Folk Medicine and Medical Deserts

Photo by Chase Yaws on

I seem to have descended from common folk who had to turn to folksy medical remedies rather than seeking out doctors. It was not so much because of any distrust of physicians, but due to living in remote areas where the amenities of medical care were not available or because of lack of money to pay professionals. Even my maternal grandmother who lived in Houston, Texas gave birth to all of her children inside her home with the aid of another woman who knew how to deliver babies. When two of those babies become quite ill, my grandfather leafed through books to determine how to make them healthy again. Sadly his research did not help and they both ended up dying. When I learned of their symptoms I was reminded of my one of my daughters whose allergies were so severe that she was often unable to consume food without regurgitating. The wise counsel of her doctor brought easy, but somewhat expensive relief. I doubt that my grandparents had the good fortune of insurance to cover the costs of making their babies well like I did, so they did their best with what little funding they had.

My paternal grandfather’s mother died in childbirth and he ended up being raised by his grandmother who lived in an unnamed area of western Virginia. She had a knack for creating medicines and poultices, and according to my grandfather, people came from all around to consult with her regarding various medical problems that they incurred. They often called her “Doc Reynolds” because of her knowledge of how to use plants to create medicines. Of course when small pox infected the place where my grandfather lived the people in the village found a bonafide doctor to care for them until they had either become well or died.

My paternal grandmother often spoke of members of her family having “gut trouble.” They obviously had terrible bouts of heartburn and used vinegar and pickle juice to ease the gnawing pain of their affliction. Eventually many of them died from intestinal disorders, just as my grandmother eventually did. As someone who regularly has to visit a gastroenterologist I am grateful that my own “gut trouble” is aided by a professional who guides me through the ups and downs of my ailments. 

I have to think that perhaps my folksy ancestors might have become educated medical professionals themselves if given the opportunity because there are rather large number of doctors and nurses and scientists on the branches of the family tree descending from them. I like to imagine that they learned in the school of experience and by dent of their observational powers. Now their kin is using similar talents to make a difference for their patients. I suspect that they would be particularly proud to see how far we have all come from the days when they had little more than their wits to keep them safe. 

Sadly my paternal grandmother ignored her symptoms of colon cancer for too long, believing that they were simply par for the course in her family. By the time her disease became so unbearable that she sought the advice of a doctor there was little that he was able to do to save her. She and my grandfather moved from their farm back to the big city where care was only a short drive away. She spent her last weeks in horrible pain while my grandfather attempted to keep the two of them from going bankrupt in a time when there was still no Medicare. In the end she was gone and he was destitute. 

We have come a long way even from the middle of the twentieth century when my grandmother died. Medical care is more advanced than ever and elderly citizens have the advantage of Medicare or Medicaid. Still, there are medical deserts in rural areas where citizens have to travel long distances for care. In spite of our efforts to create affordable care for all Americans there are still those who do not have medical insurance. Additionally, there are far too many people who seem to prefer to find remedies for their ailments from the Internet rather than deferring to the expertise of doctors. Many of these souls needlessly die because the availability of help from our healthcare system is still in need of repair. 

I am quite proud to know a remarkable woman who is leading efforts to bring medical care to even the most remote corners of our country. It is her holy grail to reach those who are in dire health situations with no place to go. While her work has caught the attention of important supporters, there is still so much to be done that I wonder if she sometimes feels overwhelmed. Vast swaths of the United States are devoid of even the most basic staffs of doctors and nurses.

Generally those of us who have adequate medical care tend not to think much about those who do not. Often we find it difficult to relate to someone who lives on the razors edge without health insurance or savings to cover medical emergencies. We make assumptions about such people that are not always true. We point to different government programs and insist that nobody ever goes without the necessary treatments that they may need. In truth, that is simply not the case. There are still far too many people in our country who rarely frequent doctors because they simply do not have the funds to do so. They ignore symptoms or self treat them until they become seriously ill. This is especially true in rural parts of the country and among workers whose jobs do not include benefits. 

I don’t know the answers to this problem, but I do know that we should not pretend that it does not exist. We send medical missions to poor countries, but not so often to places to people and places in America where the most basic care is difficult to find. Perhaps we need to be more honest about the tragedies that occur in our midst because we are unwilling to consider measures that would help.

When I hear people complaining about Medicare I think of my grandmother and grandfather whose lives were upended because she got terminally ill before the passage of that landmark bill. I wonder how many people’s lives have improved because of the Affordable Care Act. I understand that we have still not perfected the ways of getting care equitably to everyone. I realize the fears that providing universal medical care to all may endanger the good plans that people already have. Surely we are an intelligent enough nation that we can design a system that works for everyone without degrading the quality of our healthcare system. Nobody should have to rely on folk medicine in the twenty first century and there should be no medical deserts anywhere. Investing time in making our system even better should be a crusade for everyone. Better health will lead to a better, more productive nation.


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