Friday, November 24, 2006

Quackery fact & fiction

It's only a novel

I have developed a fondness for the novels of Patrick O'Brian, a self-indulgent writer whose virtues outweigh his sometimes cavalier treatment of both his narratives and his readers. O'Brian is especially good reading for those who relish the artful use of language and the frequent deployment of playful vocabulary. As a word maven, I thus find that the Aubrey-Maturin novels suit my taste.

By a curious coincidence, this holiday week has been bracketed by matching bookends, one from O'Brian's fiction and another from the continually unrolling saga of my family history. The fiction is from the early pages of The Truelove, where Dr. Maturin is found taking Captain Aubrey to task:
‘Of course, as I have told you these many years, you eat too much, you drink too much, and you do not take enough exercise. And this bout I have noticed that although the water has been charmingly smooth ever since we left New South Wales, although the boat has rarely exceeded a walking pace, and although we have been attended by no sharks, no sharks at all, in spite of Martin's sedulous watch and mine, you have abandoned your sea-bathing.’

‘Mr Harris said is was bad in my particular case: he said it closed the pores, and would throw the yellow bile upon the black.’

‘Who is Mr Harris?’

‘He is a man with singular powers, recommended to me by Colonel Graham when you were away on your tour of the bush. He give you nothing but what grows in his own garden or in the countryside, and he rubs your spine with a certain oil; he has performed some wonderful cures, and he is very much cried up in Sydney.’

Stephen made no comment. He had seen too many quite well educated people run after men with singular powers to cry out, to argue or even to feel anything but a faint despair.
When Maturin finally persuades Aubrey to resume his swimming regimen, he promptly meets with disapproval from the crew members who know their captain was advised by the charlatan Harris to give over his saline ablutions. After all, Harris is known to be a natural healer, and what could be more—well—natural?

It's only her life

The matching bookend is also fiction, but not in the way you might expect.

My sister-in-law missed Thanksgiving dinner with the rest of the family. She stayed at home, suffering through her second week of abdominal distress. The illness finally overcame her reluctance to visit the family physician, who ordered up a CT scan and other medical exams, the results to be ready the day after Thanksgiving. We all heard at dinner that the early indications suggested one of three possible diagnoses: appendicitis (although not yet acute), diverticulitis, or a bowel-obstructing mass. The latter was the most worrisome, with its potential for malignancy.

The doctor's appointment was set for today (Friday) at mid-morning. I would be traveling back to northern California, but my mother promised me that she would call with the results of the tests as soon as she heard from her daughter-in-law. Noon came and went without a phone call. More hours ticked by until finally, hours later than expected, I got the anticipated call. The doctors had determined that my sister-in-law had a “mass” (as they discreetly termed it) that threatened occlusion of her bowel. Her physician recommended surgery to remove it and discover whether it was benign or malignant, after which they would know whether further treatment would be indicated.

The delay in transmitting this information to the rest of the family was occasioned by my sister-in-law's very natural decision to seek a second opinion. She promptly headed off to one of her favored medical practitioners for further evaluation. This practitioner peered into my sister-in-law's eyes (iridology, I presume) and informed her that there was a blockage in her colon (Oh, my, how did the practitioner know that?!) and that a series of enemas would clear it away in a matter of weeks. As one might have guessed, my gullible sister-in-law has decided to put off surgery until she's given the enema therapy a fair chance to cure her.

My brother's wife, a stupid, stupid woman (okay, ignorant then), thinks that masses that persist in the colon can be washed away. She is the target market for fraudulent colon-cleansing regimens that promise weight loss and health restoration by removal of pounds and pounds of uneliminated wastes. Real doctors know this is foolishness, but the charlatans make a nice living from it. In this case, the intestinal mass is going to be given a few more weeks to grow while a worthless nostrum is applied.

My sister-in-law is merely running true to form. Last year she warned my mother that flu shots are bad for you, whereupon my elderly mother decided not to have one. Who is stupider? The idiot giving uninformed advice or the dupe who takes it? My mother got gravely ill during flu season and this year she got her shot. Nevertheless, my mother is the one who defended her daughter-in-law's decision today by saying, “A lot of people say very good things about this woman She looks in your eyes and can tell what's wrong with you.” I nearly screamed at my mother over the phone, but my exhortations were a waste of breath.

My brother, a dutiful husband who is used to his wife's idiosyncrasies, is keeping his own counsel for the time being. My father is raging at his daughter-in-law's idiocy (so for once the old man and I agree on something).

I hope she's not killing herself. The brainless airhead.


anomalous4 said...

AFAIK, there is at least one valid diagnosis that can be made directly by looking at a person's irises. If the patient has Wilson's disease - a buildup of excess copper in his/her system - and it's progressed far enough, blue-green rings will appear around the edges of the iris.

Of course, you can also see jaundice, but jaundice is only a symptom. Looking in someone's eyes won't tell you the cause.

But bowel problems? I hope your sister-in-law wises up quick, or she's going to be in some deep doo-doo (no pun intended).

Hobo said...

I think you forget one other diagnoses you can determine while you look in someones eyes: retardation.

Obviously your sister in law has a very bad case of it, and can only be treated by my patented mix of snake oil and underwater basket weaving.

Now remember, there is no cure, just constant fattening of my bank account.

Anonymous said...

I've got a co-worker who is taking an iridology class now:

She's a little rattled by the fact that I know more about it than she does, and I don't believe in it.