Hanna Ian, NMD, MS
In 1975, after finishing my undergraduate degree, I embarked on an adventure with $400 in my pocket and a train ticket from Nogales, Arizona, to Guadalajara, Mexico. Through a series of events, life led me to a small Mayan community in the middle of the Yucatán Peninsula, where I worked as an avocado ranchera, harvesting and selling avocados.
Each day I walked from Yotholin, the village I lived in, to Oxkutzcab, the citrus capital of the Yucatán. There I could meet the vendor who would buy my entire crate of avocados. On the daily walk back and forth I would pass a rock wall with a thatched roof hut set back from the road. Feelings of intrigue and apprehension arouse in me as I passed because I did not understand the work of the man who lived there. I did not have the Spanish vocabulary to describe the man who lived in the thatched hut. The only words I knew were witch doctor and as a young woman, everything I knew about witch doctors I learned from Walt Disney.
After 6 months, I left Mexico to study public health in the United States, with the goal of returning to Yotholin to make a contribution to the health status of a people whom had opened their homes and hearts to me. During the years enrolled in the master’s program I returned to Yotholin on two occasions. Each time traveling the road from Yotholin to Ozkutzcab, the feelings of apprehension and intrigue consumed me as I passed the rock wall with the thatched hut. At the conclusion of my graduate training, thoughts of working as a health promoter in a foreign country were the farthest thing from my mind. I took a job teaching at a university on the east coast of the United States.
As a public health faculty member, I had an opportunity to develop an international field study in public health and return to Yotholin. Every summer I took a group of graduate and undergraduate students to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico to examine public health issues, primary care, and prevention in a developing country. My faculty colleagues had a rich background in public health directives from international health organizations. I believed, however, there was more to health than simply intervening with technology and vaccination programs. I wanted my students to understand that the fabric of health that supports an indigenous community such as this one was woven from history, religion, war, politics, segregation, old Mayan health beliefs and current Mayan health practices.
The task I set for myself was to develop a curriculum and field guide, blending together the studies of anthropology and epidemiology. It had been 15 years since I had walked in the village of Yotholin, and to my utter wonderment, I was recognized and greeted with a bounty of hugs and baskets of citrus fruit. After much time renewing old relationships, I inquired about the man who lived in Oxkutzcab. “What do you call him? The man in Oxkutzcab who uses medicinal plants?” “El Curandero,” was the reply. “The one who cures!”
No amount of studying public health in Mexico was complete without studying the contributions of indigenous healers, and as a faculty member of a prestigious university I intended to do just that. I was nervous and scared, not to mention naïve, at approaching el curandero. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked on the path adjacent to the rock wall and through the gate to the thatched hut. In the compound of the curandero was a courtyard where sat a group of men and women, all waiting to see the healer. While waiting my turn, I asked the Mayan women about their work and their lives, and they had just as many questions for me. As we talked I gathered an assortment of information about community life as well as the health of the curandero’s wife. Although I did not have the vocabulary to recognize her illness, my instincts told me her condition was grave, and my desire to spend time with the curandero might be an imposition. I left without meeting him.
The following year I returned to Yotholin with a new group of public health students enrolled in another field study. Again, I walked from Yotholin to Oxkutzcab, along the path by the rock wall and through the gate that led to the thatched hut of the curandero. I waited all afternoon with the men and women inside the courtyard, as they took turns entering the thatched hut. When at the end of the day I was the only one left in the compound, the curandero gestured for me to come inside.
Light filtering in between the lashed stick wall was the only illumination, and once inside the hut I introduced myself and explained the nature of my work and my purpose for bringing students to Mexico to study public health. I told him that an understanding of health care in Mexico would be incomplete without an understanding of his ways, and the contribution he makes to the health of the village. I asked if he could take the time to speak to me and my students. His reaction to me was strong and hostile. He said he had no time for my students; he worked all day from sunrise to sunset and his people depended on him for much help. There was much he said to excuse himself from my request but the tone of his voice and the expression on his face clearly communicated to me that I was not welcome there.
