In treating a patient, one of the basic decisions a healthcare practitioner must make is, “What is it that needs to be cured in this particular person?” At first glance, this might not seem like a particularly difficult question to answer, but the simplicity is deceptive. A person complains of a bloated abdomen, but what needs to be addressed may be weak digestion that leads to a build-up of gas, or perhaps a tumor that is causing an abundance of fluid to accumulate. Similarly, persons with chronic headaches or migraines can temporarily remove the symptoms with pain relief medications, but the headaches are rarely cured with them. What needs to be addressed can vary from hormonal imbalances to dental problems to upsurges of suppressed rage to any number of possible causal factors – or a combination of factors.
Often a patient presents with a chief complaint that is in the context of their state of health relatively inconsequential in and of itself. The practitioner then must understand the larger context in which this complaint arises and based on that, decide which health issues are truly of consequence. A treatment plan, while also taking into account the perceived needs of the patient, should be focused on the more important problems.
Ignoring the more consequential health issues for the lesser ones is, in a sense, a form of pandering and a breach of responsibility. More importantly, it also can violate the first rule of medicine, which is ‘to do no harm’. For instance, if a person complains of facial blemishes or acne, but during a thorough consultation one learns that there is an ongoing history of cardiac problems or endocrine (hormonal) imbalances, a treatment solely focused on the skin not only ignores the opportunity to treat the more severe conditions, but will most likely also have the effect of making them worse. A blinkered focus on the elimination of symptoms often leads to such a result because the larger consequences are ignored. Symptoms in and of themselves must be understood in some context. Skin eruptions, on the face or elsewhere, are part of a larger picture and as such are usually an attempt by the body to discharge toxins.
There is an internal wisdom to the body in its attempt to maintain health. One aspect of this is to shunt toxins from the interior most part to the exterior part, and from the vital organs to the less vital ones. To stop this process without understanding and addressing the larger issues is harmful – akin to stopping a vent from discharging foul water or air.
Not only is the build-up of this discharge harmful, the methods by which the venting must be obstructed go against the natural mechanisms of the body and thus necessarily must be quite forceful. A classic example is the drug Isotretinoin, more commonly known by its most popular trade name Accutane.
Isotretinoin belongs to a class of chemical compounds known as ‘retinoids’. Chemically related to vitamin A, when taken orally retinoids act by regulating the growth of skin cells. Although this drug sounds benign enough on the surface, it actually turns out to be quite dangerous. Pregnant woman are strongly warned not to take it because it is known to cause severe birth defects such as mental retardation and physical malformations. Amongst a host of other side-effects, it is also known to induce fatigue, bleeding, inflammatory bowel disease and suicidal thoughts.
While acne, especially where the eruptions are inflamed or painful, can be very discomforting emotionally and physically, it is still essentially a manifestation of toxins on the most superficial area of the body. The body has been successful in keeping it far away from the most vital organs. To eliminate the symptoms without addressing the underlying disposition of the body that produce them is playing with fire.
Not only is one exposed to the potential side-effects of allopathic drugs, there is a more insidious part that few people will ever perceive unless they understand this process. A young adult who was ‘successfully’ treated for acne develops allergies several years later or rheumatic joint pain a decade later or has premature hypertension…
Who will make this connection? Certainly not a layperson, nor the allopathic professional, who would more than likely would ascribe the later problems to ‘bad genes’. It would be fair to say that even a majority of ‘wholistic’ or ‘alternative’ practitioners are probably not trained to connect the dots on how most of these pathologies progress.
While certainly not in the class of the side-effects of most allopathic drugs, natural remedies – whether herbs, vitamins, homeopathic remedies or others – have the potential to be harmful in a similar manner if they likewise are used to eliminate a particular symptom without due consideration being given to the context in which that symptom appears.
For example, the homeopathic remedy created from potassium bromide (known as ‘Kali-bromatum’) primarily affects the nervous system and can be indicated for in certain cases of epilepsy, ataxia, anxiety and even schizophrenia, amongst other disorders. However the choice of Kali-bromatum, as with any appropriately selected remedy, is not based on the diagnosis, but on certain characteristics of a patient with the diagnosis.
A conscientious homeopath will look for a very restless, agitated person. Kali-bromatum patients are famous for their hand-wringing, they often sigh, fearful in the dark and they are often troubled by a strong sense of guilt or remorse believing they have or will commit a great crime for which they will suffer punishment. There is a sense that s/he is in danger and must leave.
A great many more details fill out the picture of this remedy, but this is the gist of it. Nevertheless, suffice it to say that the selection of this remedy for someone with acne, who does not fit the profile, on the one hand, may or may not successfully eliminate the acne. On the other, it is asking for trouble – a trouble which may not arise for weeks, months or years and which very few people will recognize as having a connection to the ‘successful’ use of the remedy.
Though it wasn’t more than a hundred yards, walking down the hall took forever. “How we take our health for granted!” was the thought rattling around in my head as the elderly woman ushered me back to her room. On my own, I might have covered the distance in two or three minutes, but my patient had met me at the door of her senior living facility and I had to follow along at her pace.
