BACK TO THE FEATURE INDEX

IIn April 1986, I graduated from the Science University of Malaysia with a bachelor's degree in pharmacy and second-class honors. I had done well in my final year--the clinical part of the course--and had finished with As and Bs. In fact, I was twice offered the opportunity to do my master's at the same university.

As you can imagine, with that kind of feedback, I grew somewhat arrogant about my abilities as a pharmacist, the so-called drug expert. I was completely sold on drugs--how and why they work. Although my 4-year training did alert me to their side effects, I was convinced of the therapeutic potential of these complex chemical structures that we refer to as ?medicine.?

I promptly chose to go into clinical pharmacy--the most exciting application of pharmaceutical knowledge--helping patients in the hospital maximize the effects of the drugs they are prescribed while minimizing the potential side effects. I was posted to the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital, the largest hospital in Malaysia. Working with some of the best consultant doctors in the country, I was having a whale of a time.

Then, something happened to me that would forever change my perception of modern medicine. I started having a strange nodular rash that appeared on my back every 3 weeks or so. The nodules were not itchy, but some did hurt. What was really irritating was that they would bleed, causing embarrassing bloodstains on my shirt. The rash would stay for a week or so and then resolve by itself.

Being the ?drug expert,? I started to self-medicate. First, I tried creams, ointments, shampoos, and scrubs. When that did not work, I resorted to antihistamines, antibiotics, antifungals, and even steroids. I did this alone initially but then in consultation with some of those brilliant doctors with whom I had the good fortune of working. Over a 2-year period, nothing worked.

The rash came back as severely as ever. Indeed, it got a little worse over the treatment period. Finally, a dermatologist put me on a powerful antifungal medication that was a breakthrough at that time. It worked minimally, but the fine print in the package insert warned about liver failure and the need to go for biannual liver tests.

Clearly, this was not a solution. The search had to go on. ?

Desperate and at the urging of my mother, I decided to call on a homeopath. At that time, that was for me an act of blasphemy, given my faith in my medical training and in pharmaceuticals. Alternative medicine was, in my mind, spooky stuff. It was unscientific. I considered those practicing the ?art? to be charlatans and con artists.

The homeopath I consulted with did nothing to reverse my negative perceptions. In fact, he reinforced them. He sat in a somewhat dark and dingy room. He dressed poorly and appeared to be half-listening as I attempted to pour out the story of my 2-year agony. As I continued to speak, he prescribed two ?medicines.? I was aghast! The "pills" that he gave me looked like lizard?s eggs. Every one of them had a different size, shape, and shade of yellow. This was unacceptable to a trained pharmacist like me who was then already employed by the pharmaceutical industry.

?Put them under your tongue,? he said. ?Let them stay there for a while. And no coffee or tea.? I did not believe him. I had no faith in his methods and training. The pills he dished out did not seem convincing to me. Nevertheless, I took them and his advice because I was desperate and had already paid him. Little did I know then that my life was going to change forever.

I consumed the pills and, as forewarned, had very bad diarrhea that night. I continued taking them, and nothing else seemed to happen. Three weeks later, the rashes did come back, but they were not even half as severe as they had been in the past. I was absolutely stunned. Almost nothing had happened in my 2 years of trying the best of what modern medicine and the pharmaceutical industry had to offer. Suddenly, one attempt by a homeopath and I was more than half better!

I went back to the homeopath--this time with renewed faith, amazement, and even admiration. I congratulated him on my rapid improvement. He seemed disappointed that I was not completely cured! He prescribed me another dose of the pills. ?It will never come back,? he promised me, and true enough, it never did!

The following month, I went back to him to try and understand what had happened. How had I gotten cured in two sessions with such an unorthodox method? He explained using terms such as "energy," "vibration," and "electromagnetic field." I was astounded. My 4 years of pharmacy education and 2 years of preuniversity biology and chemistry had not prepared me for this.

My curiosity was aroused, and I plunged into the world of alternative medicine. I read whatever I could and spoke about it with whomever I came in contact. The more I discovered, the more interested I became in the quiet power of herbs, ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, chiropractics, osteopathy, and vibration medicine.

I began to understand that some of these healing arts have been around since long before the modern medicine that I had been trained to worship. Ayurveda, for example, has been practiced for 4000 years. Interestingly, these arts have survived the powerful dictates and lobbies of modern medicine.

I realized that these therapies are not only gentle but also powerful. Unlike synthetic drugs, these ancient therapies work with the body systems, yielding almost no side effects. Indeed, they are more preventive than curative and are more in line with the two tenets of Hippocrates: First do no harm, and let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.

Some 7 years later, I left the pharmaceutical industry. I started a business selling herbs mostly from the ayurvedic heritage. Over time, I have researched Malaysian herbs and processed them into modern pharmaceutical dosage forms--creams, pills, and capsules. I signed up to do my doctorate in holistic medicine, a healing system that aims to merge the best of modern and ancient medicine with the patient?s interest in mind. In order to educate the public about herbs, I became a guest columnist of The Star--the top local English daily. I also write for a health magazine.

To my pleasant surprise, the alternative medicine industry welcomed me with open arms. With my strong pharmaceutical credentials and writing abilities, my entry into this area was a boost to the industry. I was invited to make appearances in television and radio shows. Soon, I was asked to sit on committees that advised both the minister of health and the prime minister. I was also asked to head the team that drew up the National Herbal Blue Print that was eventually tabled to the cabinet.

Actually, in Malaysia and much of Asia, more people seek help from alternative medicine than from modern medicine, a phenomenon that has been noted by the World Health Organization. It seems that alternative remedies are often attempted first because they are cheaper and more accessible than modern medicine and trained doctors. So, in much of Asia, modern medicine is the ?alternative.?

In Malaysia, interest in herbs has been growing exponentially, almost paralleling the international scene. Yet, little research on tropical herbs was being done and recorded. So working with a prominent professor of botany and plant physiology, I set up the Journal of Tropical Medicinal Plants--the first journal of its kind in the world focusing on the tropical medicinal plant industry. The journal is now in its fifth issue. To my absolute satisfaction, the local and international advisers to the journal represent a who?s who in the herbal research field worldwide.

The journey that started with a desperate visit to a homeopath has changed my life in a way I could have never have imagined.