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Faith, hope and 'indian' medicine
Now and Then
Roger Branch - photo by root

Even when there is no worldwide pandemic labeled COVID-19, people get sick and sometimes die. Even when there is no major influenza outbreak, people get sick and sometimes die, a fate that most humans prefer to avoid.

Granted, global plagues kill millions of people, even billions in the case of the Black Death. They continue to come upon us: Ebola, AIDS, SARS. Only the totally foolish remain ignorant or uncaring.

However, it must be remembered that more people die each year from familiar disorders like heart attacks and strokes than those who perish from pandemics. Ironically, most of these are preventable due to miracles of modern medicine. People die because they refuse to accept the discipline necessary for survival.

The time is not too distant when cures for modern diseases did not exist. They are 20th century miracles, coming late and stretching into the current era.

The medicine of my childhood came close to being primitive by contemporary standards. Certainly, there were doctors and nurses, though their academic preparation and hospital experience might not have been the same as is the case today. Of course, we went to doctors when we could or when it was necessary.

It is a familiar story. Since money was always short, country folks had to find creative alternatives to cure their ills through various remedies.

Among these were folk medicine, ancient privileged information passed on from Native Americans, African-Americans, Scotch Highlanders, Irish or others from a long line of cultural ancestors. Perhaps information came from so deep in the past that no one knew its source or origin. Its practitioners were the granny women or certain old men who knew things, among them some country doctors who turned to these remedies when all else failed.

Treatment options included a pharmacopeia of drug store products that often worked on a wide range of remedies for every day aches and pains. Some assaulted taste buds or other senses that sick people got well to avoid the medicine.

Winter was the season for common colds, although the level of discomfort was such that one wondered how it could be labeled “common.” Most treatment options used were over the counter drugs or combinations thereof. A common example was Mentholatum rubbed on the chest of a congested sufferer and covered with a warm flannel cloth. It was not painful, but it was uncomfortable, downright “yucky.” 

However, a Musterole rub was worse. It was hot and irritating to the skin, but some people were convinced that it “did more good.” Vicks VapoRub was less unpleasant, thus less objectionable. It can still be found in medicine cabinets today.

“Coughs due to colds” were a normal part of the disease. There were numerous favorite remedies, including various cough drops and syrups. The most effective in my experience was a prescription ordered for our children by their pediatrician. Included were measured amounts of whiskey, honey and paregoric to be administered in teaspoon doses. It worked miraculously well and worn out parents trying to help their suffering children needed miracles. 

This treatment is now unavailable because paregoric, a morphine derivative, is no longer available. It was also an effective treatment for babies suffering stubborn teething pains.

Folks back then had deeply entrenched ideas about health in general. Central was the conviction that the human body requires thorough cleansing on a regular basis. Each spring everyone must be “purged” of impurities that build up over time. Calomel at night and a hefty portion of warm castor oil in the morning would purge anyone and everyone. 

Growing out of his experiences trying to recover from a nearly fatal case of pneumonia as a child, my father was a believer and practitioner of purging, not only for himself, but also for his family. My worst medical experience ever has been swallowing calomel and castor oil and, of course, the inevitable gallops to the nearest toilet. I am deeply grateful that the age of purging is past.

For many, the most important cure was and is the grace of God. The power to heal a body broken by sickness lies in love. As the children of God are assured of his love, they can depend on prayer to make known their needs. Sufferers are confident that faith born of grace is sufficient to the meeting of every need.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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