By Cathy McNease, Herbalist
I have just taken a remarkable journey towards well being. What appeared impossible a short time ago, became a stepping stone to awakening. This journey began 5 years ago when I hurt my hip while gardening. The pain was so bad at the beginning, that I thought death would be a better choice. I wrote a will, put my home in a trust, and picked out my method of death for when the pain became unbearable. I spent every penny of my savings trying to “fix” my hip, short of surgery, with nothing helping the increasingly intense nerve pain from butt to foot. Enduring pain became my stance in life. Then, as hopelessness increased, the Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, and her beautiful words, got inside my head and changed me. Actually, she changed my relationship with pain. She taught me that facing pain is the way through it, and provided meditation tools to do just that. My journey towards choosing life had begun. Meanwhile, my hip continued to degenerate to the point of constant pain that could be measured 10 out of a scale of 10. Yet, death was no longer on my radar as a solution.
Every year, thanks to the inspiration of my friend Simone, I have been choosing a virtue to work on for the year. Choices past have included patience, hope, courage and forgiveness. Last year I chose “self love,” a lifetime difficulty for me. The Buddhists call this “maitre” or an unconditional friendship with yourself. At the beginning it included stopping the self hate talk both verbally and in my head. It took a few months to even begin to break that bad habit. Then, doing kind gestures for me followed. By the end of the year of cultivating maitre, I was able to call a hip surgeon and get a consultation. From the day I met him, a magical journey began to unfold like I had never imagined possible. His kindness made me feel safe. He listened to my fears and concerns, and did not pressure me in any way. It is now 2 months later, I have a newly installed hip, have recovered at record speed, and continue to heal. Many insights have been revealed to me as I continue my walk through a protective golden tunnel of light.
Eleven months ago my mentor, Henry Han, and his wife and daughter, were murdered, execution style, in their home in Santa Barbara. The shock of this tragedy changed me in a profound way. I began to recognize my responsibility to the community who I serve as an herbalist. His death made me see the importance of doing my spiritual work to prepare me for the healing work ahead. I also saw that the community in crisis would need a strong, spiritual voice to come though this unthinkable event.
Part of my process included beginning weekly acupuncture treatments with a brilliant doctor named Guan, who had gone to the same school in Beijing as my mentor. Guan helped me with the lessons I was learning from Pema Chodron about facing pain to become braver. He helped me transform the pain of the needles into a profoundly healing experience. I joke with him that he put me though 10 months of courage building, and in the process helped me enormously with pain.
One of my friends from Los Angeles had invited me for dim sum in LA’s Chinatown over the Christmas holiday. I told her I had to decline due to how bad my hip had become. Theresa’s Sagitarrian fire and compassion helped me to see that it was time. Time to seek medical help for my hip. Therein was the biggest obstacle that I had to overcome: my closed mind about Western medicine. I have opposed their approach, paradigm, treatment methods, drug orientation, and unkind treatment of patients, for 45 years, since becoming a naturalist herbalist in my youth. Theresa helped me see my way through to at least look up the number of the surgeon that had been recommended to me. It took 3 weeks before I could place the call and make an appointment, but Theresa helped me get that ball rolling.
Once I made the appointment with the surgeon and saw the current Xrays, it was obvious that surgery was the only solution. Dr Gary Bradley’s kind manner allowed my heart and head to open to this possibility. It helped that he looks just like my maternal grandfather, and I found out later that he has been a sort of Godfather to one of my favorite patients for the past 30 years. It made me believe that I had a healthy man about to cut me open, and that made me feel safe.
With each step forward, there were good omens. Dr Bradley sent me to Dr Jeffrey Polito for a pre-op physical exam. The day of the exam, I got to the office an hour early, nervous about the exam. A lovely woman greeted me. I sat down and observed a beautiful stone plaque with a Gandhi quote: “Live as if you will die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever.” Then, a small Australian Shepherd came out to greet me. The doctor’s dog, Bodhi, was there for the day, said the receptionist. Now I could relax. A dog greeted me to make me feel safe. Bodhi stayed with me into the blood pressure room where my BP was 20 points lower than 1 week ago at Dr Bradley’s. Dr Polito was wonderful, and ended the meeting by sharing that he uses Eastern medicine, doesn’t understand how it works, but knows it does. I was not minimized in any way, due to my herbalist profession or my beliefs. Wow! This was a whole string of good omens.
One of my misconceptions that was quickly dashed as this surgery became a reality, was that even though I had perceived myself as an introverted loner, I still had a community of supportive friends who wanted to help me in any way possible. I have about 25 names of loved ones that offered food, rides, dog walking, whatever I needed. This community began the creation of that protective tunnel of light that I was in. I know that their prayers and well wishes did much to support me. Just knowing that I had a village to support me, even though I am not social with any of them, really made me feel profoundly loved.
One of my village, Debra, gave me a pre-op and post-op session with a remarkable energy healer named Tawny. She provided me with qi gong exercises, visualizations and breathing exercises to carry me safely through the surgery. I did them the entire 3 days in the hospital and never once dealt with anxiety or fear. The techniques kept my mind still and my body in healing mode. Debra also kindly gave me gifts of comfy lounging clothes for when I came home. I never felt more loved than presently.
This year’s virtue that I decided to work on is Trust. This seemed necessary for my foray into asking for help. It became apparent that post surgery, I would have to learn that skill. Trust and asking for help have never come easily for me. I have taken self sufficiency to a pathological degree. As I set my intention to become comfortable with asking for help, the village came forth and offered their help.
