Sadia Ali is a National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee who seeks to unravel the conflict between “Western” and “Eastern” medicine, and to illustrate how their intersection can be beneficial to everyone in providing more treatment options and lowering costs. Her project, “A Healer’s Meridian”, focuses on reporting healthcare conditions and practices in Laos, where medicine is both new and traditional.
With a stroke of luck, I woke up with swollen hands covered in hives. I do not know whether it was induced by the medications I took previously or an allergic reaction to something I ate or held. Either way, my fingers hurt to move and it was slowly spreading to my upper arms.
With faith in traditional medicine, I decided to give herbal remedies a shot to alleviate the symptoms. At the corner of my street, an old man stood near his cart, which held a plethora of different herbs that Laotians traditionally use to heal illnesses. With an inability to communicate all of my symptoms to him, I showed him my hands dotted with hives.
He directed me to a menu which listed treatments for various symptoms. My symptoms were labeled under skin cancer. Unsure if he understood my condition or the menu used a misnomer to describe hives, I begrudgingly offered to pay for this herbal remedy. The herbs were stuffed into a re-purposed M-150 bottle, a popular energy drink in Laos. He instructs me to pour water into the bottle, dab the residue with a cotton ball, and rub it on my swollen hands. At this point, the cotton ball he gave me was muddied with residue from his hands.
I returned home as pessimistic about my condition as ever before. The sanitary conditions of the medication he provided were risky to use. But, with nothing left to lose, I continued this dabbing process for two days hoping that the itching and swelling would simmer down.
On my second morning, I woke up with a fever. The red dots that spotted my hands had spread to my elbows and lower legs. The herbal remedies had no effect on my symptoms and so I had to fall back on my Western inclinations and run to a hospital.
At six in the morning, I left my bed in search of the nearest tuk-tuk driver. I found a driver posted on a hammock tied to his tuk-tuk. He was deep in slumber, but I was in desperate need to find the nearest hospital. I nudged him slowly and he woke up startled. I showed him my hands which at this point looked like fat clubs. He already knew where to go. I hopped onto the back of the vehicle and he drove me to the outskirts of the town to the official hospital.
The hospital was refined and quite impressive. It had the typical clinical white walls and floors, but architecturally it preserved traditional Laotian design. On this day, the hospital was fairly empty.
I waited for a mere five minutes before I was seated with an English-speaking physician—Dr. Panyan. I reiterated my past two days to him, explaining that I have been using herbal remedies to treat the symptoms, but that they haven’t been effective. He advised me that it is best to avoid herbal remedies for situations like this. He underscored that my particular condition most likely was caused by the dust and humidity in the air. As predicted, he cautioned that these remedies are very unsanitary, which could often worsen the situation.
And so he prescribed me some steroids and antihistamines and walks me to the pharmacy. With a speedy pickup, I had enough time to sit down with him and talk to him about healthcare in Laos and his role as a doctor.
Dr. Panyan was timid about the topic, largely because the government puts a firm cap on internal information. But he did point out that like many Lao hospitals, it is low-staffed and poorly resourced. Originally from Thailand, he chose to leave his country and serve this community. In rural communities, services like this were difficult to retrieve because physicians and resources were hard to come by. On my way out, we passed by a collection of lawn chairs attached to wheels, which served as wheelchairs for patients.
I thanked him for his help, paid a mere ten dollars for my medications, and was off home. Within a day, my swelling subsided, my fever completely gone.
With another medical condition, I start to see the conflict between traditional methods and Western treatment. While traditional methods are sometimes the only source for care, it can often have negative effects on health largely because ingredients aren’t tested, regulated, and standardized. And while Western medications proved effective, 10 dollars is a hefty price for the average Laotian. Thus, resorting to these traditional methods prove to be the only means of getting treatment despite the risks.