Body and Soul
IN THIS SECTION
EAST MEETS WEST IN MEDICINE
Erin Resko: Local Chinese Herbalist and Acupuncturist
When traditional Chinese medicine arrived in the U.S. in the late 19th century, its methods were quite different from those being used by Western doctors who were still practicing bloodletting, blistering and harsh purging to rid the body of illness. The Chinese approach was to use natural herbal remedies to treat the body as one whole, interconnected system.
Thankfully, Western medicine has changed over the years. However, the Chinese medicine practiced today is basically the same as it was centuries ago, said modern practitioner Erin Resko, owner of My Essential Healing in Ketchum and Hailey.
Resko, who has a Master’s degree in acupuncture and oriental medicine, a degree in physiology, and additional training focusing on sports medicine, said Chinese medicine is about bringing the body back into a state of balance and harmony so that each system works well on its own and doesn’t tax another system.
Like practitioners of old, Resko uses both acupuncture and herbs, either alone or simultaneously, to treat a myriad of conditions such as sleep disorders, hormonal issues, women’s issues, and pain, the latter being one of the most common complaints she sees. She treats each condition and each individual with a different approach.
“If someone comes in with back pain and another comes in with ankle pain, we wouldn’t treat them with the same formula,” she said, noting that the herbs she treats with are guided into different cells and areas of the body just by changing the formula composition. “We use food as medicine. Everyday herbs like mint or licorice work together synergistically depending on the way they are put together.”
The Chinese figured out how the various herbs work by looking at the whole plant and what the different parts did for itself. They then transferred that concept over to how plants would affect the human body. “For example, the lighter flower parts of the herb work on the upper body, the heavier herbs, like seed and roots, work on the lower part of the body,” Resko said.
Likewise, she noted, an acupuncturist might use single acupuncture points to do a job or, as with the herbal formulas, put a number of different acupuncture points together to treat multiple organ systems and the body as a whole.
How does acupuncture work? Resko uses the analogy of a string of Christmas lights with one bulb burned out, which causes the other lights along the line to short circuit. “We are largely made up of water, electrolytes and different chemical constituents that carry a different charge,” she said. “If there is a malfunction along the circuit, as with a string of lights, the rest of the lights no longer function as they should. Acupuncture needles work because they are electrical conductors, promoting flow along the meridians and within the body, connecting this circuitry from organ system to organ system.”
Because the Chinese didn’t have research, blood tests and ways to see into the body, they observed the changes in the landscape of nature and saw how that overlapped with, and changed, the landscapes of our bodies, both inside and out.
“Like the seasons, our bodies are constantly changing and adapting to our environments,” she said. “In Chinese medicine, each organ system is represented by a corresponding season and element.”
Many of Resko’s clients come to her after hitting a dead end with other medical treatment. “Maybe they’ve been told that it’s all in their head, or there’s nothing more medically that can be done,” she said. “Doctors look at blood tests or imaging because that’s how they diagnose, and sometimes there’s nothing they can see, but that doesn’t mean the patient isn’t feeling pain or that their symptoms aren’t real. You can have pain that’s real to you but there is nothing physically or structurally wrong.”
Like any health care practitioner, Resko knows her boundaries and what health issues she can and cannot treat. She said she refers clients to other specialists when necessary. “Acupuncture works very well in conjunction with other treatments,” she noted. “Our bodies are different today than centuries ago and we’ve adapted the treatments to how people are now, but still, the basics of Chinese medicine have remained the same.” - Patti Murphy
REMEDIES AND CURES OF THE OLD WEST
From Bloodletting to Willow Bark
Common in Old West treatments were bloodletting, purging, blistering and sweating, and other extreme treatments, believed to flush out toxins and infections from the body. Faced with cures that often failed or were worse than the actual ailment, calling the doctor was a last resort for many people. Besides, the nearest physician might live many miles away, his fee could be far too expensive and his remedies were often no better than home treatments that used natural items from around the farm. Home cures were often found in word-of-mouth advice that suggested using common materials from the homestead, such as turpentine, kerosene lard, coal oil, cobwebs, tobacco and even farm animal dung.
One remedy for a cough and sore throat was to simmer a piece of salt pork in hot vinegar, let it cool, and fasten it around the neck with a piece of red flannel. Measles and other eruptive diseases were treated with a dose of “nanny tea,” which was sheep dung steeped in boiling water. For a wound, a slightly used chew of tobacco was applied and bound in place, which was thought to draw out the poison.
In the middle of the 19th century, “patent medicines” gained widespread favor in the U.S. These vegetable-based concoctions didn’t require a prescription, even though they were frequently high in alcohol, or fortified with morphine, opium or cocaine. These medicines may not have cured anything but they undoubtedly made the patient feel better.
But in the midst of all these somewhat questionable kitchen remedies of the Old West, 19th-century Americans began to take their cue from the Native American and traditional Chinese healers and began to make skillful use of the natural medicine available to them. Moss, bark, leaves, sap, roots and various berries were brewed into teas, mixed into poultices or crushed into powders. Nature’s bounty was a trusted remedy for what ailed them, a practice still seen today each time we eat a bowl of hot chicken soup for a cold or flu, or drink chamomile tea to calm anxiety and settle the stomach.
