News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

A naturopath’s path to vaccination

Being a naturopath invites health questions in conversation. Recently, people have been asking me about the COVID vaccines. I am not sure what people expect to hear. I imagine they hope I know a natural way to make the immune system so robust that any vaccine is rendered unnecessary.

Alas, my immune system is a feeble thing. My health history sounds like multiple episodes of “Little House on the Prairie,” with the fortunate addition of antibiotics. Before I could walk, I tested positive for tuberculosis. This was confounding because at that time tuberculosis rates were plummeting, leaving a source of exposure a mystery. In addition to ritual childhood illnesses, I had other issues. When I was five, I had a virus that caused my body to ache so badly I remember Pa — I mean my dad — carrying me to the bathroom because it hurt too much to walk.

At seven I was thrown delirious into an icy bath, where I listened to some poor soul’s teeth chattering in the distance for 10 minutes before coming to and realizing that poor soul was me. I had scarlet fever.

As a teenager I had recurrent boils on my face. This culminated in my waking one night to a face that was utterly unrecognizable. My right eye was swollen shut, my nose flat due to the swelling of my cheek, my lips grotesquely misshapen. I spent a full week in the hospital on IV antibiotics.

Modern medicine has come through for me. Notably missing from this list of woes are all the conditions for which I was vaccinated. Everything about my history suggests I am one untreatable microbe away from certain death. Losing an aunt and an uncle to COVID-19 furthered my feelings of vulnerability. While I have worked to shore up my pitiful immune system with nutrition and herbs, all those interventions have given me what I imagine to be the resilience of an undernourished traveler near the end of the Oregon Trail.

In short, I was happy to take my place in line to get vaccinated.

That does not mean I was without reservations, in part due to my highly suggestible nature. My immune system treats a list of possible side effects like an overambitious spouse with a travel brochure.

Immune system: Fever, let’s do that.

Me: We don’t have to do any of it. We could just rest.

Immune system: That’s silly. Of course, we want the full experience! Hmm, maybe just a little nausea.

Me: Why —?

Immune system: Body aches, check. Let’s really spend some quality time there. Oh, and swollen lymph node in left armpit-yes!

Me: Wait, that’s not even on the list! That was just one friend who got the vaccine weeks ago!

Immune system: Oooh, exotic!

Me: It’s not exotic, it is a normal response to an immune challenge in the arm — agggghh!

My first vaccine was largely unremarkable with some arm soreness and fatigue. I received my second dose from a lovely woman who asked me how the first went and warned me my second could be different.

“Don’t suffer needlessly, though” she said and mentioned Tylenol. Wait, what? Suffer needlessly? Challenge accepted! Whatever credibility I had lost as a naturopath through my inability to manifest robust immunity I could regain through needless suffering.

My medicine is built on a foundation of questionable suffering. Naturopathy began in part in the 1800s at German health spas, at which a major treatment involved either being sprayed with, plunging in, or resting nether regions in icy cold water. No one suffers more enthusiastically than a naturopathic student. During school I burned myself with mustard plasters, fasted, and used purgatives for simple colds.

I was considered moderate. Though we are gentler on our patients, as doctors we continue to be hard on ourselves. Recently a colleague lamented her out-of-control sugar binge, which consisted of a pint of local organic strawberries. As self-flagellators we have few rivals.

So, I wandered home to enjoy the trip my immune system had planned with nothing but chicken soup to get me through. Perhaps my former experiences worked to console me. Unlike my mysteriously sourced tuberculosis, all my symptoms were attributable to my recent vaccine. Though the body aches were formidable, I could still convey myself to the bathroom to the relief of my dog, the only helpful creature about. My fever did not require an ice bath. And when I saw myself in the mirror, though I looked like a waxen doll replica of myself, my normal features were readily discernible.

The symptoms subsided remarkably after 36 hours. And I am prepared both to encounter the virus and with another story for my grandkids of how tough things have been. It doesn’t have to be your story, however. For those not living with one foot in the 19th century I hear tell of a thing called “Tylenol.”


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