Discovering Jungle Medicine

A pharmacist journeys into the rainforest and discovers a different approach to healing


| May/June 2002



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Photo: Constance Grauds and Shaman don Antonio Montero Pisco.


photos by Constance Grauds, R.Ph.

My study and use of plant medicines took me to the rainforest in 1994, when I joined an ethnobotanical expedition a day’s journey up the Napo River, north of Iquitos, Peru. I participated in an intensive course about the medicinal bounty of nature and how traditional societies are able to identify and use many plants that we Westerners are unaware of. The rainforest’s overpowering size and density were unlike anything I had ever seen before. And the realization that this vastness held stores of medicinal knowledge that the traditional peoples were tapping into gave me a sense of wonderment and a renewed sense of purpose. Besides being home to verdant fecundity and colorful wildlife, the rainforest holds secrets that could change the course of medicine as we know it.

I had worked with plant medicines for years but was really unprepared for the magnitude and layered richness of the Amazon rainforest. The Garden of Eden does exist and I was in the middle of it. I was at the site of natural creation, watching the ultimate masterpiece unfold before me. The rainforest’s pure aliveness is uncluttered by our civilized neatness and what we consider to be the necessities of life.

During the next two years, I enfolded the ethnobotanical knowledge and experiences from that first trip into the founding of the Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists (ANMP), a professional association that teaches pharmacists throughout the United States about the medicinal properties of herbs and other natural medicines. Although I was busy with the ANMP back home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I knew I would someday return to the magical and sacred rainforest that had left an imprint on me and drew me again. That opportunity came when I volunteered to help plant a new ethnobotanical garden planned for the same jungle area I had visited two years earlier.

Returning To The Rainforest

Recalling my first trip, I limited my expectations with an attitude of “How are you going to top that?” as I made preparations to return. I would soak up the splendor and learn more about healing plants by tending the gardens. My friendship with curandero don Antonio Montero Pisco, the native shaman and garden keeper, would be renewed. I would apprentice with don Antonio, learning the powers of the shaman’s jungle medicine.

I packed proper clothing and protective footwear. As a meticulous pharmacist, I also included a more-than-adequate first-aid kit. I would be many hours by high-speed boat away from the nearest medical facilities. Unfortunately, within a week of arriving, I contracted some sort of “jungle rot.” Even with my good shoes and hygiene, my left big toe became badly infected by some unknown microbe. As the toe throbbed and enlarged, the nail began to float and ooze a nasty fluid. The pain became unbearable, and my shoes did not fit. My pharmaceutical antibiotics and creams didn’t help.

Shaman don Antonio was my only source of on-site health care. He examined the oozing toe and said his primary concern was avoiding a blood infection that could travel up my leg and infect the groin lymph area. He would prepare a footbath of medicinal plants to use for a couple of days; if that failed, he suggested using a machete to slice open the toenail and relieve the pressure. Needless to say, I welcomed an herbal footbath over the prospect of a two-foot-long machete blade performing first aid.





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