Several years ago, I had what women dread, a positive mammogram. I had been going to Florence Jones, or Grandma Florence as we called her, for all illnesses. I trusted her, learning more and more about her way of doctoring each time I visited. In the back of my mind, however, I had wondered what I would do if I faced a life threatening disease.
My medical doctor suggested surgery as if he were giving me good news. “You can expect that it won’t affect your life span,” he explained. The mammogram had caught it at a very early stage. He suggested we set up a time for the biopsy quickly. The doctor was surprised that I wanted to go home to think about it first.
I was relieved to find that my only thought was I needed to talk to my Winnemem doctor and do whatever she said.
Florence Jones was the Top Doctor of the Winnemem people. According to Florence, this meant she had mastered three levels of doctoring -- herbal, sucking and trance. She was born to her sixty year old mother on Thanksgiving Day in the middle of a great snowstorm. The old doctors gathered together to see what kind of baby Florence was. Usually, babies born late in a woman’s life were either spiritual or the other way. The old doctors saw the infant was spiritual and that she should be mentored in the old way of doctoring.
Florence told me stories of how she learned everything from her mother -- herself a Winnemem doctor -- every rock, every plant, every part of the land between the Sacramento River and Mt. Shasta. At ten years old, Florence walked the whole distance alone. She stopped to rest only once, at the doctoring place at Dekkas Rock. There she was asked by the old doctors if she were tired.
“I was, but I’m not anymore,” Florence answered.
The doctors asked if she were hungry.
“I was but I’m not anymore.” So they sent her on her way.
According to Florence, she was not afraid of the lonely difficult walk because a little bear cub followed her the whole distance, a few yards away. She knew it wanted to help. There was one spot so dark she could not see anything. She was surrounded by blackness. Florence prayed and a star shot light in front of her illuminating her path.
Her spiritual education was interrupted by boarding school. Florence recounts stories of humiliation and abuse characteristic of the government and religious boarding schools of that time. She followed a career path to nursing there but in returning home, she became ill, feverish and delirious. Florence said she fell into a coma-like state.
The old doctors believed the condition was induced by the confusion between two ways of doctoring. In helping Florence regain her health, they made it clear she had to choose. She told me that she chose the Creator’s way and she has never regretted it.
Stunned by the medical doctor’s news, I called Granny. “Don’t let them cut you,” she said. “Come down now.” Granny believed that the knife encouraged spreading. Soon Sun and I immediately left for California.
The morning after my arrival, Granny and I did not talk about the mammogram. Instead, we began the chores for the day. That day it meant keeping Florence’s doctor appointment in Redding. First I drove Granny to her initial acupuncture appointment with Dr. Lee. Indian doctors cannot doctor themselves and must rely on other Indian doctors. However, US incursion into the area affected the indigenous way of life and traditional ways of doing things, including the number of people who continued the doctoring ways. As an elder with arthritis, Florence must rely on other ways for herself.
Dr. Lee greeted Granny with a gentle smile and quiet voice. We were ushered by Mrs. Lee into a room with soft lighting. A large portrait of a baby in pink taffeta caught her eye. “That must be the granddaughter” she guessed correctly, and relaxed onto the table. Her eyes then fixed upon Dr. Lee’s chart of the human body and hundreds of Chinese characters identifying energy points.
Dr. Lee came in, slightly bowing his head and smiling. “Excuse me, please.” His touch, though soft, had authority as he accurately found where her pain was. Florence winced a little with each needle but did not complain. Then Dr. Lee left us. Florence relaxed, her eyes closed. The treatment was very good for her and in the end she had gained a colleague.
“He doctors just like me,” Granny announced as we drove home. Florence does not use needles and Dr. Lee does not go into trance. Although I did not ask, I know the similarity lies in the spirit of the doctoring. Until Dr. Lee retired and moved, Granny was a patient, always asking for her favorite room, the one with his granddaughter’s picture.
Our second visit that day was to Florence’s medical doctor who had treated her since she was young. Granny grew tired waiting for over an hour in the reception area and then more time in the examination room. When the doctor finally entered, he shouted, “What’s wrong, Florence!”
“Oh, my stomach’s been hurting,” she complained.
“Stomach hurts,” the doctor repeated, scratching onto a prescription pad.
“It’s hard to sleep,” she continued.
“Can’t sleep!” he continued writing.
Quickly tearing the note off the pad, the doctor reached into his pocket for a small tape recorder and began to speak in it, “Patient complains about stomach . . .”
Just as quickly as he had rushed in, he rushed out calling out behind his back, “See you next time, Flo!”
