India: Balancing Three Types of Medication

Balancing Three Types of Medication
Chief Indian Correspondant Ramesh Avadhani is back with a story on how one man approaches balancing different medical traditions.
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I chanced upon Srivastava when I came to Lucknow a few months ago and started looking for accommodation. A broker led me to him and the octogenarian readily accepted me as his tenant. His varied acts of kindness towards me, a total stranger, are outside the scope of this article. Suffice to say that he treats me as a member of his family. His speech and demeanor act like a healing balm to everyone in the family. This is amazing, given the nature and number of ailments that he himself suffers from. “A number of diseases reside in my body,” he said, rather stoically. “But I somehow have to carry on. I still have some responsibilities to my sons and their families who live with me.”

The first of the numerous health problems that afflicted KK Srivastava was during a fishing jaunt way back in 1948. It happened in his ancestral district of Gorakhpur in northern India when he was a high-school student.

“It was a Sunday and I was walking to my aunt’s house in Gopalpur village when some friends stopped me midway and persuaded me to join them,” he recalls. “We went in a small canoe into the waters of Ramgarh Talab, a big pond that had a great variety of fish. We started throwing our lines from ten in the morning. Two hours later I reeled in the biggest fish I had ever caught in my life. It was about five feet long and weighing almost a hundred pounds. Called tanger in this region, the damn thing landed straight on my body.”

Obviously distressed and violent, the big fish bit and nudged him hard on the left hip. The severity of the attack rendered him unconscious. He awoke four hours later to find himself laid out in his uncle’s house. This uncle was a doctor of ayurveda, the ancient system of Indian medicine. Srivastava doesn’t remember what he was administered but he became all right. “I thought that was the end of the matter. Only time would tell how wrong I was.”

That time came soon enough, when Srivastava finished his graduation and became an audit officer in the Khadi Village Industries Commission, an organization inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of an India replete with small-scale industries for improving the lot of poor villagers. Srivastava was on an official tour of the hilly region of Tehri district. “In those days we mostly walked or rode a bicycle. Buses and other forms of motorized transport were a rarity in rural areas. It so happened that the path I was walking on was narrow and full of loose stones. I slipped and rolled down the hill-side for several hundred feet. That fall aggravated my hip injury but in a curious way. Meaning, I started to experience agonizing pain whenever there was a sudden change in climatic conditions. The pain was like being stretched on a rack and pulled in opposite directions. I would be virtually immobilized.”

Srivastava is now eighty years old now and climatic changes continue to affect his hip injury. As a tenant in his house in Lucknow, I was witness to one such episode. One day he was laid out on his bed from morning to late afternoon, unable to even sit up. However, despite the severity of the pain, all that he resorts to is mustard oil. He claims that a gentle massage with the oil for about five minutes lessens the pain gradually. The oil is commonly used as a cooking medium in this part of India because of its unique taste and abundant availability. Also, it is believed to have medicinal properties.

Srivatsava’s first preference to treat any illness is to use naturally available herbs and their extracts, according to the principles of ayurveda. Only when such measures are ineffective or when the injury is severe, he takes recourse to homeopathic or allopathic medication. His opinion is that all systems of medicine are effective, just that one should know what is best for a particular ailment. “Generally, ayurvedic and allopathic medicines are costly while homeopathy is inexpensive. While I was familiar with ayurveda since childhood, homeopathy is something that I got acquainted with recently, about four years ago. In both these systems of medicine, there are no surgeries and no side effects, and the medication works on the root cause of any particular ailment, although it may take some time. In my opinion, most allopathic medicines work fast because they act in a superficial manner by treating the symptoms, not the root cause.”

For instance, every night he drank a concoction of powdered rose-petals (dried in the shade, powdered manually) and akick powder mixed with a cup of toned milk. “I did that for three years to keep my bowels clean,” he said. “It helped lessen the burden on my heart.”

His younger son, Nandkumar, said Srivastava would also powder a few strips of the bark of the arjun tree and make a decoction of it in hot water and drink it every morning. He would mix a cup of milk with a cup of water, then add a tablespoon of the powder and boil the mixture. When the quantity reduced to half, he added sugar, honey, or glucose powder. This decoction too proved helpful in controlling his heart ailment. “I did that under advice from an ayurvedic doctor for about six years from 2001,” Srivastava recalled.

The heart ailment was due to blockage of one of the main arteries, a result of consuming generous dollops of desi ghee—clarified home-made butter—in his food over the years. “I paid dearly for my weakness.”

But surgery was inevitable. He has a stent in the affected artery and a pacemaker in the right side of his chest. Both are American made. He had to spend three hundred thousand rupees (about $7000) for the operation, a considerable sum for a middle class family. “I am still waiting for reimbursement from the government. You see my father was a dedicated follower of Mahatma Gandhi and fought for our country’s freedom from the British. Therefore I am entitled to certain facilities.”

Elder daughter-in-law, Geeta, remembers preparing an ayurvedic vegetable juice using white gourd and mint leaves every afternoon for about two years for his heart condition. She also gave him a glass of whey every day. “He was fond of chewing tobacco but I made him stop it. Just threw the stuff out of the window. He would get annoyed and say, ‘Okay at least give me some peppermint or toffee!’ This was about six or seven years ago. Now regretfully he has resumed the habit.”

Indeed, I have seen Srivastava occasionally using his thumb and palm as pestle and mortar to powder some tobacco and lime and place the mix between lip and gum. “No harm in doing anything in moderation,” he says, as if to forgive himself the habit.

Another of his ailments is glaucoma of the eyes. The disease drains his energy and mental equilibrium in painful episodes. “I underwent operation to remove cataracts in both eyes in 2006. Three years later I developed this glaucoma. I believe there’s no cure for it, I can only control it. Maybe at my advanced age doctors think it risky to do anything further with my eyes. I experience sudden bouts of darkness and also excruciating pain in the left side of my head.”

I was again witness to one such instance during the discussions we had for this article. One morning I found him laid out on a cot in the drawing room of his house. His eyes were shut and his right arm folded over his head. “Sleeping,” whispered Pratima, who was nearby.  It was eleven in the morning. After about half an hour I went back and this time his eyes were open but he was still laid out on the cot. He said a severe pain suddenly started in his head when he was reading the day’s newspaper. He just flung the paper aside, and self-administered three different eye-drops (ophthalmic solutions containing Dorzolamide, Timolol, Brimonide Tartrate, and Hyopromellose.)

“These are of course allopathic drugs,” he said. “I spend about six hundred rupees for them every month.”

Then he uses two homeopathic drugs called Coanac and No. 1930 to control the severe headache brought about by glaucoma.

He also uses a homeopathic drug called Sobal Sarrota for his enlarged prostrate gland. He says the disorder is quite common in men of advanced age. It causes frequent urination. He also suffers from hydrocel for which he takes another homeopathic drug, hydrocotyl asiatica. “The hydrocel  condition actually developed in 1951. It was due to excessive cycling. I underwent opration but during the course of my extensive tours, I was exposed to contaminated water. So, I suffered a relapse. The condition causes enlargement and contraction of my testicles.”

Srivatsava says that he actually prefers to go by the ayurvedic system of medication for many of his ailments but the hospital in Lucknow is far off and he is unable to visit it frequently. So, homeopathy. It’s a practice followed by the rest of his family. His wife of 49 years, Manorama, says that had he been careful with his diet in the early years and had he not toured as much as he did, his health would have been better. “But where will men of his nature listen to anyone?” she says with a laugh. However, she admits that he is doing well for his age with the support of all three types of medication. “He follows the doctor’s orders to the T.”

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