Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Hilot is In

Published by Balikbayan Magazine, 2010. View the original article here.

The wonder of nature and technology combined.

It’s funny how a little flutter in my tummy can totally change my views about health and wellness. Before, I would chug down a can of soda without a second thought, but now that I am expecting, this quickening in my midsection now serves as my conscience. Am I taking in too much saccharin and endangering my baby? Is this too much caffeine? The questions nag with every sip, slurp, and munch. And with all the talking heads yapping around me (the internet, books, well meaning mothers, doctors, elders), I become paralyzed with fear. It does not help that many of the suggestions are contradicting. Do I listen to the elder who has grandchildren that can collectively make up an entire soccer team and fill up the bleachers, or do I heed the advice of a pregnancy expert with a PhD? 

Popping the pill is the quickest and easiest remedy but is it the safest?

When it comes to medical care, Filipinos find themselves on middle ground: between the advancements of science and technology and the so-called time-tested practices of our lolas.

Caught in the middle, I reach out to both sides to discover what is best for my little wonder who is blissfully unaware in my bulging abdomen.

Online consultation

With the Internet a click away, it can both be a boon and a bane not only for expecting mothers but the clueless seeking immediate medical advice. It is after all, more practical and economical to search for treatments online than to seek professional help. This however presents several problems, one of which is the dangers of misdiagnosis and self medication. What may seem like a harmless headache can turn out to be brain tumour or aneurysm. We pop a pill hoping for it to go away, and before we know it, we’re being wheeled in the emergency room for brain bleeding. 

Our medicine cabinets are stocked with bottles for every kind of ailment.

On the flip side, online information can inspire paranoia. Heart burn may make one’s heart beat a little bit faster as many sites suggest that what may seem like a harmless acid indigestion can mean the onslaught of a heart attack or congestive heart failure. In any case, the false alarm can indeed quicken your heartbeat and lead you closer to a cardiac arrest.

But then again, we cannot completely dismiss the benefits of unlimited and available information in the World Wide Web. It can provide quick relief especially if the doctor’s appointment (or for some, the pay check) is still a few weeks away.

I don't think I'll be able to convince him that lagundi can help ease colic.

I remember receiving my results for all the routine tests that my ob-gyn required. Before my doctor’s appointment, I took a peek and found out I was positive for Rubella. I went through waves of emotions from anger to fear and hopelessness. My doctor’s appointment was a few days away, and the quickest relief was to go online. It didn’t help much as Rubella, also known as German Measles, is proven to be harmful to the fetus. It wasn’t fair, I thought. Apparently without my knowledge, I was infected, and now my baby had to suffer for it. 

The arrival of my son has made me rethink my beliefs on science and medicine.

Refusing to accept this fate for my first offspring, I decided to dig deeper and find the answer that I wanted to hear, or read in this case. This is another problem in itself: our quest to ease our minds by ignoring the answers that don’t sit well with us and seeking a second opinion – the pill that’s easier to swallow, never mind that it’s not the correct diagnosis.

But I digress. In this case, my search for a second opinion turned out to be the right thing to do. My research allayed my fears. To be tested positive for rubella meant that I’ve successfully been vaccinated in the past and am therefore immune to German Measles. I thank the high heavens for Google.

Can I trust Ibuprofen to ease his aches safely?

We can also thank the internet for cheaper home remedies. The problem with homemade remedies is the availability and the appropriateness of these treatments in the Philippines as most of these sites are authored by foreigners. For instance, a webpage suggests a home remedy for dry hair using burdock root, comfrey, elderflowers, and stinging nettle. It may be an effective concoction, but do we have these ingredients readily available here? Do we even know what burdock root is (I most certainly don’t, but let me consult Dr. Google.)? And assuming we’ve found these ingredients, will they work in our kind of climate and with our type of hair? Finally, after computing the cost and the hassle of getting all these ingredients together, we may come to realize that it is betterto reach for a bottle of Pantene.

All that quackery

On the complete opposite of the spectrum, is our Lola or Yaya who strictly forbids a bath when we’re running a fever, greatly contradicting the modern medicine practice of administering iced baths to lower down temperature. Still on the subject of water, it is a common Filipino belief that we get sick when are caught under a drizzle. My husband, who is American, in case you
haven’t surmised this yet (yes my surname is pronounced as “likes” not “lee-kes”), would no doubt scoff at this idea.

Choose your poison/

It is for this reason that when our baby starts hiccupping in the future, I will quietly lick a piece of paper and stick it on his forehead just to test this old timer’s remedy. If that doesn’t work, I heard the wet string works as well too.

Yes, with my somewhat old fashioned influences, raising a baby with an American may prove to be challenging. He has at one point questioned why Filipino toddlers run around with hand towels on their back. He probably would tolerate having his child wear a cape if it will absorb sweat and prevent pneumonia or the sniffles, but he will object to rolling talumpunay leaves into a cigarette for our child to smoke in case he is afflicted with asthma.

Raising a "half-blood" with a westerner can be challenging.

