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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Doctor Shaman

Air Date: Week of

The rainforests of Central and South America are rich with medicinal plants that are gradually becoming known to modern medicine. Some pharmaceutical companies are prospecting in these regions for beneficial, and profitable, remedies. Now there is growing interest among medical students in the practitioners of centuries old healing techniques. We know them as medicine men or shamans. They are called "yachic" by the indigenous Keechwah Indians in Equador. That's where Producer Joe Rubin traveled high in the Andes to a health clinic where modern doctors work along side shamans, developing the fledgling field of Integrative Medicine. He prepared this report.


CURWOOD: The rainforests of Central and South America are rich with medicinal plants that are slowly becoming known to modern medicine. Pharmaceutical companies have set up shop in these regions to prospect for beneficial and profitable remedies. And now, in what many see as the next logical step, there's growing interest among those educated in medical schools in the healing techniques of people who have used these medicinal plants for centuries. We know them as medicine men or shaman; they're called "yachic" by the indigenous Keechwah Indians in Ecuador. And that's where producer Joe Rubin traveled, high in the Andes to a health clinic where doctors work side by side with shamans developing the fledgling field of Integrative Medicine. He prepared this report.

(Milling voices, a cow moos, followed by various animal sounds)

RUBIN: As the sun rises over the spectacular mountain peaks that surround Otavalo, Educador, it illuminates an Andean town already in high gear. In a bustling open-air market just off the Pan- American highway, shoppers and merchants haggle over the price of farm animals. Five centuries after the arrival of Spanish Conquistadores, this region remains steeped in the traditions of the indigenous Keechwah Indians. Though it's not untouched by outside influence.

(Doors opening and shutting, a babbling child)

RUBIN: Up the hill from the market is the Jambi Huasi Medical Clinic. And like the rest of Otavalo, it, too, is busy this morning. The courtyard is crowded with people. Many have come by foot from distant villages to be seen at one of the world's most unique health clinics.

(Ambient voices)

RUBIN: The Ambiwasi Clinic is on the cutting edge of Integrative Medicine. That's the increasingly popular practice of combining Western medicine with alternative methods of healing.

(Someone whistles; tapping)

RUBIN: Javier Peragachi is tapping a wooden instrument around the body of an older woman with a heart condition. Peragachi is among the most respected healers in all of Ecuador. He is a "yachic," which is the Keechwah word for shaman. A role Mr. Peragachi says he was born to.

PERAGACHI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: My grandparents, their grandparents, my dad and mother who had passed away, I was with them all since I was little. Since I can first remember. And they all knew how to prepare the herbal remedies into a drink.

{Rattling sounds)

RUBIN: Javier Peragachi's's office is lit by the warm glow of candles. The first thing you notice when you enter are herbs, hundreds of them, neatly labeled in containers stacked from floor to ceiling. Some he gathers himself. Others come from Ecuador's Amazon Jungle lowlands. Among this patients this morning: a recovering alcoholic and a young boy with a baffling stomach ailment.

PERAGACHI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The sickness that the boy had was anemia. Western medicine couldn't cure him. They gave him pills but they had no effect. He had a stomach ache, bloating, palpitations, but it wasn't parasites. He had an inflammation. We checked out his blood. He wasn't feeling well at all, but now he's back to normal. He's eating. He has quite an appetite. He plays, he laughs, and he participates with other children.

(Tapping instrument)

RUBIN: Mr. Peragachi spends about 20 minutes with the boy. He talks to him quietly, mostly in Keechwah. He taps instruments around his body and blows smoke and powders at him.

PERAGACHI: (Blowing) Whoosh....

RUBIN: After this treatment, he prepares an herbal drink that he pours into a plastic bag.

(Liquid pouring)

RUBIN: It all looks pretty mysterious, but Mr. Peragachi explains what he does rather matter-of-factly.

PERAGACHI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: I am purifying the entire body. I'm bringing things back to normal. I'm changing the energy. And that way the patient is going to feel better.

RUBIN: Javier Peragachi is a true believer in his herbal elixirs.

(Metal clanks; liquid pours)

RUBIN: He's also a strong believer in the clinic's approach of integrating Western medicine with Keechwah healing techniques.

PERAGACHI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: The peasants and the indigenous people who don't come into the city, they don't know about pills. The older, wiser ones, we're telling them that they should come here to buy pills. I say buy these pills and take them along with an herbal drink. Take it, I say, and I will make you better.

{A woman speaks in Spanish)

RUBIN: Upstairs from Peragachi's office, the director of Ambiwasi, Dr. Olga Faranango, gives a woman a tetanus shot. Like Javier Peragachi, Dr. Faranango is Keechwah Indian. Although she studied medicine in Ecuador's cosmopolitan capitol of Quito, she sees no contradiction in a modern clinic here.

