INDIA: A Second Opinion!!

“Over the years, I’ve covered a lot of territory for The Washington Post, but it’s a book project that brings me to India, a book on how other countries deliver health care,” says veteran reporter T.R. Reid, as he begins his FRONTLINE/World report on Ayurveda, a form of medicine that has been practiced in India for three thousand years.

The 60-something Reid also has a personal stake in the matter — a bum shoulder that has been bothering him for 25 years since he injured it in an accident in the Navy.

Reid, who is also known for his humorous commentaries on National Public Radio, travels to the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, or AVP, in Coimbatore in southern India to see if he can alleviate his aches and pains and avoid the high-tech shoulder surgery that his physician back home in Denver has recommended.

“On first impression, this place looks more like a spa than a hospital,” says Reid as he strolls around the AVP garden, “but I’ve heard the doctors here know their stuff, especially on chronic illness — you know, migraines, back pain, arthritis — the kind of ailments that we in the West can’t seem to fix.”

“This is the failure of Western medicine,” Dr. Ram Manohar, AVP research chief, tells Reid, “because it knows to cure, but it does not know how to heal.”

Reid’s treatment begins with a ceremony at AVP’s temple, where he seeks the blessing of Dhanwantari, the Hindu god of healing. Is this perhaps all part of a placebo effect? Reid wonders. But Dr. Manohar tells him that’s all right: “The placebo effect, I think, is very essential for our medicines to work. Ayurveda believes that healing has to be initiated from the psyche, the mind of the patient. And we use all techniques as much as we can, including religious.”

Next step: Reid meets the chief healer, Medical Director K.G. Raveendran, who consults with him and takes his pulse — at great length — as if he were hearing all the inner disturbances of the body. At last, Dr. Raveendran pronounces his diagnosis: “Pitta, Kapha.”

This pronouncement is based on the ancient Ayurvedic principle that all living things are controlled by three vital forces, or “doshas” — Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Good health comes from keeping the doshas in balance. As Reid puts it, “When they get out of equilibrium, we get sick. In my case, I have too much Pitta and Kapha, leaving my Vata out of whack.”

What follows is a two-and-a-half-week regimen of oily massages, bitter brews, mudpacks and caustic eye drops. Confiding to his “digital diary” video camera, Reid alternates between skepticism and acceptance as he submits to the treatments — all except the leeches, that is. Those he merely observes at work on another patient.

But can Ayurvedic medicine really cure? Researcher Ram Manohar is prepared to find out. In collaboration with the UCLA Medical School, he’s begun a long-term study to see which works better for rheumatoid arthritis, Ayurveda or the Western drug methotrexate.

“A person like me, I mean, we would like to ultimately understand what really is there in Ayurveda,” says Dr. Manohar. “I mean, we just cannot continue to be mystical about these things. We would really like to demystify the whole process, bring in some transparency, and we feel that if it is found to be not useful, then it will also be a good service.”

At times cranky and sarcastic, Reid nevertheless admits that early mornings at the clinic are magical, and by the end of his stay, he discovers that he has less pain and more movement in his shoulder. The Ayurvedic practitioners tell him to continue the treatments when he returns home to Colorado, and Reid thanks them for their efforts.

Before leaving India, he makes one last stop: Rishikesh, far to the north, the home of the sages, or rishis, and the birthplace of Ayurveda. Pilgrims in the millions come here to perform Hindu rituals in the sacred Ganges, floating candles on the water at night.

Skeptical to begin with, Reid is now convinced that Ayurveda is “on to something,” though it may be hard to prove by Western standards. Perhaps Ram Manohar’s UCLA study will soon provide some answers.

Back home, in a brief epilogue, Reid admits that whatever gains he made in India have faded away. His shoulder is as stiff as ever. “But that’s not the fault of Ayurvedic medicine; let’s be fair here,” says Reid. “It’s because I haven’t done a darned thing about my arm since I left India.” Still, he has decided to skip the surgery that would have implanted a titanium rod in his arm.

“I’m certain that if I did the kind of massage or any kind of exercise like they gave me, even if I took those awful herbal medicines regularly, that my arm would be making significant progress, because we sure did when I was in India,” declares Reid, “and for that I’m grateful to Ayurveda.”


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