The Knowledge of Healing

Apr 15, 1998 at 12:00 am

Aside from the occasional barbs of sitcom filmmaker James L. Brooks, the American health care system gets a free ride from Hollywood. Why is this? Millions of citizens each year go to their graves because their HMO treated them with the same cold actuary science that sets the morning betting line at the race track.

If we need a reminder of just how cravenly blinkered our health care has become, look no further than this fine little film about Tibetan herbal medicine. Swiss director Franz Reichle and his crew traveled to northern Mongolia to observe the bedside manner of two storied practitioners of this ancient art cum science, which involves the establishment and maintenance of equilibrium between elements within the body. This is accomplished through the hands-on diagnostic skills of the doctor who then prescribes a precise combination of herbs gathered from a nearby hillside.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the distance between patient, doctor and the apothecary of the earth is much more intimate and much cheaper than our own. A man with an inoperable kidney stone, sent home to die by his Western doctors, finds new life in the Tibetan cure. A girl with a spinal injury pulls herself off her sick bed after a timely prescription. Not miracles. Merely bodies re-aligned to their correct balance.

Lest distant skeptics scoff, the Dalai Lama puts in a soothing appearance or two to suggest that Tibetan medicine is part of a larger Buddhist worldview available to anyone willing to believe. One is not doomed to the limitations of Western medical science.

Alas, late in the film, Reichle returns to Switzerland where we meet a variety of earnest souls in lab coats who profess their allegiance to Tibetan medicine, while machines in the background pump out prescription tablets of herbal remedies. Indeed, a faint whiff of corporate propaganda rides on the mountain breezes when Reichle starts providing testimonials for a coronary elixir called Padma 28. And then it's back to Tibet for a reminder that the evil Chinese would deny the world this fabulous science through their repression of the Tibetan people and their culture.

A minor quibble though. This is a fascinating subject that deserves not only our attention but our advocacy. When your tumor comes, you'll know why.

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