother was the local village alchemist during the Napoleonic Wars…”
The bright-eyed young man went on to tell me a fascinating story. His family’s ancestral village had been taken by Napoleon’s forces, and the villagepeople found themselves under enemy occupation. The commanding general of the occupying French army had been wounded in his eye, and was in danger of loosing it — or dying — from infection. Word was sent through the village ordering the most experienced medical professional to tend to the general’s wound. The villagefolk dutifully referred the general to our enthiastic young pharmacist’s ancestor, the town medicine woman.
After assessing his wound, the medicine woman told the general that she could treat his wound and save his eye, but that she would not perform her craft unless he vowed he could handle intense pain. The Napoleonic general vowed he could, so the woman concocted a poultice which she applied to his eye and head, then left him to writhe in agony throughout the night as it drew out the infection. In the morning, the general removed the poultice, and found his eye was healed.
It was at this point in the story when our young pharmacist paused to grin impishly.
“Our family did very well for themselves after that.”
It struck me, as I walked out into the night: what a gift to the world that young man is. What a gift that’s been handed to him through the generations. Which is available to us all, if we simply ask and listen.
We often talk about the “medical advances” of our modern era, but in our disconnection from the plant sources from which our medicines are derived, we I think have regressed on an individual level into a more primitive and helpless state. We don’t know the names of the medicines which come knocking at our front door: dandelion, plantain, oxalis, burdock, shepherd’s purse — the list of medicinal “weeds” we ignore or persecute goes on and on.
But with leaders like this Lebanese-American kid building bridges between traditional and woo-woo medicine worlds, we may actually have a shot of reconciliation — of healing.
And what is that empathetic, most powerful knowledge based on?
Personal experience. In some cases passed on from generation to generation.
It’s like Paul Simon says:
“I know what I know, and I’ll sing what I’ve said…”