Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Art or science, doctor or shaman?

Ihar Kazak
Florida, United States 

painting of a surgeon treating infected foot
BEFORE: Centuries ago, such ailment was treated by a shaman. Image credit: A surgeon treating an injury to a man’s foot. Oil painting by a follower of David Teniers the younger. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

It all started with a scratch on my right ankle during a close encounter with the metal bed leg. It seemed only a surface scratch—a dab of triple antibiotic ointment and a band aid and I would be as good as new. The wound began to heal, and I resumed my swimming in the sun as any decent Floridian would. Unfortunately, there was more to come.

There now occurred a migration of blisters all over my ankle. The ankle had a dark bluish tinge and was liberally sprinkled with blisters on the verge of becoming sores. I thought about going to the emergency room or a witchdoctor, but then I had a change of mind and went instead to the walk-in clinic in our neighborhood.

I did walk-in to the facility, although by that time it was more like stumbling in with a heavy limp. Wild and incoherent thoughts were in my mind. Could it be elephantitis, where my ankle and foot would swell to gigantic proportions? But I had not been to East Africa for several years! Nor could it be leprosy since I had never been in contact with the disease. Not Ebola, for I had not visited West Africa lately either.

I was called into the inner sanctum of the doctor’s office. The medical assistant took my vitals and assured me that the doctor would be in shortly. Soon a young intern came and began to question me and to examine my foot. He then summoned his mentor, a charming young woman physician in a white frock bearing an associate professor label on her left breast. Without hesitation she stated, “It’s a microbial infection from a water source.”

So, I swallowed some of the prescribed pills and felt nauseated the instant I read about the “serious and sometimes fatal blood problems,” and “rash, hives, and itching,” and how I should immediately contact my doctor if “unusual bruising or bleeding, swelling of hands, legs, face, lips, etc. should occur.” Well, I did swell in sundry places, such as on my gluteus maximus and my lip, and that awful, darned itch set in. So curtains on the walk-in clinic: it was a definite walk-out on my part.

caricature of a doctor
AFTER: The modern physician has his knowledge, equipment and antibiotics (but too much of these could be harmful to the patient). Image credit: A caricature that DIEGO Voci drew. 2012. Via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

At about this time my friendly dermatologist made his debut. The term friendly is perhaps over-stated because the good doctor had been for years cutting up my poor physiognomy for the common Floridian affliction called BCC, that is to say, basal cell carcinoma. “Nothing more than contact dermatitis,” he said as he grinned his professional smile. It turned out to be some plant my foot had touched. But, I thought, it was better to come in contact with a poisonous plant than with a highly toxic antibiotic!

The good doctor provided me with a prescription salve to solve my problem. Then I got in contact with several “friendly” drugstores to resolve what initially seemed a minor problem of prescription drug cost. I began to ask around for a cost estimate to salve (or is it solve?) my situation amicably without spending most of my meager pension.

For the salve to resolve my open wounds, my “friendly” drugstore charged a heart-failure-incurring price of four-forty-seven. I verified, ‘”Four dollars and forty-seven cents?”

“NO,” stated the pharmacist emphatically, “FOUR HUNDRED AND FORTY-SEVEN DOLLARS,” and a petrified silence descended on both ends of the line. I found it difficult to press out of my ailing system the obligatory “Thank you” and hung up. I checked everywhere, but even at the well-known supermarket chain it cost $153.66. Finally, I resolved my dilemma by homeopathic means from my health store with an “ecologically pure salve” at a minute fraction of the earlier prices quoted to me.

This entire episode points to one or two situations in our medical labyrinth of illness—doctor—cure—financial and emotional stresses. One must realize that medicine is a science which aims to cure the patient. The pharmaceutical side of the issue, though, is very much an art—an art to extract as much as possible monetary gain from their product, though all the prior cost of research has long been paid for already.

At times one wishes to resort to shamans and witchdoctors with their particular herbal medication treatments and usually benign psychological impact on the patient. Had I found one such practitioner, I would be fit as a fiddle by now, or, on the contrary, much worse.

IHAR KAZAK, PHD, was born in Eastern Europe and lived in West Germany, East Africa, West Switzerland, and ultimately Central Florida. He is a retired State Department Contract Conference Interpreter. He compiled the Dictionary of Microbiological Terms for the American Society for Microbiology, translated various medical texts for research centers, and is currently pursuing literary translation from Belarusian/Russian into English. Interpreter, Translate! (Minneapolis: 2006; 2nd ed. Minsk: 2017) is his bilingual autobiography as an American interpreter in environmental, medical, and nuclear disarmament areas. He has worked in cancer research labs with U.S.- U.S.S.R. medical delegations, AMA Congresses, and visited numerous facilities in U.S. and USSR/Russia. Ihar has also worked with NIH teams and assisted in half a dozen open heart surgeries at the Mayo Clinic and NYU.

Summer 2021



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