Recently, one of the TV networks did a special on our love/hate affair with medicine which traced how what was once adulation was turned on its ear over the decades into skepticism and downright rejection.

Once, it said, your doctor could loom almost as powerful and potent in your life as a minor deity.

Once, if the doctor said, “Go get a shot,” you went and got a shot.

Once, in fact, NYC was so grateful and so in love with the inventor of the polio vaccine, it wanted to throw a ticker tape parade for him. America was overwhelmed by what science and Jonas Salk had done. It seemed like a miracle. People lined up – eventually in the millions – to be vaccinated, and polio was as good as eradicated.

Continuing on through the decades, scientific breakthroughs became common while quack medicine boomed. Claims for cures and preventions for just about everything became not just the norm but were expected.

Along the way, we learned about bodies, discovering and mapping DNA, splitting genes ... . Medical science soared. It became so amazing, gained so much knowledge that scientists figured out a way to defeat the brand new COVID virus in mere months.

Now, here we are. Maybe our medical scientists moved too quickly in the rush to save lives, making claims insufficiently backed by study, ending up misleading us, thereby feeding into the narratives of those who don’t trust the science, anyway? Good intentions.

We know why they pave the road to Hell.

Again, our medical deity has revealed his clay feet. But how do we deal with that? By rejecting medical preventions? By “throwing the baby out with the bath water”?

My mother frequently advised against that. Yet, she managed to do so in a terrible way, turning away from doctors and conventional medicine, seeking alternative treatments instead. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a doctor,” she told me near the end of her life just before circumstances forced her to consult one.

“Early stages of colon cancer,” he said. “Treatable,” he said.

She believed the diagnosis but rejected treatment, spending the next year on alternatives, finally consulting a man who (for $500) could send her cancer into remission by praying over a blood sample.

I found his glowing report of total remission in a letter postmarked one week before her death. He also recommended a follow-up treatment for just $250.

Hers is but a cautionary tale to underscore just how far away we are from tickertape parades or blind acceptance of medical claims. At the same time, we’ve moved a long way toward not “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by accepting science’s shortcomings while taking full advantage of what it offers us. Conventional treatment might not have prolonged my mother’s life. But, given our family history, it probably would have.

That simply underscores what the TV special concluded. Our relationship with medicine is – like medical science itself – a work in progress.

(1) comment

Viv McCord

I'm sorry to hear that Pat. You may not remember me, but you gave me a signed copy of your book about your mother and how she single handedly built a cabin with you kids up at the forsaken top of Greencreek. Her distrust of doctors doesn't make her stupid in my experience but prudent. Your book made her one of my pioneer heroes, and those attitudes and values are part of that, and part of American values. I thank you for the book and hope you find peace and comfort with her passing in time.

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