My instincts told me he did not trust me, he thought I might take his words and use them against him, or take his words to benefit myself. He did not know my history with this community. And between my marginal Spanish and the amount of time available to me, there was nothing I was going to be able to do to change his perception. I thanked him for his time and was heading for the door when I asked about his wife. He said she had died. I asked, “When?” He answered, “6 months ago.” I told him I was sorry for the loss of his wife and that my mother had also died 6 months ago. I asked about the cause of her death, adding that I knew she had been sick for some time. Surprised, he asked me how I knew she had been sick. I told him about living in Yotholin many years ago, my studies in public health and my visit to his compound the previous year, explaining that on hearing of his wife’s illness I left, not wanting to impose on his time. He stared at me for some time before he broke the silence, “I’ve seen you before. I remember you now. I remember your green eyes. Alright, I will talk to you, but only you. No tape recorder, no notebook, and no students.”
In the dimness of his windowless hut we met the following Sunday at noon. He was silent and waited for me to speak. I told him that in my country, while there was a reliance on pharmaceutical drugs to treat disease, there was also a growing awareness that many drugs do not cure illness, and only treat the symptoms. There was also a realization that when disease occurs one needs to find and remove the cause. Unsure how to proceed I related to him the experience of using a compress, made from the root of the comfrey plant, to accelerate the healing of the pelvic fracture of my 14-year-old son. He stood up suddenly and gestured for me to follow him.
For the next 2 hours we walked through the jungle from plant to plant as the curandero broke off stems, pulled off leaves, pulled up roots and peeled off bark, explaining the healing properties of each plant he handled – different plants for different kinds of infections; different kinds of leaves for different kinds of headaches; sap from small tree stems for the treatment of tooth decay; plants to suppress lactation as well as plant abortifacients; plants for skin rashes and painful urination. What I was hearing represented the spectrum of disease, common in any community, from periodontal disease to hemorrhoids, and the bounty from the Earth that could be used to promote health and healing.
As we were walking back to the compound, the curandero brought me over to a tree around which a vine was growing. He said the plant was the same as my comfrey and that he would use this one to knit together a broken bone. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Your plant grows like a vine, mine grows like a bush.” He said it was the same. “No,” I said again, “Your plant has white flowers, mine has blue.” He insisted it was the same. “No, your leaf is round; mine is shaped like an arrow.” He reached down in the soil, pulled up a thin root and pushed it to me. I looked at it in his hand and with skepticism told him that my root was large and thick. Again he tried to give me the root. Accepting the root, I dusted the soil off with my hand, then broke it in half. It snapped just like comfrey, the pulp was whiten just like comfrey, the sap felt slippery just like comfrey, and once I tasted the sap, I knew it was just like comfrey! As I nodded my head in agreement, the curandero laughed and within me a shift had occurred related to my perception of the creation of the Earth and its relationship with humanity.
For the next 3 summers during the annual international study in public health, I was able to spend time with Señor Martin, the Curandero of Oxkutzcab. His warmth and acceptance of me broadened to include my students. Each conversation was less and less about medicinal plants and more and more about the nature of the soul, the crisis of spirit, and the magic that surrounds us. These were the things, he said, responsible for not only all disease, but for all calamity in the world. Although his stories have been at times puzzling, the wisdom in his words continually permeate my thoughts and my work, whether I am teaching health classes at the university, preparing for birth classes at the hospital, or visiting with illiterate Mayan health promoters in the highlands of Guatemala.
Dr Hanna Ian, MS, NMD, brings over twenty years experience in the fields of public health, clinical nutrition and women’s health, along with an extraordinary combination of skills, knowledge and sharp perception to her medical practice. She has served on the public health faculty of Southern Connecticut State University as well as Patient Educator for the Department of Obstetrics at Yale-New Haven Medical Center. She is the former Medical Director of Brookfield Integrative Medicine in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Dr. Ian is a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society where she lectures on breast health and breast cancer prevention.