PARKINSON’S DISEASE is a serious and complex neurodegenerative disease that has wide ranging effects. The tremors, stiffness and rigidity and the slowness that PARKINSON’S DISEASE brings to the body of the affected person extends to the intellectual, emotional and social domains, too. Every aspect of the person’s life feels the impact of this disease, and then that impact affects the people with whom that person associates.
Western modern medicine excels in attempting to treat the physiological symptoms, but is not so excellent at treating the well being of the affected person. And therein lies a major challenge for the treatment of PARKINSON’S DISEASE. Western medicine prides itself for being scientific and objective. It sees diseases as discreet entities with specific causes that if eliminated or repaired will restore the body to health and thus the patient will be cured. Diagnosis is about naming the cause and thereby providing a target at which treatment is directed and the patient becomes simply the location where that target resides. This paradigm grants incredible authority and power to the physician and diminishes the involvement of the patient. The elevation of technology in Western culture, with its own technological language, spoken only by “specialists” wearing white coats working with specialized high-tech medical machines really renders the patient helpless to understand what is going on and limits their ability to be involved in their own physical processes.
Modern medicine seems like a powerful miracle enacted upon the body of the patient…disease is primarily a bodily dysfunction, and it must be fought and conquered. Even the language used to describe this is language of war…the disease causing entities (cells, virus, bacteria) are seen as “invaders” that “trigger” “waves” of reactions and “attack” the body’s ability to “combat” the disease”. Research is looking for the “magic bullet”, the nation fights the “war on drugs”, people affected with a virus are “innocent victims”.
Focus of Western medicine is based on biology and chemistry…the “hard” sciences. It is a simplification that splits the body from the mind, the disease from the patient and allows for more focus on “data”. If “symptoms” do not show a cause in laboratory tests, imaging studies or with other “diagnostic” tools, and if all tests are normal, then “nothing” must be wrong, or if something unusual does show up, then it is “abnormal”. In fact, here in the United States, we have become obsessed with tracking our bodies’ functions…the use of individual blood pressure monitors, blood sugar monitors, pedometers, even “apps” on phones to remind us to record what we ate, when, or even to tell us when to do what! We have become skilled at examining the “abnormal” symptoms of normal.
This simplification that splits body from mind has some serious consequences. If the tests are “normal” and “nothing is wrong”, then the patient must be “imagining things”. If it cannot be objectified or quantified it must not be “real”, or it exists only in the mind. Only the body gets to have “real” illnesses, everything else then seems less real and possibly reflects a “character defect” or some lapse of self discipline in managing one’s emotions. This dual vision, this body/mind split is an illusion. The body and the mind are not an either/or proposition. This illusion is what is not real.
Today, many Western physicians recognize the oversimplification of the body/mind split, but find it very difficult to integrate into clinical practices that demand limited face to face time with a patient and expect detailed dictations. Cultural differences have been acknowledged and the fact that cultural contexts can define how a patient understands disease. But it is not just the culture of the patient that affects the treatment, it may also be the culture of the physician who is dispensing it. The physician may be well trained in Western scientific medicine, but that physician also comes from a world or cultural experience that influences his/her world view and relationship to the patient.
Another area that separates the patient from their disease is the new trend and requirements for digitized records and making a person’s health information available to multiple points in diagnostic and treatment facilities. Having a patient’s complete medical record at hand may assure more comprehensive treatment for the patient while simplifying the treatment process for the professionals involved. But the patient as a person can feel somewhat abandoned and secondary to the professional’s attention to the computer and the need to enter every detail into the record.
PARKINSON’S DISEASE has been around for thousands of years. It has been described in the literatures of nearly every civilization. While today there exist many modern medicines that help treat the symptoms of this disease, there is still no known cure. In those years before the advent of modern medicine, people found many ways to treat and deal with this disease. They were no more able to cure the disease than modern medicine is today, yet people sought and responded to the treatments prescribed, which may or may not have been as effective as today’s treatments. What benefit they offered perhaps came from treating the patient as a whole person, not limiting treatment to only the symptoms of the disease.
The allure of culturally alternative medicine is often that it gives the patient a measure of control over their treatment process. It values the mind as much as the body and tries to integrate them in a more balanced approach. Traditional Chinese or Ayurvedic medicines take into consideration a patient’s whole situation, their personal relationship, social standing, occupational, financial, familial situations. Other cultures value the association of emotional states or experiences with physical symptoms. Symptoms are not simply data, but part of the person’s lived experience and how those symptoms are expressed and experienced are as much a part of the healing process as are the drugs and therapies used to treat them. And, indeed, what is today modern medicine grew out the roots these sometimes ancient, but basic practices of human wellness techniques.