FARANANGO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: There's no contradiction to say that we're practicing both Western medicine and natural medicine. We respect both. We doctors don't know how to do exactly what a yachic does. For that you need a lot of time. They spend their lives learning it, the same way we physicians spend our life learning about medicine and things like pediatrics and obstetrics clinics. They have to go through a similar learning process, don't they?

RUBIN: Ambiwasi's unique practice of combined medicine has attracted a lot of attention. The United Nations helps fund the clinic, and physicians from around the world have come here to study. Among them is Stanford University's Dr. Susan Anderson. She came to do research as a Fulbright Fellow 4 years ago and returns each summer to work as a volunteer.

ANDERSON: I was totally impressed with both the experience of the yachic and the midwife and the care and sensitivity that they took care of with the people that came to see them.

RUBIN: This summer, Dr. Anderson plans to study the clinic's alternative approaches scientifically. She'll then compare them with Western techniques.

ANDERSON: Sometimes we're so fixed in our western training and scientific approach that we're not open to new things. But when we go and we're living at 9,000 feet in the Andes, and the most common way of treating individuals might be using traditional medicine, we begin to develop a greater appreciation for alternative approaches.

RUBIN: Anderson says that much of the healing practices that take place at Ambiwasi can easily be adapted by clinics in the US. After all, books on alternative medicine are now perennial best sellers, and herbal remedies are becoming increasingly popular. Even medical schools like Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford have begun Integrated Medicine programs. But Ambiwasi's Victor Sanchez uses one ancient healing technique that probably won't be required at the finest teaching hospitals.

(Squealing sounds)

RUBIN: Sanchez is an expert in the thousand-year-old indigenous practice called guinea pig radiography. With a tight grip, Sanchez vigorously shakes a guinea pig around the patient's body. Believers say the animal absorbs the energy of the sick person and dies. Then Sanchez dissects the guinea pig and makes a corresponding diagnosis of the patient based on what he finds inside.

SANCHEZ: [Speaks in Spanish]

RUBIN: Today Sanchez is treating Osvaldo Vasquez, one of Otovalo's famed weavers. A year ago he hurt his back while playing volleyball. Now he has trouble sitting at his loom for prolonged periods, and has pain in his arms and legs. He's been to several doctors, but no one's been able to alleviate his symptoms. As Sanchez dissects the guinea pig, he points to a nerve in the animal's lower back that is still mysteriously pulsating. His diagnosis is a problem with the sciatic nerve in Vasquez's lower back. Sanchez believes the problem has to do with imbalances in the body. Ambiwasi's director, Dr. Olga Faranango, says that despite what some outsiders might think, the clinic's use of all types of traditional healers has empowered the local population.

FARANANGO: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We have to see it from the point of view of the local people. We can't say to people, "Stop believing in our traditional ways." We need to respect what the people think, because each culture has its own ways. And this is an important part of the people and their culture.

(Noises: children yelling, a car starting up)

RUBIN: A ride in Ambiwasi's old but sturdy ambulance demonstrates that even in distant mountain villages the clinic's integrated approach is taking hold. I'm traveling with Ambiwasi's community health promoter, Mercedes Menada. We're carrying an unusual cargo for an ambulance: medicinal plants.

(A dog barks; a horn beeps, engine running; a door shuts)

RUBIN: When we reach the remote village of Guayapul, Mercedes jumps out of the ambulance and runs up a hill that overlooks the village.

(A child or woman yells)

RUBIN: Soon, about 20 women, most with small children, join her.

(Women talk and laugh)

RUBIN: Mercedes unloads Tomate de arbol plants from the back of the ambulance.

MENADA: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: For the most part in the communities, people use medicinal plants. For example, it's a great idea to plant this type of tomato fruit. You can apply the juice to your skin and you can drink it. It has a tremendous amount of vitamin C, and that can really help you.

(Digging sounds)

RUBIN: As the villagers dig holes in the ground for the medicinal plants, I wonder if the seedlings will survive the harrowing winds which blow through the Andes. It's easy to romanticize Ambiwasi as a model of culturally sensitive integrated medicine, but Ecuador has serious health problems. Thousands of children die each year from preventable conditions like diarrhea. Malaria is epidemic in parts of the country. Critics of alternative medicine would say what's needed in Ecuador is modern science, not this strange blend of Western medicine with shamans, herbs, and guinea pigs. But embracing the mystic over the modern is not what Ambiwasi is about. Having spent a week here, I was impressed by how naturally the practitioners of ancient techniques make the connection which often eludes Western medicine: the link between mind and body. And I was surprised by how often indigenous healers chided their patients to drink bottled water to avoid intestinal problems. As yachic Javier Peragachi explains, it's an unusual but effective prescription.

PERAGACHI: [Speaks in Spanish] TRANSLATOR: We're working from both sides, together with Western medicine and natural medicine. We're combining the two: the pills of the West and the herbal drinks. And that way people are getting better.

RUBIN: For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Rubin in Otavalo, Ecuador.



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