Noble art of the natural healer

Suburban Shaman
June 16, 2006

From antibiotics to MRI scans, from organ transplants to Prozac, the fruits of scientific research have enriched every corner of modern medicine. Our debts to medical scientists and the pharmaceutical industry are huge, and many of us would not be alive without their assistance.

Nevertheless, it is also true that more and more of us feel alienated by the apparent soullessness of modern medicine. Its ever-increasing dependence on technology, and its tendency to reduce patients to collections of malfunctioning parts, seem to be dehumanising the healer's art, turning it into something akin to engineering. Our doctors might have better drugs at their disposal than in the past, but they do not seem to have much interest in our lives.

Cecil Helman, who recently retired from general practice, has long been an eloquent opponent of this kind of "techno-medicine". Born to a family of doctors "and not a few hypochondriacs" in apartheid-era South Africa, he has always refused to reduce patients to constellations of symptoms and signs.

In this warm, incisive and beautifully written book, he chronicles and justifies this resistance. Contemporary doctors, Helman observes, prefer to deal with printouts, charts and electronic displays rather than take the time to listen to their living, suffering patients.

The more scientific the doctor, the less he or she appears to be interested in looking at an illness in relation to the bigger picture of the patient's life.

Helman, on the other hand, belongs to an older, rarer breed of physician, for whom medicine begins and ends with real individuals, their worlds and, above all, their stories. Like all humanists, medical or non-medical, he believes that we make sense of the world and our lives and sorrows through narratives. An illness is not simply a set of symptoms suffered by organs, but an event, often a critical one, in an individual's life story. To see a patient's complaints in isolation from this larger context is as meaningless as framing a fictional murder in isolation from the welter of motives animating the people around the deceased.

This approach to medicine is, of course, an ancient one, and, as Helman repeatedly emphasises, it is the secret of all successful folk healers.

Unlike a modern "techno-doctor", who diagnoses an illness from computer printouts, the shaman works with individual narratives and cultural traditions, using magic and the supernatural to reconfigure the patient's tale of pain into a saga of recovery and restitution. Instead of dismissing shamans as archaic and superstitious figures, modern medicine, Helman suggests, would do well to learn from them.

Suburban Shaman proves that the doctor follows his own prescription. The book begins with Helman's medical training in racially divided South Africa, then moves to London in the 1970s (where he associated with artists and bohemians, studied anthropology, and even toyed with the idea of giving up medicine), and ends with his retirement after nearly three decades of general practice in North London.

This loosely autobiographical plot is embellished with a series of stories and reflections about medicine, patients and the existential meanings of illness. Quite a few are unforgettable.

This book will doubtless appear on reading lists for courses on "medical humanities", but it should achieve much more than that. It should inspire patients, doctors and perhaps even the occasional politician or National Health Service manager to appreciate the pressing need to restore the humanity of medicine without losing any of its magnificent scientific attainments.

Chandak Sengoopta is senior lecturer in the history of medicine and science, Birkbeck, University of London.

Suburban Shaman: Tales from Medicine's Frontline

Author - Cecil Helman
Publisher - Hammersmith Press
Pages - 197
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 905140 08 8

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