Unfortunately, my hubby will soon have to accept that the medicine cabinet of Filipino remedies are fully stocked. For instance we have the malunggay (moringa oelifera) leaves, and although it is still relatively unknown, this plant is considered as the miracle vegetable by the World Health Organization. Then we have alugbati leaves for abscesses and boils; luya – the Philippine’s power herb - for cold, cough, fever, and sore throat; and the lagundi (vitex nigundo) for dyspepsia, colic, rheumatism, worms, boils, and leprosy. The lana, local virgin coconut oil made of 90 day old coconut flesh, is used as a hair tonic, a massageliniment, or a facial mask. Some drink it to restore body balance and harmony and promote rejuvenation and body thermogenesis. It may be the potion of our grandfathers, but it already has gained respect in the modern world for its high content of monolaurines or lauric acid, vitamin E, and other anti-oxidants. And although the average Pedro would much rather grab a bottle of expectorant or a packet of lozenges, countless Filipinos still prefer these herbal remedies over conventional medicine. Researchers after all have backed up some of these traditional cures to be absolutely effective.

Although paracetamol is unheard of in the US, my husband has learned to appreciate its effectiveness.

And so some, if not many, have decided to marry the old and the new when it comes to health practices. For instance, while many chug down vitamin C and stock up on cold reliefs they also drink salabat (ginger tea) to ease the burning throat. 

Lemongrass tea is not only refreshing, but it is also a safe alternative medicine.

Taking advantage of this trend, the enterprising ones have repackage the old into the new. We now see malunggay leaves in capsule form, along with the ampalaya and the lagundi just to name a few. Others have made these traditional remedies into more fashionable fares with trendy boutique cafes offering refreshing tonics like salabat iced-tea or pandan tea.

Spirits in the medicine cabinet

After Lola, we also listen to Tatang, the neighbouring spirit doctor. Filipino ideas of wellness are after all tightly entwined to mysticism, spirituality, and the supernatural. If something ails us, the spirits have something to do with it. I remember how my brother suffered a stage of sleepwalking when we were young.

I don't care what his temperature is, but he's taking a bath.

Science would have written it off as a sleep disorder, but our resident quack doctor read the melted wax droppings on the water as something else – a creature, that is not of this world, has possessed my dear sibling to wander out at night in his pajamas.

Similarly, the Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome (SUDS) has been heavily cloaked with superstition. Researchers have linked SUDS to acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis while folklore explains suffocation to be caused by an otherworldly creature defecating on the victim’s face. Somehow, for most Filipinos, bangungot is easier to understand than an acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis. 

This happy smile is brought to you by anesthesia and sedatives.

We hear of fever afflicted children brought to manghihilots (traditional healers) or the tawas reader. Before the patient enters the door, the manghihilot already has a diagnosis: pilay . The tawas reader would claim that the child was “nabati”or “namatanda” (terms that suggest that the patient has brushed upon, and perhaps offended, a spiritual being). Immediately a prayer to gods unknown is uttered and a piece of luya is pinned on the child’s clothing.

Oftentimes, the ailment goes away after a day or two. It’s either that or the malady gets worse and the child ends up in the emergency room. Still many prefer the resident quack doctor, perhaps because of our inherited beliefs in the god of the air, the wind, the water, and the earth, or maybe more realistically, because it’s much cheaper to see a quack than a real doc. After all, a donation is only worth as much as P 100. A doctor’s professional fee? At least P 350.

A new oasis

Spas are no longer just places to get a massage, they're also an oasis for rejuvenation.

The evolution of the spa as a new watering hole in the country has also brought about trends in wellness integrated with the old practices. Although most establishments offer state of the art techniques, they also include ancient healing traditions in their menu, hilot being the most popular one. Hilot,the centrepiece of Filipino traditional medicine, according to Dr. Jaime Z. Galvez Tan, Vice Chancellor for Research of the University of the Philippines Manila and Philippine health expert, is an “eclectic mix of indigenous traditional massage techniques from seven major ethno-linguistic cultural areas of the Philippines.” The therapeutic massage treats the veins, arteries, bones, and muscles to relieve pain, fever, sprains, immobility, and arthritis, and even to
re-orient the uterus. Again spirituality is associated with this treatment ashilot is believed to be an armour against curses, hexes, witchcraft, and possessions of elemental spirits.

Getting ready for my spa treatment at Angsana Resort in Bintan, Indonesia.

Dagdagay is another authentic Filipino therapeutic massage adapted from the Igorots that is now being offered by modern spas. The tribal foot massage uses bamboo sticks to target deep tissues and stimulate nerve endings of the feet. Then we have paligo, a rich bath of air-dried tropical and indigenous aromatic leaves and flowers with medicinal properties that is proven to be more beneficial than the rose water or milk water bath of the west. 

A flower foot bath before my massage in Hua Hin, Thailand.

There is a long list of traditional treatments that many establishments have incorporated into their packages, and although some of them sound archaic, many are actually based on science including kisig galing (directly translated as energy heal), biomagnetic energy healing, and tapik kawayan, the use of bamboo (kawayan) sticks to tap (tapik) body parts, identified through hand palpation, to have biomagnetic energy blocks. Couple thesetreatments with advanced technology and you have a holistic approach that an average Filipino – who believes in the modern and yet has not completely turned his back on the old – can accept.

Before my massage by the beach in Boracay, Philippines.

This integration of the new art and science with the traditional is known as Integrative Medicine or Complimentary and Alternative Medicine according to Dr. Tan. What does this mean exactly? It means that our generation is fortunate to be afforded the best of both worlds. It also means that on my due date, I will most probably listen to my elders and boil a certain fruit seed to help ease the birthing process on top of the epidural that I will most definitely take.


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