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Traditional Medicine

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During our health campaigns and clinics in indigenous and river villages of the Peruvian Amazon, Amazon Promise offers treatments to patients that combine western and traditional medicine. We explain and orient our patients in the use of medicinal plants.

These treatments have been corroborated by local indigenous healers, or shaman, when and where they still exist, and certain scientific journals.* We also utilize, and have taught, Asian medicine techniques, such as shiatsu, moxabustion and acupressure. These traditional healing practices are used to cover a wide range of health problems, from physical and mental to spiritual sicknesses.

Upon arrival in a new village we will be working in, the local healthcare worker, or "promoter of health" (almost all villages have one), along with an Amazon Promise volunteer, seek out the person in the village who has the most knowledge of the medicinal plants that exist in and around the village. This person is often an elder and sometimes also known as a healer. The group then collects the medicinal plants and brings them to the clinic, setting them up on a table with their local names. During clinic, patients are shown these plants and how to use them. This information is then typed into list form so all practitioners have access to it every time Amazon Promise works in that village. They are also left for the villagers to use.

medicine tree Often, there are plants found in one village that aren't available in another village just up river. Some villages have plants all year round, while others flood during the rainy season, making it impossible to find them during those months unless they have been growing in pots in village homes. We often see potted plants (along with a menagerie of chickens, dogs and ducks) sitting on rafts tied to houses. A floating medicine cabinet of sorts!

By boiling water to prepare the medicinal teas, patients are helping to combat parasitic infestations. They're also drinking more water, which helps prevent dehydration and the serious problems that can be associated with it. Amazon Promise always conveys to patients the importance of hand washing and provides hand-washing leaflets, and at least one bar of soap per family. We also provide oral rehydration salts (ORS) and instructions on use to each head of family.

Patients also complain of many spiritual ailments. Our medical volunteers are often thrown off guard when they hear a patient complain of being attacked by a rainbow, or hexed by a pink dolphin or some other animal. Traditional healers of the Amazon explain that bad spirits produce ailments and cause an imbalance. These spirits can come from animals, plants, the jungle, or the dead, and can produce general sickness in the form of diarrhea, vomiting, psychological disorders, crying fits (mostly in babies or children), weight loss, even death. In many cases patients had already seen a western doctor, but were not cured. The treatments that healers or shaman utilize for these sicknesses are of distinct forms. Many use a variety of plants while others rely on the power of just one. Some cure with tobacco, Agua Florida, and mud. Treatments can last from one day to months, depending on the illness.

All parts of the plant are utilized, including resin, roots, leaves, bark, pulp, vines, flowers and stems. Shamanic medicine consequently operates on two levels: the spiritual and the physical. It is based on a non-Western conception of the etiology of disease, in which health is defined as a coherent state of equilibrium between the physical and spiritual components of the individual. Sickness is disruption, imbalance, and the manifestation of malevolent forces in the flesh. Health is a state of harmony, and, for the shaman, it is something holy, like a perfect reunion with the gods. The maintenance or restoration of this balance is the shaman's duty, and it accounts for his or her unique role as healer. Shamanic healing does not ignore the existence of pathogens, it simply notes that pathogens are present in the environment at all times and then focuses, instead, on why certain individuals succumb when they do; good or bad health results not just from the presence or absence of pathogens, but from the proper or improper balance of the individual.

shaman_humberto_clinic There are many different types of healers and shaman, also known as Curanderos. They may be Paleros, Tabaqueros, Ajo Sacheros, Ayahuasqueros, Timolineros. Amazon Promise integrates these healers into our clinic setting when and where possible. In many villages they unfortunately no longer exist or have decided to keep a low profile.

Don Humberto Huinapi is a Palero shaman who accompanies us to the villages on the Yarapa and Ucayali Rivers. He performs a ceremony for AP medical teams when we arrive at our base camp, and again the night before we leave. He is also available for consultations to any team member. A Palero utilizes cortezas, or the barks of trees. Don Humberto has a well-known and successful 10-bed clinic in the city of Iquitos, which is often full. It consists of one large room with a cement floor. The back part of the room is used for ceremonies every Friday night. Ceremonies start at 11 p.m. and can last four or five hours. Humberto has many students who chant, sing and smoke tobacco with him during the ceremony. He also integrates his Catholic beliefs into his cures. Patients lie on the floor and wait their turn to be treated with a combination of chanting, tobacco, and plant remedies. They are put on a strict diet and are given plant preparations.

