Hansen: Bridging the medicine gap

About 30 years ago as a U.S. Air Force medic working in intensive care units, I saw my share of illness and death.

Even though I eventually got out of medicine, I have noticed many changes since then:

•The way we do basic CPR has changed dramatically.

•Once-sacred medicines have been outlawed.

•Cardiac surgery is now almost an outpatient procedure.

But one thing that hasn't changed is the near holy war between East and West. Shaman versus scientists. Herbalists versus pharmaceutical companies.

So it was with some interest that I saw the advertisement in the Coastline Pilot asking the question, "Suffering From Cancer?"

The ad, paid for by Laguna Beach-based Nurses for Safer Access, is soliciting people with cancer to use a "secret herbal recipe" of essiac tea.

Founder Linda West-Conforti is a nurse and has seen the shortcomings of Western medicine, so she said she wants to help.

"I've been in nursing almost 30 years, and I've seen a huge change in the delivery of health care," she said. "We're indoctrinated into this thinking that technology is best, but when you step back, the perfect analogy is CPR, the ABCs of life, how that has changed so drastically."

What hasn't changed, according to West-Conforti, is "nature's medicine" — the broad array of botanicals used for thousands of years and now have names like "Dragon's Blood," "Cat's Claw" and "Amazon Vitality."

"I don't know why we have a tendency to trust something that is as far from man-made as possibly can be, such as some of the drugs from chemotherapy and other things, and yet won't trust something that's from nature," she said. "Yet 25% of the pharmaceutical medications are made from plants from nature."

Her new shop, at 1968 S. Coast Hwy., shares a building with Taekwondo, yoga and Pilates. While she lives in Lake Arrowhead, she chose Laguna because she has family here, including a nephew, Blake Chapman, co-founder of the store. Chapman, a Laguna Beach High School graduate, originally thought of the idea for the store.

"What I'm trying to do here for Nurses for Safer Access is to empower clients to take charge of their own health care, understand your disease entity very deeply and ask your physicians the appropriate questions," she said.

West-Conforti believes there is a more natural approach to health with fewer side effects.

"I don't think a pharmaceutical is always the answer, especially when we're dealing with sleep disorders and anxiety disorders," she said.

She requires that patients fill out an extensive questionnaire to better understand their complete health picture. She is not trying to replace Western medicine as much as bridge the gap.

She says that 80% of people who use alternative medicine don't tell their Western doctors, for fear of retribution.

"They do not want to get browbeaten, so they prefer not to let them know," she said.

To complicate matters, Eastern doctors don't talk to Western doctors. Prejudices persist. Plus, if a patient goes downhill and is taking both herbs and pharmaceuticals, fingers start to point, especially in light of some well-known cases of contraindications that went unnoticed.

"We're treating the same thing here, so both hemispheres are not even aware of each other, which I think could be potentially very dangerous," West-Conforti said.

Indeed, because West-Conforti is a licensed RN, she is able to get even more potent herbs not found in your local Mother's Market.

"I think you have to take the best of both worlds. You have to come in objectively. I'll be the first to tell you, 'We can't treat this with herbs. You need to see Western medicine to get help.' But I don't think it's all or nothing. I think we need a complementary combination of the two."

West-Conforti gained media attention in 2009 with her work in Angels in Waiting, the nursing group that cared for "Octomom" Nadya Suleman's children.

But now she's trying to raise awareness of alternative medicine and clear up some of the murky information that confuses patients.

"We don't know what the truth is with the pharmaceutical companies. Where I'm coming from is, let's try it."

One nurse and one shop on the far West Coast, an ocean away from the East.

In between is still fear, misinformation and prejudice. And a lot of science that is still fallible.

Somewhere along the way, it seems like the two worlds could drop the egos, take a chill pill and work more closely.

Because in the end, of course, there is no line separating East and West in eternity.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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