Rachel began her life with the deck stacked against her. She has had serious medical problems since birth, most of which are related to the genes she inherited from her parents, and then exacerbated by environmental factors, like the food she eats and the air she breathes.
With persistence and determination, Rachel has managed to navigate her way through life, overcoming one challenging health obstacle after another—all the time maintaining her inimitable Jewish sense of humor even in the bleakest of times. We actually laugh together during her appointments with me—even when she is in serious distress.
Rachel’s long list of medical conditions includes partially-controlled asthma, along with severe allergies and sensitivities to most foods, supplements, and medications.
One day, a few years ago, Rachel called me on the phone to request help. She was short of breath and could barely speak. Her asthma had not responded to her inhalers. She felt feverish and weak. I said that I thought she had pneumonia and urged her to call an ambulance so that she could be treated in the emergency room.
Gasping, with the little breath she had left, Rachel adamantly refused to go to the hospital. She said, “They don’t understand people like me with extreme sensitivities. They’ll think that I’m a nut case. They will insist on giving me drugs that will make me sick and affect my brain and nervous system. I’m more in danger of getting harmed from their treatment than if I stayed home. I cannot go to the hospital, Erica. If you want, I’ll sign a waiver saying that I refused to be taken to the hospital. That way you won’t get in trouble if I die.”
Rachel said that she was too sick to come to my office and let me examine her. She said that she needed to stay very still in order to get enough air.
What should I do?
I silently said a quick prayer asking for guidance. At that same moment, I flashed on my time in the Peace Corps when I lived with a community of Quechua-speaking Indians at 12,000 ft. in the Andes Mountains. I remembered how the people healed themselves when they got sick. They had no money to buy medicines. And even if they did have money, they would have had to hike for five hours down the mountain to get to the nearest road and then travel another two hours by rickety buses to get to Quito.
Instead of medicines, the Indians used the power of heat to heal themselves. They had no aspirin to bring down fevers. The heat from fevers serves to stimulate the production of white blood cells and increases their activity. The fevers also inhibit the replication of the viruses and bacteria.
To augment the power of the fever, the Indians put on extra layers of clothing and drank hot teas and hot soups throughout the day. If they had sinusitis, bronchitis, or pneumonia, they inhaled steam from water boiling in a pan, and they put hot water bottles on their chests.
“Rachel, we have a plan. Do you have a pen and paper?”
After sharing with her my observations in South America, she agreed to follow a similar plan. She also agreed to call me twice a day to let me know that she was still alive and update me on her status. A neighbor checked in on her as well.
Every day I waited for her calls with anticipation and anxiety. Rachel gradually improved by using the heat treatments—to my enormous relief. After a precarious week, she was able to drive herself to my office to get checked. I listened to her lungs with my stethoscope and heard diffuse wheezing and noted a consolidated area in the right lower lobe of the lung where there were no breath sounds.
Under normal circumstances, consolidated pneumonia is treated by having the patient lie across her bed with the chest in a downward slant while a friend or a home healthcare nurse pounds the chest with cupped hands in order to loosen up the infection. Rachel did not want a nurse to come to her home due to her extreme sensitivities to scented body and laundry products.
Once again, without knowing what to do, I silently asked for help. At that moment, thoughts of Tibetan monks popped into my mind. I thought about the deep intoning sounds they make. In the past, when I tried to imitate those guttural vowel sounds, I noted that my chest vibrated when I intoned the deeper notes.
I asked Rachel to put her hands on each side of her chest and taught her how to make the deep sounds with her throat. After several attempts, Rachel noticed that she could make her chest vibrate. I assured her that the vibrations would loosen up the infection in her lower lobe.
After two precarious weeks, Rachel emerged from the danger zone, although she still needed a few more weeks to get back to her baseline. Eventually, a friend found an unscented nurse who came regularly to pound on Rachel’s chest.
Given Rachel’s limited ability to tolerate medications and natural remedies, we have had to be quite inventive over the years and have had to draw from a variety of sources—many of them quite out-of-the-ordinary.
Rachel’s amazing spirit and determination have managed to keep her alive all these years—with her disarming sense of humor intact, even in the most desperate times. Rachel is an inspiration to me.