That afternoon, we sat together by the newly planted garden. White butterflies flew among the vegetable sprouts. I told Granny what the mammogram revealed. She said, “We’ll take care of it. Remember, I’ve been a doctor for over seventy years and I haven’t lost a patient yet!” She laughed and patted my arm.
It was time to go up into her attic, a ritual she saved for my visits. There we would sit among her trunks and boxes, pulling out and taking account of all her pretties. “Do you have a fur coat?” Granny asked.
“No,” I answered. It was the farthest thing from my imagination.
“I have three,” she said. “I was so proud when I spent my first paycheck on my first fur coat. It cost me $20 at Montgomery Wards. She fussed in the trunk and pulled out a fur cape. “Here! It’s yours!” I was touched by her gesture and hugged her thank you.
That evening, Florence took me out to the fire. She went into a trance and learned that I did not have cancer, but it was a condition similar enough. She gave me what I needed and instructed me to do exactly what she said. She told me I needed to return to let her know what was happening from time to time.
I went home with bags of herbs and a fur coat. My visit with Florence begged comparison: the Chinese doctor, touching, feeling, observing the body as landscape, encouraging balance by stimulating the body’s own healing abilities; the medical doctor with his books and pills, his tape recorder, his tight schedule; the Winnemem top doctor feeds and hosts the patient, works together in the garden, gives the patient a fur coat, prays and seeks instruction spiritually and sends her home with medicine.
There are further comparisons. The Winnemem doctor is chosen by the Creator to doctor. She learns the doctoring ways, the songs from other doctors, but also through spiritual means. The acupuncturist and the medical doctor are schooled and credentialed. The Chinese doctor seeks balance and works with the body’s natural healing abilities. The medical doctor seeks to search and destroy.
Over the ensuing year and a half, I learned more about the difference between the Winnemem way and the medical way. Granny made me work hard to regain my health. I followed her instructions and took her medicines every day, whether I went on a long trip or worked. While taking some of the medicines, I was forced to lie down, and relax, twice a day. No excuse to stop the medicines.
Definitely, the medical doctors and their pharmaceuticals are quick and efficient. One can be very ill and go on with the daily grind as if nothing were out of the ordinary. However, I wonder, is it really helpful to act as if nothing were out of the ordinary when one is trying to heal?
My medical doctor called me several times wanting to schedule the operation. Finally I wrote a letter asking him not to worry. I told him I sought another way for healing, and did not waste a minute to work hard on the process. He was concerned but he did not try to change my mind.
The medicines caused all kinds of irritations. Was this ok? I clung to my faith. I would call Granny every step of the way. From time to time she would adjust the treatment and would calm my nerves. Everything was happening as expected.
Faith is critical to this kind of doctoring. It is hard work to get well this way. Only the belief I must do it kept me going. I felt alone at home away from Winnemem. Only my husband and family knew what I was doing.
I made the mistake of asking a friend who happened to be a Methodist minister for prayers that I could keep a strong faith. To this day, whenever he asked how I was, he would look at me as if I were doomed.
During this time, my doctor friend who took me down to Winnemem in the first place was very encouraging. He helped me with my faith. Because I was separated by such distance from the Winnemem, he suggested I talk with the plants and the water, asking them for help as I prepared them, and thank them when I was finished with them. I began to feel the relationship grow with the herbs, the water and it helped my faith.
After the longest year of my life, Grandma Florence suggested I get another mammogram. I nervously waited for the results. The day of the doctor’s appointment, the medical doctor met me at the office door, right hand extended. “Congratulations!” he smiled. “I don’t know what you did but whatever you did was right. Your tests indicate you’re clear.”
I settled down in a chair in relief. “Now,” he continued, “You’re at that age we should be talking about hormone replacement treatment.”
“NO!” I said quickly. “How can you talk to me about hormones with its possible link to breast cancer after I’ve spent a year working hard on that very disease, scared out of my wits!”
He argued, “You have a family history of heart disease. Estrogen reduces the risk of heart disease. Without it,” he pulled out the big guns, “your bones will rot and you’ll die of a heart attack.”
I held fast to my resolve and left his office never to return again.
For myself, after a year working hard with Grandma and the medicines, I no longer had faith in the medical way which understands sickness in terms of war -- isolate, kill it, cut it out, radiate it rather than to understand healing in terms of strengthening the body’s natural healing abilities and in the context of relationship with the earth’s medicines.
The Winnemem doctor works within relationship and spirit. The Winnemem way of doctoring builds a relationship for the “patient” with the doctor, the medicines, the water, the fire and all the sacred places. Healing is a long process, not a short, quick efficient one. It is reciprocal, personal and deeply satisfying as any friendship or family.
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