Published May 17, 2006

Interview: Holistic healing
Study abroad in Ecuador changes MSU student's perspective on medicine

Lynne Crandall | for NOISE

When Oren Schindler signed up with Michigan State's study abroad program, he never dreamed he would be walking around in a cloud forest, studying trees that walked if they weren't getting enough light or jumping out of a boat into the Amazon River with nothing but a life jacket. The last one was particularly nerve-wracking despite assurances from his Quichua Indian guide and the locals that the anacondas and piranhas were not out at that time of day.

But for this 21-year-old student, it was just one leg of his journey that has transformed him from studying to be a traditional doctor to being one that has a reverence for holistic medicine from traditions throughout the world. NOISE spoke with him about his trip and his changing perspective on medicine.

Q. What made you decide to go to Ecuador?

A. I was there to study the Spanish language but I also wanted to study medicinal herbs ... the capital city, Quito, Ecuador, had classes. The city is (9,300 feet) above sea level. We studied medicinal plants in the Cloud Forest on the mountains around the city. In Spanish, it is called "El Bosque Nublado" or "where the trees belong to the clouds." It was a very spiritual experience, very peaceful. I really miss the beauty of the landscape.

Q. How did you study medicinal herbs?

A. The Cloud Forest is alive with plants. Our professor spent 30 years clearing a 20-mile path for his students to study the different medicinal plants. On these walks, he would identify the plants, give us a brief description, tell us the dosage and let us use the plants ourselves. One plant he showed us is used as a mild antiseptic. He cut it up and I put it in my mouth. A minute later I was drooling and my mouth was numb. He gave us a piece of chocolate to suck on and in about 30 minutes the feeling came back. We would use other healing plants on our cuts and you could see the skin start to heal immediately. With another plant called Sangre de Drago, (Blood of the Dragon), he took a knife and cut into the bark and it started to bleed.

Q. What did the hands-on experience teach you that will be useful in your medical practice later?

A. We became acquainted with the Doctrine of Signatures, the theory that a plant is shaped like the part of the body it heals. For instance, a eucalyptus tree has two main trunks that correspond with our lungs and the eucalyptus tree helps us breathe if we have certain bronchial problems and when we have colds or flu. I didn't know the words for it until he taught us, but I could see that there is a power there.

Q. How did you think the plant life in the Cloud Forest compared to that in the Amazon?

A. The quiet of the Cloud Forest makes you feel like you're in heaven, but the Amazon is completely alive with sounds, whether it was monkeys communicating or the sound of the river -- there was a heartbeat. Our guide was a 30-year-old indigenous Quichua Indian. He looked very young and had enormous physical strength. He acted almost as a delegate, as if he spoke on behalf of the jungle. ...

He showed us that everything you need is in the jungle. There were trees that echoed differently so each one was used to warn of different dangerous animals -- panthers and cougars. And the Walking Palm (is) a tree that has its trunk above ground so the roots are like legs. Since the jungle is canopied, if the tree is not getting enough light, it walks, slowly, over a period of months up to 3 feet. And ants that have strong pincers, so when you get a bad cut, the natives pull the torso off so the pincers close and it holds the wound until you can get to a place for medical care.

Q. What was your experience in the Amazon River?

A. We were in a boat and we jumped in with our life jackets on. You are swept down the river very fast. The Amazon is very red, not clear, so your feet are your eyes. ...

Q. How did it change the way you look at medicine?

A. It set me on a path towards more of a spiritual, holistic and natural approach. I came back and read a book called "Radical Healing" by Rudolph Ballantine. He is able to practice with a knowledge of many holistic traditions, and I realized that will be the way future (doctors) practice. Now I want to go all over the world to study different healing traditions. I would like to travel in a caravan and go round and give hope to people and show them that, in many circumstances, they have the power to heal themselves.

(Jeremy Herliczek | NOISE)

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