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Haven Stephens

© 2000

A Horse and Buggy Doctor in the 21st Century

This is an introduction to A Horse and Buggy Doctor in the 21st Century, a book I’m editing and rewriting for a doctor in Kansas. The book is primarily concerned with integrating alternative medicine in conventional health care.

I am partial to stories. At the bookstore I linger longest in fiction and literature. The errand that usually brings me in the door, however, is not buying a novel. More often I am seeking an answer to a specific question. What backpacking guide would suit my brother for his birthday? Which cookbook can teach a novice like me the basics of Asian cuisine? Who can help me understand why my child doesn’t sleep through the night yet? More pressing than any of these are my medical questions. I need to know the whole story, not just the directions on my doctor’s prescription. As this book reveals, the parameters of the whole story shift according to medical philosophy—especially my own.

I’ve learned that there is a story behind every philosophy. No one truly begins with alternatives. The co-op I belong to is full of these stories. All of us used to shop (and pay less) at conventional grocery stores. Our nudgings toward this alternative are as varied, literally, as our personal histories. Some simply want a different atmosphere. Others believe in the social and environmental virtues of organic food. Many just plain feel better when they eat this way. A few have no other options; for their bodies can not tolerate conventional food.

The story of my own developing health awareness and interest in alternatives is not dramatic; fundamentally, it’s not even based on a specific medical concern. It is, instead, a series of responses to changes in my life.

The first seed of change was probably planted in college. Though I attended a conservative Christian college that mirrored my upbringing, I was exposed to new cultures, new subjects, and most importantly, new ways of thinking. As an English major I learned that there are many ways to tell a story, and almost as many ways to interpret one. In short, I learned that the world is full of alternatives.

A few years later I was doubly surprised by pregnancy— a welcomed but unexpected change, doubled by the ultrasound image of two babies inside me. With this revelation I took an unprecedented interest in what I ate that continued through nursing and making baby food. I shifted to organic products and varied my diet according to their needs. Thus, I bought books on many obstetric and pediatric medical topics. I educated myself on prenatal health, premature infant care, pediatric development, childhood diseases, and immunizations. Again, while many conventional practices and knowledge were confirmed, I also discovered and took heart in nontraditional (i.e., apart from the mainstream) approaches.

This mingling of conventional and non-conventional possibilities was key. My personal research forewarned me of my son’s anaphylactic reaction to his first taste of peanut butter and helped me piece together the evidence of gluten intolerance in both boys. In the first scenario conventional medicine saved my son’s life and is his only assurance of surviving future allergic reactions. The second situation is livable, and eased by alternatives. Thus, out of concern for my sons’ well-being I incorporated healthy alternatives to such childhood standards as the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, macaroni and cheese, and graham crackers in their diet.

It was not until I realized that my marriage was faltering that I took an interest in my own health. Recognizing my growing despondency, I knew something had to change—so I dyed my hair. When that didn’t make life more satisfying I started running, ostensibly, at least, for exercise. This worked; I felt stronger physically and emotionally. Though the change was subtle, overshadowed by remaining concerns about our family, my improved health gave me a sense of renewed hope and openness to other unexplored possibilities.

My former husband, who, incidentally, is now a runner himself, playfully asserts that running ruined his marriage. We both know it didn’t; it was a response to change. Other unanticipated but similar responses accompanied the divorce. My parents often tease me about my new lifestyle because they could not have predicted that of their children I would become the most health-conscious—nor could I for that matter. No more conciliatory pork chops or New York strips; now a vegetarian, I eat my way, foods that make me feel good.

Some stories begin with a crisis; my story is quietly unfolding through its own cast of characters, conflicts, and resolutions. In the best novels the protagonist is a developing rather than static character who learns from his or her experience. It is precisely our experience, sometimes in the form of knowledge, that leads us to alternatives. Life, like an engrossing story, changes both unexpectedly and inevitably. Thus, if we each read our story closely, occasionally using books like this to help us interpret it, we may surprise ourselves at the conclusions and transitions of the chapters.

Haven Stephens was a 2000 Selective fellow. She teaches Composition and Literature at Anoka-Ramsey Community College. She received a Graduate Fellowship in 1995; her interests include American literature, film and cooking. She is the mother of identical twin boys.