Native Wisdom

Compassionate medicine. Cheerful fortitude. Love, oodles of love and care. Native wisdom. And leaps of faith. This, I find, is what works when you reach what seems like the end of the road.

In the strangest and most stressful of times, there is wonder, discovery and learning … as when freshly-made virgin coconut oil and betel leaves combine to heal, as they do in the mountains of the Philippines.

My mother has leukemia. She is frail, She has come down with a chest infection so severe that she cannot breathe. Airways choked. Wheezing, rasping, ragged inhalations and exhalations. Oral antibiotics are not being absorbed and she is getting worse. The physician advises us to rush her to the hospital as she needs medicines to be delivered intravenously. Immediately.

In the hospital,  x-rays reveal a collapsed right lung, fluid around it.

She is pumped with saline mist to get her to expectorate. A specialist wants to rule out the possibility of tuberculosis, for which a sputum sample is required. No success. They do it again.

The infectious diseases specialist assures me it is just a matter of time before she develops pneumonia, either from her continuing stay in the hospital (given her highly compromised immunity) or from not being treated for a specific infection. He suggests stopping all antibiotic treatment in case she develops antibiotic resistance before the specifics are understood.

Another doctor suggests stopping her life-sustaining oral chemotherapy (one tablet, thrice a day, for the rest of her life) as it thins the blood, which would interfere with test results. They need to keep her off it for at least five days.

The chest specialist talks about bronchoscopy, which is not without its risks, given that it could cause tears, internal bleeding and more. He talks about aspiration, a needle into her lungs, entering from her back. The oncologist wants a CT scan. Is it cancer that has metastatised ? Is it just phlegm ? What is the stoppage in the airways ? Inside out, outside in – or neither ?

The pulse-oximeter indicates normal levels of  oxygen, so she breathes on her own, labouring. She is weak from the effort and the attempts to extract sputum samples. She has a cannula in the vein of her right hand. She is bruised all over from needles that methodically deliver insulin or draw blood.  She cannot sit, move or stand so she is turned, lifted, propped, supported, maneuvered. Every instance of assistance leaves its mark in spreading purplish contusions on her legs, abdomen, thighs, back, arms. She is bloated and I wonder if her soft skin will split, burst. Her eyes are dim, her mouth is half open and the wheeze and whistle punctuate the minutes and hours.


I take her home, armed with information, medicines, routines, lists, contact numbers, recommendations, advice, instructions and caveats. Riding shotgun in the ambulance is a new experience, not without its own thrill, but navigating the stairs is a nightmare. The gurney cannot be mobilised as there is insufficient space and Mum is practically swung down in a sheet-hammock, suspended.

Joyve, from the Philippines, asks if she and Dolores may try something they resort to in the village when their children have a chest congestion. Or parents have muscle aches. Or body pain.

We purchase freshly grated coconut from the wet market. (The ‘older’ the coconut, the better). I search for betel leaves (from the piperaceae or pepper family). Again, the ‘older’ the better.

Check the flower vendors, a man advises from behind a mound of purple aubergines. I do, and discover piles of betel leaves jostling for space with marigolds, jasmine, roses.


Joyve and Dolores set to work.

The grated coconut is emptied into a large bowl and doused with boiling water – just enough to soften, not enough to flood. Ten minutes later they begin squeezing out the coconut milk.



The procedure is repeated with the squeezed-out flakes for a second, thinner extraction of coconut milk and the entire lot is collected in a pan/wok.


Much like ghee is made in India, the flame is cranked up high and the mixture is set aboil.

It is stirred, watched, guided and gentled into separation.

The aromatic golden oil is collected and the grounds, browned and redolent, are set aside to be mixed with glutinous rice for another traditional Filipina dish.

The betel leaves are washed, patted dry. Seven leaves selected, because the belief is that it represents the seven days of the week, which is (I was told) the maximum time it would take for the cure to be completed. Individually, they are placed on the flame of the stove, turned over and subjected to the heat just enough to wilt slightly, the edges curling.

The seven leaves are then combined with a few tablespoons of the hot oil and mashed and kneaded thoroughly.

The aroma from the oil and leaves is giddyingly, pungently magnificent; like a narcotic, addictive. I am reminded of Paul Coelho who said (of love) : At first it brings the euphoria of complete surrender. The next day you want more.

Leaves and oil are applied to Mum’s back, like a poultice.

First, the girls say a short prayer. It must be done with faith, Dolores explains. We ask God to help us. The mixture is applied in firm, long strokes, and they keep count. It is rubbed in, a thin towel placed along her back and she is dressed again.

In ten minutes, Mum begins coughing. Tissues are handed to her, the waste paper basket gradually fills.

She begins to breathe the tiniest bit better.

The next morning she whispers she wants that leaf again.

The process has been repeated twice a day. Sometimes she is rid of a lot of phlegm, other times she is just comforted. Four days later, the wheezing is gone, the airways have opened up and the physician, listening – absorbed – to his stethoscope remarks there seems to be much less fluid in the lungs. Another chest x-ray in due in a couple of days. We will know.

In the interim though, she is sleeping better, the puffiness is gone, her appetite has returned, she is able to walk with a walker and she is breathing easy. Thank God, she is breathing easy.

Best of all ? She is snapping, irritated, impatient. I never thought I would be so happy to be at the receiving end of her ire.

Most pix and clips by Anita Thomas, a couple borrowed off the web, with thanks.


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