A pharmacist journeys into the rainforest and discovers a different approach to healing
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.
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.
Because the antibiotics appeared useless, I decided to trust the traditional jungle medicine process. So with me hobbling behind him, don Antonio gathered seven plants from nature’s outdoor pharmacy for his medicinal brew. He made the foot soak from the leaves of casho, piñon blanco, arnica, paico, papaya macho (only the yellow leaves would work, he said), camote, and sangre de grado. To this concoction, don Antonio added some ordinary table salt. I understood the rationale for the salt (to help the infection drain); the rest I just trusted. I felt like the original pharmacists of history who grew and harvested the plants, concocted the plant mixture, and compounded the final medicine.
Over the next few days, we repeatedly (about four times daily) soaked the foot in freshly prepared plant baths, and the infection slowly resolved itself. The swelling went down, the discoloration abated, and thankfully, the pain went away. The oozing under the toenail dried up, and the toenail did not turn black and fall off as don Antonio had originally anticipated. I was amazed at how quickly it healed and was delighted that the first-aid machete was not going to be used.
The most amazing thing about the treatment was the unquantifiable ingredient of don Antonio’s ministrations. He paid attention and showed care for my discomfort and condition. He sang and hummed native plant-spirit healing songs as my foot was being washed and soaked in the fresh, green, aromatic bath. That kind of attention had never been lavished on me in a Western medical setting, regardless of the severity of my condition. It reminded me of our medical term “attending physician” (or one who “attends” the patient) and of how frequently that promise is not delivered.
Trained in modern high-tech pharmacy, I sometimes find it difficult to believe that “those little green leaves” can cure a big problem. As pharmacists, we’re taught to single out the pharmacologically active ingredients. Modern Western medical practitioners would probably discount my foot healing as anecdotal. Some would propose that until laboratory analysis is made on the seven plants used, we only had a subjective native cure.
In the scramble for progress through chemistry, we have forgotten how much our lives depend on potent plant medicines, such as digitalis (for the heart), curare (used in concert with anesthesia during surgery), and Taxol (for cancer). The curative power of plants is far broader than our current research has cataloged. Medicinal plants from the rainforests used by traditional societies may prove to be important sources of therapeutic drugs today, as in the past. Deep in rainforests lie yet-to-be-discovered secrets that may cure today’s devastating diseases.
Until the 1950s, pharmaceutical research relied heavily on plants as sources of medicines. Today, with the millions of prescriptions issued in the United States, 25 percent of the drugs are still isolated from plants. Many were discovered through the ethnobotanical technique of studying indigenous uses of plants.
There are an estimated 265,000 flowering species of plants on earth, but less than half of 1 percent have been studied for their chemical composition and medicinal properties. Because the costs and time requirements of one-by-one study for biological activity are prohibitive, a movement is underway to refocus on traditional uses and healers. The hope is that native healers will give researchers a direction in which to concentrate their drug discovery efforts.
In those early journeys into the jungle, experiencing the healing power of the rainforest and partaking in original pharmacy was life-changing for me. It was exciting to be part of nature’s medicines picked fresh from plants and put to immediate use to relieve human maladies. Natural medicine renews the fascination I felt for pharmacy when I entered the profession long ago. I am truly grateful.
Rainforest healers have a remarkably extensive knowledge of plant medicines. It is transmitted from generation to generation, usually through on-the-job training apprenticeships. Don Antonio is passing on his knowledge to his oldest son and his middle daughter, and now to me, an outsider. Unfortunately for our future and the preservation of this knowledge, few native young people are following in the curanderos’ footsteps. As ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin observed, “every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down.”
Not only are the native healers declining in number but the rainforests themselves are being destroyed at an alarming rate, with little thought of preservation or conservation. Tropical forests cover approximately 7.75 billion acres worldwide and provide a habitat for about 125,000 species of flowering plants. Many species that potentially hold the key to lifesaving new medicines are facing extinction daily.
Routinely over the years, I have returned to the jungle to complete my apprenticeship with don Antonio. One of the secrets of the shaman that I learned is the power of reciprocity—in order to get, you have to give. By volunteering early on, I not only helped the shaman tend the garden but I helped the plants of the jungle to grow and flourish. For this, I received a foot healing with rainforest plants and was also allowed to learn the secrets of the shaman.
I am now teaching the ways of the shaman to others, as director of the Center for Spirited Medicine. Last October, I took a group of Western healers from the Center for Spirited Medicine to the jungle with me. We stayed in a remote, pristine village on the Yarapa River, south of Iquitos. The villagers remembered me from when I’d visited six months earlier, and soon they began to bring their sick children to my hut for healing. In no time, all of the Western healers of my group were providing various levels of health care for the villagers—acupuncture needles in a young man’s soccer-injured knee, local herbs for a case of parasites in a young child, and a spiritual healing for a case of susto (fright) in a newborn baby, just to name a few. In return, our group received healings from shaman don Antonio during ancient jungle rituals. We were experiencing the power of reciprocity, Western healing reciprocating with indigenous healing. It was truly magical for all.
The ultimate experience of reciprocity for our group and the villagers happened on our last day there. In a final way of thanking the village chief for his hospitality, our group offered to fund the village’s “most-needed” project. The village council decided that what they needed most was a village pharmacy. The Center for Spirited Medicine has plans to help fill the pharmacy with first-aid supplies, some specifically requested pharmaceutical medications, and herbal books (written in Spanish) on local medicinal plants. The local village health promoter will be in charge of keeping secure and dispensing the medicines and first-aid supplies to the villagers as needed. In heartfelt gratitude for our incredible healing experiences there, the group left behind seed money to start the project. For this, we have been invited to return again, to heal and be healed, and to witness the progress of the village pharmacy.
The danger of losing the rainforest’s untapped knowledge and the native healing practices has prompted the Center for Spirited Medicine to undertake its own rainforest conservancy project. Efforts have already begun to select 200,000 acres of primary Amazon rainforest in northern Peru. This land project is dedicated to preserving rainforest habitats by promoting knowledge, awareness, and proper stewardship of these precious resources. The goal is to impart the conservation ethic and show the aesthetic, ecological, economic, and spiritual values of the freestanding healing forest. Along with the preservation of the rainforest’s medicinal plants, the preservation of indigenous healing practices of how to use these plants is also paramount. That is why we are also launching efforts to build a shaman’s clinic on our land, to preserve ancient healing wisdom. There, the indigenous people can continue to be healed by the shamans in the ways of their ancestors. The apprenticing of young people into the healing arts of the shaman will also be encouraged.
Constance Grauds, R.Ph., is president of the Association of Natural Medicine Pharmacists and an assistant professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of California at San Francisco. She has successfully completed nearly a decade of apprenticeship with a Peruvian Amazon jungle shaman, as recounted in her book Jungle Medicine (Center for Spirited Medicine, 2001). Grauds is director of the Center for Spirited Medicine, dedicated to preserving the rainforest’s medicinal plants and indigenous healing practices. She offers spirited medicine healing workshops in Peru, Hawaii, Europe, and the United States (www.spiritedmedicine.com).
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