the nature of the miracle

October 24, 2006

thilak is 23 years old, and has asthma (he’s also a devout anglican, and our jack-of-all-trades who drives, cooks, washes up and even does any hairdressing that comes his way). with the inter-monsoons heaving about, its getting rather cold these days, and so he gets his wheeze rather more often that he used to. which is why he sat down today to talk things over with me.

asthma is something that i never really understood. we’ve got drugs to prevent attacks from ocurring, and drugs to treat the attacks when they do occur, and also plenty of advice on how to use this multitude of medication and what and what not patients should  avoid. but still, we cant cure the problem. nor do we know why some people wheeze upto puberty and then stop altogether, or suddenly start wheezing and itching ferociously at thirty-something after three decades of perfect health. we dont know what makes people wheeze when a cat walks into a room, although not a single cat-hair has still come their way. we say there’s a ‘psychological element’ to asthma, but when we get down to it, we really dont what the hell to do about it anyway…

…with all this at the back of my mind, it wasnt a very useful fifteen minutes for either of us. all i could tell him was to increase the frequency of the drugs he’s on right now, and promise to try something else if that didnt work. more like polishing a shoe than prescribing (try brushing a little harder.. if that doesnt work, we’ll try water-polish) .

then he told me about his sister who also used to wheeze, until a priest at their church prayed for her in public when she was about sixteen years old. and she’s never been troubled by asthma since. now coming from most other people, i’d have laughed this off. but thilak is as solidly rooted in reality as uri geller isnt, whch is why i began to think about the whole thing a little more.

at this point he dropped a second chew-toy on my thoughtplate: have i ever watched that show on TNL where they have a faith-healer from india, he asked. of course i had. Paul Dinakaran’s Heal-’em-All Show, i call it. well, he says. what about all the people whom they cure? is it for real?

– – –

i was about to set my face in a particulaly damning sneer and take the whole show to the cleaners when i remembered this girl who’d turned up at the neurology ward about two years ago. i think the whole asthma-business had shaken either my ego or my belief in medicine just enough at that point (i’m hoping it wasnt my ego anyway) to make little old things suddenly significant.

there was a girl in neuro at kandy, who couldnt walk. for all the world, it was clinically a classic lower motor neurone type of weakness. only problem being that no one knew what exactly the condition was; she just couldnt walk. then, nerve conduction tests were performed, and to everyones surprise they turned out to be perfectly normal. a period of skepticism ensued, first regarding the reports, then the girl herself. was she shamming?

no, she wasnt shamming… she really couldnt walk.

at which point the story gets significantly less medical, because one MO who was working in the neuro ward also happened to be a skilled hypnotist. i know this sounds rather arcanely unreal, and i havent any idea where the hell he learned hypnotism from while practicing medicine. what i  do know is that you know where this is going, so to cut a long story short, he got that girl to walk, albeit rather unsteadily at first, after a few sessions.

i’m beginning to wonder exactly how much of disease is bound to our state of mind, and how little we know or care about these things… i’d almost gotten to the stage where i would pronounce anything outside current medical knowledge to be quackery and worse besides…

yet, there is such a thing as hysterical paralysis. i myself experienced sleep-paralysis once: a frightening condition when you wake from deep sleep and find yourself unable to move or speak at all for a period. as i said, there is a mental element to asthma. people get all the classic symptoms of gastritis without even tissue-level changes to the stomach lining. anxious people get an intractable, troublesome diarrhoea that has nothing to do with infections, and theres what doctors call APR (sin. athey payey rudaawa), technically and rather ineffectually named fibromyalgia and left alone as psychogenic…..

…so if a certain type of inexplicable alteration to a mindscape can produce disease, can another type of change bring about its cure?

and is causing such an inexplicable change justified in being called a miracle?

– – –

so i told thilak that honestly, i didnt know if its for real. part of me’s still hoping he doesnt suggest we go for the next faith-healing rally they hold, before changing over to a trial of salmeterol…

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5 Responses to “the nature of the miracle”

  1. Manshark Says:

    Bloody good post, as per usual. ;o)

    You’re talking of a state of mind which creates a ‘physical’ response of a sort..though it’s not actually there…So in other ways, an irrational ‘disease’? Or I could have utterly misunderstood what u were saying (very likely) :os

    What I find curious is the irrationality of clinical/specific phobias: how one state of mind at one time brought about by a physical thing (eg, a dog) can control subsequent states of mind (fear of dogs) for the rest of your life to which the physical body reacts quite ‘rationally’ by hyperventilating or even fainting (in blood phobias I think?), etc.

    That’s my tangent for the day.. ;o)

  2. jokerman Says:

    hell, thats not a tangent at all.. and you were spot on about states of mind creating physical reponses… the concepts of ‘somatization’ and ‘conversion’ disorders are about exactly the same thing… and are still pretty porrly understood.

    and as for the irrationality of phobias, theres so much to tell, that i’ll prolly google you to death sometime when youre slightly less encumbered! 🙂

  3. Manshark Says:

    Shall look fwd to that.. 😉 The reward after exams, so to speak…second only to the chocolate!! 🙂

  4. turtle Says:

    have you ever studied local ayurveda medicine in sri lanka? i think its healing processes are based a lot more on how thought affects disease instead of just concentrating on the physical aspects like western medicine does …

  5. jokerman Says:

    i am, unfortunately, rather critical about most of the effects of ayurvedic treatment that i’ve seen. and since i know next to nothing about actual ayurvedic practices, that makes me a very biased commentor.

    since i’m aware of this, i shan’t try to justify my VIEWPOINT on what it does or doesnt achieve, but leave you with something that i think is relevant.

    when any new drug is discovered, people need to test, among other things, its efficacy. to do this, they need to test it against what’s called a placebo – a blank round, a piece of dough, an empty capsule – to see to which degree the drug, and not the power of suggestion of BEING treated, cures the relevant ailment.

    The amazing thing is, that studies done for totally different drugs show about the same percentage of patients being cured by the placebo itself, without intervention of the drug. this be the Placebo Effect. and percentage so cured/alleviated is roughly 30%, which is a huge amount of people, really.

    the problem is, we dont know WHICH 30% of a population that will be. so for the sake of the other 70%, the drug is given to all.

    BUT, 30% of people can testify to the power of the mind!

    and even more interestingly, the placebo effect is minimal in MENTAL ilnesses like schizophrenia.

    i shall leave you to draw your own conlcusions. hope i clarified more than i nullified. 🙂


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