Occupy Medicine
Part 1: Time for Recovery

I’m often asked by parents if there are any “alternative medicines” to help their child recover from a particular illness.  I tell them that the most alternative medicine these days is time.  Recovery takes time.  Being healthy does not mean you never get sick.  It means you are able to recover in a relatively short period of time.  But in our busy 21st century life the one commodity that seems to be going extinct is time. We don’t have time to “get better” and illness is seen as an inconvenience or worse: the enemy.

Always sick?

Fear of illness can be an overwhelming concern for parents.  As a pediatrician, I often hear parents worry that their kids are always sick, especially during the winter months here in the Northeast. Runny noses abound.  Children are sent home from schools and daycare centers because of a cold or cough or temperatures of 100 degrees.  Parents are naturally stressed because they can’t take another day off from work.  This all tends to amplify the perception that there is something terribly wrong with their child’s immune system. But when we take the time to examine the situation more carefully, it often becomes clear that their child is actually getting over one thing and a few weeks later picking up something else. Rather than being always sick, their child may actually be always getting better!

Time is Money

Recovery is part of how we learn. Children are developmental sponges, actively processing information about the world around them and recovering from an illness is a valuable lesson.  The average four year old will get one viral illness a month. But when there’s no time to be sick, there’s no time to get better. Pharmaceutical companies understand that time is money and have capitalized on this sense of urgency, flooding the market with products that promise “quick fixes” for symptom relief.  Their advertisements convince us that there’s no point in feeling symptoms.  But feeling symptoms is actually vital to the recovery process.  Studies have shown that suppressing symptoms like fever for example may slow down the recovery time for some viral illnesses by blunting the immune response.  By playing on our fears, the drug industry subliminally trains us to mistrust the power of our immune system and put our faith instead in their product.  But fear only exacerbates our symptoms and slows the healing process.

Treating the 99%

HMOs, designed to save money for the 99% of us that can’t afford to pay out of pocket for medical care, originally focused on illness prevention but got trapped in the drug industry’s vicious cycle of quick fixes. The outrageous costs of pharmaceuticals have driven cost-saving prevention strategies to the wayside as doctors are forced to see more patients in less time. This “treat ‘em and street ‘em” practice perpetuates the overuse of antibiotics and symptom-relief drugs, thus guaranteeing profits for the pharmaceutical industry that makes up the 1 %.

Be Prepared

It’s time the 99% take back medicine from Big Pharma.  Rather than buying into their belief that there’s a pill for every symptom, it’s time to rediscover the real power of our immune system.  This may mean radically changing our views of prevention.  As a pediatrician I am all for providing anticipatory guidance to families in order to avoid unnecessary suffering.  But we must be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing illness as failure.  That plays right into the 1%’s hand.  Perhaps it’s time to concentrate our efforts on finding better ways to be prepared for getting sick.  In doing so, we shift our attention away from fear towards greater trust in our own power to recover.

Setting the stage for recovery

Wellbeing is not the absence of symptoms.  We live in constant dialogue with our changing circumstances.  Recovery embraces change, it does not prevent it.  In Chinese medicine, this free flowing communication defines what it means to be healthy. A healthy immune system is more like a willow tree bending in the wind than a computer protected from hackers.  Strength is measured not by resistance to an enemy but by flexibility. Rather than buying into Big Pharma’s view that we are victims of circumstances, the 99% must take back the time and space to recover.  When we truly occupy our environment, we are better able to assess whether it is conducive to our recovery.  Creating a flexible immune system that’s open to communication begins with such basic activities as breathing, eating and sleeping. For example, where we eat, and when, is just as important as what we eat.  But as patients, we must also demand time from our doctors to listen before being handed a prescription or turfed from one specialist to another in an endless chase of symptoms. Doctors also need to take back the time HMO’s have stolen from them in order to engage their patients in open communication built on trust and companionship.  It is only then that we will occupy the health care system together and set the stage for continuous whole-hearted recovery.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll look at ways we can take back the power of our own health.  This begins by discovering the critical role attention plays in healing.

For more information about Stephen, go to www.stephencowanmd.com

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