Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Poison Ivy, Slippery Elm, and the Dope

I listened attentively as Grandma Aldrich told me a story about my Uncle Marvin when he was a little boy. "He had burned his hand real bad," she said, pointing to her palm. "I took him to a neighbor lady, she had special healing powers. When he came out of her house, there was no trace of a burn." She shook her head, still unable to comprehend this. "His hand was perfect, not a trace of red or anything." Grandma had a puzzled look on her face, still unsure as to how this miracle had happened.

Grandma suffered from arthritis and because I loved her, I was always looking for herbal remedies to ease her suffering. On one weekend visit I brought her a bottle of arnica tincture. "Here Gram, let me rub some of this into your hands, it will make you feel better," I said. She held out her soft, swollen hand and I let a few drops of the arnica coat her painful joints. With great care, I gently rubbed it in. "There, all better?" I asked. "Well, maybe a little," she lied. "I'll leave this with you and you can try it some more, ok?"

"Ok," she replied.

I called her a few months later and asked how the remedy was working. She told me it didn't really help her, but she gave the bottle to a friend of her's who also suffered from the debilitating disease. "She couldn't raise her arms above her head," Gram explained. "So I gave her the bottle and she tried it, and my Lord she could raise her arms for the first time in years. She ordered a whole case!" That made me happy.

My curiosity about herbal medicine began in my mid-twenties. I went to a workshop on medicinal wild plants and was hooked. Grandma's story only furthered my interest in alternative healing practices, and I began my quest to learn everything I could about how plants in the woods can heal us.

Now one thing I have always struggled with is how to test the effectiveness of my herbal remedies. I tend to have the same recurring illnesses and thus not many opportunities to try things myself, and those around me have not been racing to the front of the line to be my guinea pig. What to do?

I was rock climbing one day and noticed a large patch of poison ivy at the base of an old oak tree. I had just been reading about using jewel weed and slippery elm bark to treat the extremely itchy poison ivy rash. But I didn't have poison ivy. Then my light bulb went off. Why not do an experiment like they do in the labs? I went over and picked a few leaves of poison ivy and gently rubbed them on top of my right forearm. "There," I thought. "Now I will get a little poison ivy rash and I can test out my treatments."

I waited one day, two days, three days, but no rash appeared. Not to be dissuaded, I went back to the poison ivy patch and this time I picked a big handful of leaves and rubbed them vigorously on my arm. The very next day I had poison ivy. I mean I had poison ivy. Those familiar blisters started to form, my skin was bright red, and itched like the dickens, to put it politely.  Excited, I created a poultice of slippery elm bark by mixing the powder with a little water to form a paste. I covered my poison ivy rash with the sticky mixture, wrapped my arm in gauze, and went on with my day, confident my herbal remedy would have my rash cleared up lickety split.

That night I didn't sleep so well. My arm itched beyond belief. It hurt. It burned. I was miserable. When I awoke the next morning, my forearm was one solid poison ivy blister, red and swollen. I went to the emergency room. They gave me a shot, some pills, and treated my arm. "How did you get a case of poison ivy this bad?" the doctor asked.

"It's a long story," I replied.

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