My heart is so full of gratitude. Brock offered to take me to the hospital and pick me up. Elena, my neighbor with the same birthday as me, offered to care for my animals and home while I was in the hospital, and me when I first came home. Luis and his family brought me bags of delicious fruits. Joyce brought me medicinal mushroom tea for my immune system, and fresh eggs, tangerines and greens from her garden. Sherry made me a yummy soup, as did Devaki and Elena. Joanne brought me a vegetarian quiche. Lorenz picked nettles from my backyard so that I could make a healing tea, and he attended to some home repairs that had nagged at me. Eliza delivered cases of my favorite Kevita probiotic drinks. Alan needled my sore knee. Teri and Debra shopped at Trader Joe’s for me. Misty sent me 2 beautiful nightgowns. Paulette’s gift box included special treats for my dogs and cat. And so many lovely cards and flowers from so many of my village. I feel surrounded and protected by so much love.
As the hospital portion of my journey began, I had a “blessings banner” made by Laurie, which read: “Every breath is healing.” This became my mantra. The first nurse put the IV port into my arm and asked about my allergies. She seemed befuddled that I am allergic to garlic, but just as that conversation took place, my beautiful anesthesiologist came in and announced that she too was allergic to garlic, and we were soul sisters. She explained that most of the anesthesia would be put into my spine so that they could use a minimal amount of general anesthesia. She told me I could wake up drowsy and fall right back to sleep. So when that actually happened, and I woke during the surgery with my legs straight up in the air, I notice that my shorter leg was now the same length as the other one. This pleased me and I dozed back to sleep. There was no fear or trauma since my great anesthesiologist had explained this to me ahead of time.
About 4 hours after surgery, the nurses had me up and walking with a walker. Success! The former crazy making nerve pain down my leg was GONE. Each time I got up to walk, I vomited. Enter, the next angel on my path, a stern seeming nurse named Eve. If you have ever seen the beautiful New Zealand movie called The Whale Rider, Eve looked and acted like that fierce girl. She looked like a warrior woman. She figured out that I vomited each time I stood up due to a bad reaction to a pain medicine, and she remedied that as soon as possible.
Next, I fell asleep that first night, and was startled awake by a dream that I was coming up my front steps with a walker and was about to fall. I could hear Dr Bradley’s voice saying, “You cannot fall!” This woke me up so that I could call for a nurse to help me. I was about to vomit, very hot and sweaty, and most serious of all, had very low blood pressure of 60/40, probably due to the great amount of blood lost, leaving me anemic. The night nurse, Jaime, was calm and quick to help me, which allowed me to feel safe and remain calm. There were 2 nursing students that attended to my vital signs, Ryan and Benson. Their care was special and I am sure both will become outstanding nurses. They introduced me to their supervisor, MaryAnn, who engaged me in a conversation about herbalists from the past and the difficult journey they had to take, many being murdered along the way. Another good omen. She is imparting not only her knowledge to these students, but also her wisdom. The students told me that she was interested in natural medicine and healthy eating.
Did I mention that the hospital sourced local organic produce…who ever heard of hospital food that was actually healthy. My first meal was a red quinoa salad over organic greens with a basalmic vinegar dressing. Gourmet! The next time I ordered this, I got a piece of grilled salmon on the top. I could not believe my eyes. Healthy hospital food!
Just before I went into the hospital for surgery, one of my former students hung herself after receiving an unbearable medical diagnosis. I understand that desperate place. Years past I was there as well, contemplating the end. Until my mind was able to open to what these Western doctors could do for me, my plan B, when enduring pain no longer worked, was death. My heart is full of love and compassion for all of those souls who feel that they are cornered by life with no way out but death. I hope for relief for those in that position. The breathing techniques that I learned from Pema Chodron, Tonglen breathing specifically, have helped me to feel less powerless in the face of the enormous suffering that I witness. Breathe in the pain, exhale relief to yourself and all others suffering like you. Having practiced this for many years, I have found it to be a brilliant way to send light to those in need.
Now comes the real work, physical therapy. The next weeks and months will include teaching my right leg how to walk again. Tendons and muscles are beginning to wake up and not sure about this new arrangement, but I know it is good, and must teach my knee what to do now. After 10 days on ½ doses of pain medication, I had had enough. Compared to pre-surgery, my pain is very minimal. It is now time to feel my pain so that I can heal it. I do understand the pull of that dreamy state of mind that opiates provided, but clarity of mind is much more rewarding, and my choice. I understand, however, how so many get hooked, avoiding feeling their pain. Pain sucks. It is a burden at times to cope with. It can prove to be tragic for so many with no other coping mechinisms in place besides drugs.
Breathing became my lifeline to remaining calm in the midst of pain. It is available for free to everyone, but seems too simple to be effective. My pain forced me into becoming a meditator, thankfully. I wish that for all who are at the precipice of drug addiction. Breathe, in, out, in, out, in, out…each round brings you into this moment and out of your thoughts. That, in and of itself, provides needed relief. And, listen to the voices of those who inspire you. Pema Chodron, Eckhart Tolle, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Brene Brown reign supreme in my world of inspiration. Hearing their voices lifts me when I am down and re-focuses me when my mind gets distracted. Find those teachers, friends and loved ones who inspire you, and surround yourself with their love and teachings.
Cathy McNease is a nationally certified herbalist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology from the NCCAOM, a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Western Michigan University and two Master Herbalist certificates from Emerson College of Herbology in Canada and East-West Course of Herbology in Santa Cruz.