In retrospect, it wasn’t at all a bad experience. First of all, I got to appreciate my own relative health. Second, I had the opportunity to step back from the rushed blur that so often is my daily life to savor a moment of being mindful of her pace, of taking one step at a time, to consciously slow down and confront my own impatience. And, most importantly, it afforded a chance to share the experience of a slice of this woman’s life; to feel a bit how it is to ‘walk in her moccasins’, so to speak.
Although we shared a bit of conversation en route, I had a sense that she was just trying to be polite and that her real focus was on mustering the energy and determination to take those steps without mishaps or giving in to exhaustion. A cane in one hand and the wall railing firmly grasped by the other seemed to provide just the support she needed to successfully negotiate this journey.
But it was about all she could manage. Having reached her unit and opened the door, she made headed straight for the recliner into which she immediately dropped her weary body. While she settled in, I pulled up a chair and surveyed the compact, snug room.
It was filled with a menagerie of objects – some utilitarian, some aesthetic, some nostalgic – from the huge television that was placed no more than two feet in front of her recliner to pictures of family to kitchen utensils to various and sundry knickknacks. It occurred to me that these were the remaining artifacts of a long life, of a much bigger life. They were the survivors of a life pared down to a small room in a recliner in front of a very big television set.
Before we could talk, she needed to settle in and recoup her energy. She closed her eyes for a few moments and took a number of long deep breaths. When the eyes opened and her head turned toward me, I asked simply, “What is it I can do for you?”
She gave a half-hearted smile and replied, “I’m not sure, but I’m exhausted all the time. I can’t sleep more than a few hours…” She gave me the ‘Doctor Report’. Doctor X said this, Doctor Y did that test, Doctor Z suggested such-and-such… Then there was the history of the medical interventions: this surgery and that surgery, this procedure and that procedure… Finally, she handed over a piece of paper that inventoried all the medications and supplements she was consuming daily.
Seventeen different prescriptions drugs were listed along with a few vitamins… (I counted them to be sure.) Some of the names I recognized, some I didn’t. Some of them she could explain what they were for, most of them she had not a clue. But she was sure that her sleep problem began after starting the latest drug. When she told a doctor about it, he had replied that she needed to take it to control another problem - a problem, it turns out, that was a side effect from a different drug.
I explored as much as I could about the drugs and what they were doing to her, trying to sort out the cascade of effects and side effects. Above all, I was trying to understand what was this woman experiencing that truly was from her own body and what was just a result of this pharmaceutical onslaught.
As I queried the woman and listened to her replies, it became clear that there was no way to sort it out. She herself had become lost in and inseparable from this drug haze. Putting aside my own sense of frustration with the difficulty of it all, my own indignation at the perversity of the system that had led to such a situation and a touch of pity for the person who passively, trustingly was enduring its consequences, I tried to focus on one question: what needs to be cured? Put another way for these circumstances, what possible positive change can I effect?
Without the authority or facilities to initiate any change in her drug regimen, without any clarity about what symptoms this woman was truly having, I knew I needed to explore her condition from a different perspective altogether. There is an old maxim that one learns almost from day one when studying homeopathy. It is that homeopaths treat people with symptoms, not symptoms of people. Keeping that in mind has served me well innumerable times over the years.
So, I started to search for the person amidst all of the drugs and pain and exhaustion. And surprisingly, it wasn’t so difficult to find… I began by asking, “What is the worst thing about your situation?” The answer came back quickly: “I don’t go out now. I was always out before. I feel caged in.”
“So, tells me what is it like to be caged in? “I used to be so friendly, but I’m bored with the people here. They only talk about their doctor visits and their illnesses. This is like a jail, I’m not free. Rules, regulations, renting… It isn’t my own place. I don’t belong. I don’t feel like myself.”
“You don’t feel like yourself?” “With freedom, I’m more of a person. Even my family, they think they are right and tell me what to do… I don’t feel like my own person. I have a mind of my own and don’t want to let people talk me into things I don’t want.”
I don’t feel like a person. This was her story, her experience of life. And it wasn’t just in this situation or this stage of life, it was the same experience with her marriage which ended 3 decades earlier, where she was treated “like a vegetable”, like she “wasn’t there” or “didn’t exist”. And it was true of her childhood as well, when she felt “tossed aside” and that her mother “wanted to get rid of us”.
It was the same experience she had in the one dream she could recount for me - of reaching the top of a staircase only to feel empty, sad and alone. And it was for this reason that she compensated by going out, by wanting to be with people, especially her friends, of making sure she was wanted.
And this is the state for which I choose a medicine, a constitutional homeopathic remedy, a medicine for her not her symptoms. About the remedy, I feel pretty confident. Whether it will penetrate through the wall of drugs and side effects to impact her beneficially, to increase her vitality, to reduce her suffering, only time will tell.
