A Healer’s Message for Mainstrem Medicine

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.

Known as “the herb lady” in Las Cruces, with a three-week waiting list of patients, she was nearing 30 when, propelled by a crisis of conscience, she decided to begin the trek through medical school. “I didn’t go to medical school to become a doctor,” she says. “I just saw myself as a doctor who didn’t have enough diagnostic capability or the ability to have really powerful medicine when people needed it.”

With only an eighth-grade education and a GED, Low Dog had far to go. But she was not without resources: She’d attained a third-degree black belt and won national tae kwon do championships, become an accomplished horsewoman who could leap to a stand on a moving horse, been apprenticed to a midwife in a Richmond, Virginia, ghetto, and accumulated a wealth of knowledge about herbs and how to use them medicinally.

Though Low Dog grew up on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota, where her father’s mother was a midwife and his father a healer, she scoffs at the romantic “noble savage” notion of herbal wisdom. She did study with a Paiute family who tended sheep in the Arizona desert, but she also learned from her Irish American grandmother in Kansas, her Korean martial arts instructors, a Jamaican midwife, and the dockworkers on the Chicahominy River where she fished, all of whom had their own herbal remedies.

And just as central to her role as healer, she says, was the legacy of tolerance she acquired from her Irish grandmother and Juba, the Jamaican midwife. She recalls how, when she criticized the behavior of their junkie, streetwalking clients in Richmond, Juba replied, “Don’t judge them. If they think we’re judging them they won’t invite us back. And if we’re not there to help them, who will?”

That question haunted Low Dog later in Las Cruces when a Mexican man came to her with a very sick baby. She gave him herbs and money for Tylenol, but she told him he really needed to see a doctor and suggested a way to do it without being deported. Four days later he reappeared to thank her before returning to Mexico with his dead baby.

“I felt like the world just stopped at that moment,” she recalls. “What if I could have done more? I’ll always feel responsible for that baby’s death.” That’s when she decided to go to medical school.

Ironically, now that she is a doctor, her own practice has been truncated by her peripatetic speaking schedule. Living on two acres outside Albuquerque with her two children and herbalist husband, Low Dog sees patients one or two days a week, about 18 per day, while another doctor who practices complementary medicine covers the other days.

In her office, Low Dog efficiently blends her old and new wisdom. “A woman can come here and talk about taking Saint-John’s-wort or a natural hormone replacement while getting her Pap smear and having her cholesterol checked,” she says. “If I need to use an anti-hypertension medication, I might also recommend coenzyme Q10, an exercise program, stress management techniques, and nutritional advice. It just takes an extra five to ten minutes, but it can make all the difference to your patient. We make a little less because we take a little more time for follow-up visits, but it all works out at the end of the day.”

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