In fact, many herbal remedies from the Old West have made their way into the present day—too many to name—but some of the more familiar ones include the following items listed here. - Patti Murphy
HEALING IN THE WOMB OF MOTHER EARTH
Therapy through Native Sweat Lodges
A damaged psyche may require more than a pharmacy to fully recover. In a return to traditional therapies, some Idahoans have sought the restorative effects of the Native American sweat lodge to deal with their emotional scars. From a Ketchum backyard to the Boise VA, an ancient ritual, that of intimate group sweats in the darkness of a confined space, has found new life in the Gem State.
The sweat lodge is distinct from a steam room or sauna—the intended purpose is more spiritual, the duration longer and the experience more exhausting. It is a hand-built dome construction only a few meters high, framed with saplings and covered, nowadays, with old blankets or quilts. Large stones, brought inside the lodge from a fire pit nearby, steam-heat the room when doused with water.
Sweating amongst North American tribes was practiced for three purposes: religious (purification and the propitiation of spirits), therapeutic (healing) and hygienic. Excluding the latter, today’s practitioners tend to sweat for those same reasons and continue to follow some form of ritual, depending on the tribal affiliation or leanings of those involved.
Ketchum resident Cam Cooper has no illusions about the nature of his sweats, despite having 25 years of experience. As he explained, “I bring what I can from what I was taught, because I’m borrowing the entire tradition of the sweat lodge.” Cooper, who hosts ceremonies in his backyard, honors the native practices by following a detailed ritual sequence, which he breaks up into four to five rounds over two hours. “Most of us will go into a sauna for 10-20 minutes; this is more intense than that,” he explained. “I ask people to push themselves, but to be responsible. Safety is primary.”
To begin each ceremony, which varies from all-male to coed, Cooper asks the circle a question: “Why are you here?” Although responses vary, the ensuing journey of solidarity and sacrifice is shared by all. For Cooper, sweating is a way of “suffering for the people. It is about undergoing discomfort in order to cleanse oneself for prayer, for blessing, for the healing of others.”
At the Boise VA, where healing is paramount, the sweat lodge ceremony has been implemented in conjunction with established therapies to treat mental disorders, such as PTSD and substance abuse. Cedric DeCory, part Sioux Indian and the VA’s administrative officer for behavioral health, has organized sweat lodge ceremonies at the center since 2001.
Part of the Native Services program, the ceremonies are conducted twice a month for 10-15 attendees, most of whom are recurring participants. As DeCory explained, “If someone is suffering from a sense of isolation, the sweat lodge provides community and brings in fellowship,” allowing attendees to feel more comfortable speaking. While the sweat lodge remains an alternative form of treatment, “the outcomes and rates of recidivism are comparable to other types of modalities,” praised DeCory.
As the U.S. expanded westward, many Native Americans dealt with the white settlers’ foibles through cleansing in the sweat lodge. Centuries later, our vices still intact, the sweat lodge continues to purify seekers of the New West, healing wounds through a sacred ceremony of surrender and support. - Alec Barfield
HEALING WATERS OF THE WOOD RIVER VALLEY
Public Soaks for Public Health
When Guyer Hot Springs Hotel and Bath opened on July 4th, 1882, three miles outside of Ketchum, it was the Wood River Valley’s first true “resort.”
Unlike Sun Valley today, where the main attractions are snow and sunshine, the offerings at Guyer Hot Springs Hotel and Bath were steamier: a naturally-heated plunge bath and a swimming pool on a gorgeous piece of property in the Warm Springs area filled with cherry, apple, pear and plum trees. Apart from the grounds’ natural beauty, the secret to Guyer’s success was no mystery: the hot springs held healing waters. And resorts like Guyer advertised as much. The medical establishment of the 19th century praised geothermal baths for their medicinal benefits, despite almost no serious investigations, claiming that the mineral-rich waters could treat cases of rheumatism, skin and blood diseases, and even nervous disorders. Ketchum’s original tourist attraction, consequently, was more than a garden paradise and a grand time. It was a “curative” retreat, the centerpiece of which was the water, superheated along fault zones miles underground and still steaming at the surface.
The historical use of water therapy is nearly universal. Archaeologists have found evidence of bathing rooms at the ancient Greek palace of Knossos dating back to 1700 B.C.E., and in Japan the “onsen,” or hot spring, has been a part of society for a millennia, even finding acceptance as a form of treatment at many of the national hospitals. More recently, the therapeutic use of mineral waters through immersion, known as “balneotherapy,” has undergone increased medical consideration.
Whether or not hot springs can treat one’s health problems, their good-time value is undisputed, and nothing calms the mind like a warm soak on the banks of a wild river.
With more soakable hot springs than any other state, Idaho is ripe with such healing waters and well-suited for some unofficial balneological research almost any day of the year. -Alec Barfield