Hydrocyanic acid, also known has Hydrogen Cyanide or Prussic acid (because it was first derived from a pigment known as ‘Prussian Blue), was discovered two centuries ago. It can be found in the pits of a number of fruits such as plums, apricots and peaches, and is also present in bitter almonds as well as in the leaves of the laurel plant. A powerful poison, it has some industrial uses, most significantly in mining because it facilitates the extraction of gold and silver. It is also used in the production of nylon and other synthetic fabrics. Due to its toxicity, it has been used in fishing to stun the fish and also for insect fumigation.
It is as a poison that Hydrocyanic Acid is best known. It acts with great rapidity, paralyzing the respiratory centers of the body affecting the central nervous system and the heart. When inhaled, it first causes irritation in the throat, the tongue burns, mucous membranes turn, and, then there appears a general restlessness and anxiety, headache, and nausea. As the effects progress, the breathing becomes difficult and then spasmodic. Finally, as consciousness is lost, the blood pressure falls suddenly and respiratory paralysis sets in.
The poisonous effects are so toxic and rapid that the use of hydrocyanic acid has been a favored method to end human life. There is a long history of state sanctioned executions, assassinations and suicides having all been carried out by means of it. Most notoriously, hydrocyanic acid was the agent used by the Nazis in the gas chambers of the Holocaust. (Many members of the German high command committed suicide with it as Allied forces closed in on Berlin at the end of the Second Word War.)
In contrast to this infamous legacy, homeopaths have used homeopathic dilutions of hydrocyanic acid as a medicine almost as long as it has been known. Ailments as varied as angina, epilepsy, stroke, sunstroke, hiccough, cholera and whooping cough, amongst others, fall within its curative influence. Regardless of the pathology, what is common to those needing this remedy is the sudden onset of symptoms, spasms, debilitating death-like exhaustion, bluish hue to the skin and lips (‘cyanosis’), coldness and great anxiety. A well known symptom is “fear of imaginary toubles” – an irrational fear, like being crushed by a falling house or of being hit by a car while crossing the street even though it is quite a distance away. The remedy, in fact, has been called ‘a great frigthener’.
About a decade ago, a Dutch homeopath, now residing in New Zealand, published a number of cases in which Hydrocyanic Acid acted curatively.1 What was most interesting about these cases – and the reason that she wrote about them – was that while they presented with many of the common traits of this remedy, mostly exhaustion, coldness, and fear, these Europeans all had something else in common.
For instance, one woman in her mid-40’s, presented with a long history of illness, asthma, allergies to foods and chemicals, kidney inflammation, acute fevers, amongst other things. She appeared very ill – thin, pale, bluish lips, and said that almost everyone, on looking at her, assumed that she was dying. Many visits to various doctors had not produced any diagnosis as to her underlying problem except for those who concluded that she was a hypochondriac. No treatment had been helpful, including previous homeopathic prescriptions.
What was exceptional about this woman was a special affinity she felt for the Holocaust. As a child she used to “play concentration camp” with her dolls and had dreams of “being in a place full of soldiers and singing songs to make them like me.” She would get flashbacks of being squeezed in with groups of naked people, a feeling of disgust as she is “pushed up against bare, stinking buttocks”. Even though a Protestant, she always had a fascination with Jews, Hebrew, Israel and the Second World War. She would vacation in Israel, “not for fun, but because I needed to be there”. None of this came from her parents, who were always puzzled by this special connection.
She was convinced that her experiences as well as her illness were rooted in a past life. Previously, in a trance state during a session of regression therapy, she found herself being a Polish child witnessing arguments at home whether or not to flee, then being crammed into a train, disembarking under the glare of powerful spotlights, clinging to a teddy while losing his parents in the chaos, and being told to undress in order to shower. Finally, there is the remembrance of a ghastly scene with people jammed into the chamber, screaming, falling over him and gasping for breath in great terror as he inhales the Zyclon B, the term the Nazis used for hydrogen cyanide.
Whether one is inclined to believe that the woman actually had this previous life or believes rather that this is a deep-seated delusional state is actually less critical than the fact that these images, feelings and interests reflect her actual experience in her current life.
And, most significantly, a homeopathic preparation of Hydrocyanic Acid produced remarkable changes in this woman. For the first time in her life she began to put on weight, she re-grew a full head of hair and her energy increased. Over time, she made a wonderful recovery.
Collins has treated a number of Europeans with similar connections to the Holocaust. And she is not the only one to recognize this phenomenon. I myself have had patients with a similar connection to the Holocaust. An American rabbi named Jonassen Gershom, has written two books, “Beyond the Ashes, Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust” and “From Ashes to Healing”, recording many cases of people who came to him with a sense that they had suffered through the Holocaust in a past life as a Jew and that there lives had improved by the conscious acceptance of this reality.
When a patient presents with illness and suffering, it is not always readily apparent what really needs to be cured.
1. Morrison, Roger. “Carbon: Organic and Hydrocarbon Remedies in Homeopathy”, pg. 469-472; Hahnemann Clinic Publishing, 2006