I first learned my brother had a brain tumor while on tour with American Idols Live! I remember very vividly sitting in the green room before the show when I saw my mom’s number pop up on my phone. Tearfully, she quickly explained that my little brother had had a grand mal seizure the night before.
I was shocked and terrified. What did this mean? Was he going to be OK? Why did it happen?
It was a few more weeks before we received any answers, and when we did, the news seemed grim. He had a tumor that had developed during the third trimester of my mom’s pregnancy. It was benign — for now. It also wasn’t growing — again, for now. Good news, but it was also “gripping” the speech area in his brain, like a tiny hand.
Basically, that meant it was inoperable.
Thank heaven for the amazing doctors at Primary Children’s Medical Center who have helped him throughout the years. They are a large part of why he’s here today. His scary, big seizures have all but stopped and though he still gets small ones on a monthly basis, they are manageable with medication.
Ironically, the word “medication” is basically a swear word in my parents' house. And equally as strange is the fact that, not only does my brother take a hefty dose of pills daily to keep his body and brain working properly, but my father is also a physician. My mom’s oldest sister is a midwife and both she and her sisters have a very holistic and natural approach to healing and wellness. Dinner discussions are always lively when she’s in town, especially if we get into debates about whether medicinal approaches to healing are better than more natural approaches.
So ... why not both?
Time magazine just released a book titled “Alternative Medicine: Your Guide to Stress Relief, Healing, Nutrition, and More.” It’s all about how complementary and alternative medicine can improve our health and health care, with medical expertise from the Mayo Clinic.
The articles in the magazine talk about eating healthy, empowering the mind, flexing and calming, healing naturally and aging well.
I’ve been devouring it over the past week.
Because of my brother’s brain tumor, I’ve seen the enormous benefits of seeing doctors and taking medication. Hospitals have a place, and I’ve even given birth twice in them (another small family controversy).
However, I think we've grown to rely too heavily on medication instead of learning about all the amazing benefits that herbs, supplements, chiropractic care, yoga and mind-calming techniques can provide. Not to mention just good, old-fashioned healthy eating habits.
“It’s what we eat the majority of the time that influences our health,” Donald Hensrud, medical editor of The Mayo Clinic Diet, says.
When my son was 14 months, he started to lose weight. I was still breast-feeding, and had not yet learned I was pregnant again. I didn’t know why my milk supply was diminishing. (It turns out growing a baby on the inside as well as being the only food source for my toddler can be pretty rough on a woman’s body.) I asked my son’s wonderful pediatrician what I could do to help him gain weight. After discussing an aggressive weaning plan (sounds terrible, but it actually wasn’t too bad), my son was off breast milk within 10 days.
Then came the next challenge: eating. Turns out, my son hated it. I finally discovered three foods that he’d usually take: oatmeal, yogurt and green smoothies. So I packed that oatmeal with extra-virgin coconut oil (high in “good” fat), loaded up his smoothies with avocados, kale, spinach (one of Time's “10 Foods You Can’t Get Enough Of” because it’s loaded with nutrients), Greek yogurt, bananas and berries, and instead of giving him a steady dose of Miralax for constipation, tried ground organic flax seed instead.
The results were amazing. My son gained three pounds by his next visit. And his hard, uncomfortable stools came out much easier and more frequent. Now, four years later, hardly a day goes by that we all don’t have a green smoothie in the afternoon.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first, I decided to take a hypnotherapy class. I was convinced I could mentally handle the pain if I were to train my brain to go to a “different place.”
Well, after four hours of drug-free labor, I was begging my husband — between severe vomiting fits — to give me that “evil epidural” and give me it now.
What followed was a great numb, drug-supported birth, but it led to a terrible recovery. Because I had no feeling from the waist down, I couldn’t work with the contractions and ended up pushing much too hard for much too long. I was miserable for about six weeks, and even though the memories of the contractions were still burned in the back of my brain, I thought maybe, just maybe, next time I’d try the whole mind-over-body thing again.
“Guided imagery, the practice of controlled mental visualization, is often used to reduce stress and anxiety, but it also fights pain by refocusing attention,” says Lori Oliwenstein in the article “Pain, Pain, Go Away.”
A 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics “found that children with abdominal pain who listened to audio recordings to guide their visualizations were more than twice as likely to have lower pain levels than kids who used standard treatments.”
Using mind-calming techniques and successfully making it through a second birth drug-free was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life two years later. Recovery time? I was at our annual Halloween party five days later.
There were many other great articles in the magazine, including those that covered chiropractic care (something I’ve just discovered and have already seen great benefits from), massage therapy, musical therapy and even four-legged therapy in which it mentions service dogs being trained to detect seizures in their companions and call for help.
This got me thinking about my brother again, and the wide, perhaps somewhat still undiscovered world of alternative and complementary healing.
“If the long arc of medical science has taught us anything,” says Jeffrey Kluger and David Bjerklie in their article “A History of Hooey” for Time's “Alternative Medicine” edition, “it’s that healing — for all its fitful progress — can come from the most improbable places. True wisdom means keeping a mind that’s both open and skeptical, empirical and intuitive — admitting that we can never be entirely sure what it will take to make us well, but resolving to take advantage of it when we see it.”
One day, that could mean upping my brother’s meds.
Or, it could mean getting him a trained service dog and sending him to yoga class.
Carmen Rasmusen Herbert is a former "American Idol" contestant who writes about entertainment and family for the Deseret News.
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company