Depending on the area we are working in, Don Humberto will often accompany us to clinics and work side by side with our western doctors. In this way, we are able to offer more complete care. Don Humberto has been very successful with patients with diabetes, ulcers and UTI's, utilizing a combination of root of Huasai (Euterpe), leaf of Achiote (Bixa), and leaf of Albahaca or basil (Ocimum), and Malva (Malachra).  Amazon Promise often sends patients to stay at Don Humberto's clinic in Iquitos to receive continued care.

Don Ramon (Cumpanam) Arahuanaza is an Achual/Quechua Indian shaman from the Upper Pastaza River that Amazon Promise has been working with for many years. He is known as an Ajo Sachero. Ajo Sacha is a potently strong wild jungle garlic plant. While preparing his remedy for a ceremony, Ramon smokes mapachos, or wild jungle tobacco (as do most shaman as a way of contacting the spirits) and scrapes the Ajo Sacha root. At the same time, he communicates with his spiritual helpers to get permission to start the ceremony and ask for advice, and may even argue with them. He normally speaks in Achual, but will often change to Quechua and Spanish. Patients sit or lie on the floor in a circle. Don Ramon soaks his mixture in sugarcane rum as he performs an incredibly meditative and beautiful ceremony unlike any other. His is a more ancestral kind of healing ceremony and you will not hear the mention of God or Christ as you often do with Mestizo shaman.

Other shaman are known as Ayahuasqueros and they utilize the Ayahuasca plant (Banisteriopsis), also known as the "vine of the soul." Ayahuasca is an hallucinogenic drink used for medicinal purposes and divinations.** It is the most revered and celebrated of Amazonian shamanic preparations. It is said to cure all kinds of sickness and to help in diagnosis, divination and telepathy. It is also a laxative and emetic. Ayahuasca has been used by indigenous healers for many centuries.

Ayahuasca is all of the above, and Amazon Promise has offered this treatment (under the guidance of a well-trusted shaman) to patients with sicknesses such as lupus, psoriasis, and certain emotional or stress-related problems with very positive results. Pemphigus and psoriasis are diseases very difficult to cure. They usually require long-term steroid therapy combined with monitoring of complete blood count and liver function. For a poor person living far out in the jungle or even in town this form of treatment is impossible.

Often, by the time we see a patient with an autoimmune disease, they are in the advanced stages and have given up hope of survival. They, like most jungle dwellers, do not have access to health care of any form. They are malnourished, anemic, wasted and severely depressed. These patients are not advised to take Ayahuasca, but those that are in the beginning stages of illness have shown to benefit from it. What we have found is that patients eventually can no longer withstand prolonged steroid treatment and abandon it. In one case, a young woman with severe psoriasis who had not responded to steroids at all showed remarkable results after a three-week treatment with Ayahuasca. Patients are started on the required dosage of steroid or corticoid therapy, and are then rotated off to begin taking Ayahuasca with a shaman they feel comfortable with. Ayahuasca purifies the spirit and detoxifies the body, and we have seen it calm severe itching.  Papules disappear and the skin heals. Psychologically, the patient's spirit also recuperates. They have been able to return to a more normal life and see a future for themselves.

ap_plant Besides drinking Ayahuasca, patients receive medicinal flower and plant baths that include patiquina negra (Dieffenbachia) and patiquina pintada. The leaves of these plants are soaked in a solution of Agua Florida and camphor. Many patients don't have a choice as to what their diet consists of, but for those patients that do have a choice, they are advised in dietary changes. Ayahuasca is not for everyone and only a shaman and the patient can make the decision as to whether or not they should drink it.

Please note that medicinal plant remedies should not be mixed with western medicines. Each patient, upon advice of their physician, should decide which form of therapy is best for them.

References *The Natural Pharmacy; James Duke, PhD
Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary; James Duke and Rodolfo Vasquez
**Shadows in the Sun; Wade Davis

Patty Webster is the president and founder of Amazon Promise. Originally from the United States, she has been living and working in Iquitos, Peru since 1989.