A Healer's Message for Mainstrem Medicine

Tieraona Low Dog has some things to tell doctors about doctoring


| July-August 2000



Tieraona Low Dog has some things to tell doctors about doctoring, and many are surprisingly enthusiastic about listening. Last year, this herbalist and M.D. from Albuquerque crisscrossed the country to speak at 51 conferences, mostly at medical schools, and this year she’ll make the rounds again.

Her message, though not simple, is clear: The practice of medicine is changing. Whether in Manhattan or Honolulu, she stands at the podium, her black hair often hanging loose almost to the waist of a long gauzy skirt, and confidently explains, in precise biochemical detail, how, for instance, hawthorn can—and can’t—be used for treating heart disease and what drugs it interferes with. Or how black cohosh can alleviate menopausal symptoms, and what sort of research backs up her assertions. Or how listening purposefully reveals the source of a patient’s affliction.

At Columbia University Medical School, Low Dog explained how she treated a man who was distraught over his sudden impotence. She found, with a little probing, that his problem had begun after he’d slept with his best friend’s wife. She counseled, “Every evening at sundown, light a candle, sit facing east, and pray for your best friend’s forgiveness.” His malady soon disappeared, and other men with similar afflictions began appearing at her clinic.

The Columbia audience chuckled, but Manhattan physician Michael Gnatt later confessed he was “blown away” by her approach. “She took on a magical role of shaman, gave him a process to go through as an authority figure. You have to have a lot of confidence, understanding of the culture, the whole picture, to do that. I tend to be more careful. Most doctors would refer him to a therapist.”

And though he’s not attempting shamanism, Gnatt said, Low Dog “transformed” his practice. “I’m using less pharmaceuticals and more herbs,” he said. Low Dog was able to influence him because “she combined what she learned in medical school about biochemistry with her herbal knowledge in mechanistic ways that explain why and when herbs work, and how they can alter a situation rather than just block it with drugs.”

Low Dog, who chairs the U.S. Pharmacopoeia Botanicals Committee, which evaluates the clinical evidence for effects of commonly used herbs, often impresses doctors with biochemical knowledge they only vaguely recollect from medical school. But med school isn’t so distant for her; she hadn’t even finished her residency when she began her cross-country teaching expeditions two years ago.