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Dr. Low Dog, MD, Herbalist: Expo Speaker Espouses Holistic, Eclectic Approach

Monday September 22, 2003
Tieraona Low Dog, MD
Baltimore Expo's Keynote Speaker
Tieraona Low Dog, MD Baltimore Expo's Keynote Speaker
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Herbalist, physician and White House appointee Tieraona Low Dog, MD, says that one of her most powerful learning experiences was delivered by her patient's grandmother.
After diagnosing an afebrile four-year-old with a virus, his grandmother was dismayed that Low Dog did not prescribe antibiotics. Months later, after prescribing them for his feverish brother's strep throat, the grandmother was angry.
"I said, 'I know you're unhappy. Please help me understand so I can do better treating your family,'" recalls Low Dog. "She said the boy was hot, so he needed cold, not hot antibiotics. That's the Law of Opposites, taught by Hippocrates, Chinese medicine, and Mexican cultures. So I said, 'Different antibiotics have different heat; we could counteract it with cooling teas, baths, and foods.' She was happy I understood, but surprised I didn't already know."
A medical resident thought Low Dog's approach was crazy nonsense. I said, "That depends on your goal. Mine was getting the prescription into the child to prevent long-term sequelae," says Low Dog. "More important than to be right was to get it done."
Low Dog has been learning from wise women and elders about getting it done since childhood. "I was always interested in nature, spirituality, gardens, plants and hiking," she says. "I liked listening to grandmothers, aunts, uncles and neighbors about teas, gargling and folk remedies every family has, even if it's just prunes."
While studying martial arts in Richmond, VA, in the 1970s, she visited Asian healers and acupuncturists. While fishing, she made Chickahominy Indian friends. While hiking mountains, she met granny midwives who taught her lay midwifery, including remedies such as putting scissors under beds to cut the pain.
"I have a knack for finding local people of every culture who know the local environment," she says. "And I found who I am. When I moved to New Mexico in 1982, I learned everything anyone would teach about herbs and healing."
Her instructors included massage therapists, Mexicans, indigenous people, and University of New Mexico (UNM) faculty, where she earned her medical degree. "UNM was wonderful and open to other cultural experiences, but most doctors I encounter say, 'Don't say you're an herbalist.' Herbalists say, 'Don't say you're a doctor,'" says Low Dog. "I'm well-rounded, which helps me communicate with patients more easily. Elders yak about herbs but warn me, 'Don't tell those doctors; you don't know what they'd think of you.' They relate to me as a nonthreatening, safe ally."
In a roundabout way, she's accomplished what most nurses have, and most physicians lack. "Patients have always felt comfortable with nurses, talking and communicating," she says. "The foundation of nursing is what patients look for now in all medical care. They demand it of physicians, because they want medical care to be more humane. Physicians are so focused on science, they forget the art of medicine, which is communicating with patients about their feelings, fears and beliefs and about why they have sickness and helping them to get better.
"I would hate to see nurses believe that to be considered on par with physicians, they must embrace the physicians' medical model of today for credibility. Doctors spend less than 10 minutes per patient visit. Advanced practice nurses refuse; they demand 20 to 30 minutes. Embrace your own ethos. Patients seek it."
Working with multicultural patients is particularly tricky, because language is critical and it's easy to misunderstand cultural and regional differences. "Every time we're with patients, there's me, my educational bias, and my background, and the patient's beliefs, culture, history and fears," she says. "Together, we have to make important decisions about treatment that's effective, respectful and considerate of how they choose to be treated."
While studying and advocating many specific herbs and therapies, she's skeptical of non-critical, wholesale acceptance. "You can't equate colonic therapy or numerology with acupuncture," she says. "I prefer to speak about specific modalities.
"Alternative medicine gives patients a sense of self-empowerment and self-control, but they're very vulnerable. Websites are market-driven, full of easy to read pseudo-science that sounds good but means nothing, or makes something sound safe that isn't. Dissatisfied patients seek solutions. Nurses comfortable with low-tech, high-touch modalities have more tools in their bags to help patients ease difficult journeys."
Low Dog, her given name ("Who'd choose that?" she laughs), reflects the first part of her Lakota/Comanche/Irish/English ancestry. But Tieraona, Comanche for long-sighted, means song in Persian, a cabdriver told her.
"We learn from every interaction, not just nursing or medical school," says Low Dog. "I don't separate conventional and other modalities. Instead, I look for what unifies them. What makes them what they are, are the people that practice them. Nurses ease suffering, one person at a time."
Wendy Bonifazi, RN, CLS, APR, is a senior staff writer for Nursing Spectrum.
Dr. Low Dog will be the keynote speaker at Nursing Spectrum's Career Fitness® Expo on October 21 at the Baltimore Convention Center. To learn more, see page 24.