Medicine in Appalachia

There’s something about the way we mountain people view health.  I think we value our health, but we have odd feelings about medicine.

For instance, one of the most widely practiced ways of getting people well in these hills and hollows is to use plants and herbs.  Some of the cures came from Indian (the Native American kind) ways.  It’s been suggested that many of our people intermarried with and otherwise learned from the Native population when they moved into the mountains.  After all, these people had been here for centuries, and they knew what worked.  So there were many Indian practices that were adopted by the first wave of settlers, especially the Long Hunters and their families.

One such practice was making “bitters,” a kind of herbal tea made from numerous herbs found in the Spring of the year, and combined into a drink that was designed to, let’s just say, give your body a “Spring cleaning.”  I purchased a bag of bitters at Mt. Rogers, Virginia during the “Whitetop Mountain Maple Sugar Festival” one year.  I took it home and cooked it, and drank it, and, let’s just say, it worked.  It had a list of what was in it, but I don’t even remember any of it.  I just know it tasted like drinking hay bales.

Doing some genealogy, I discovered that my great-great Granddad Scott was a sort of self-proclaimed doctor.  He had a doctor’s bag and used to go around “treating” people with medicine in his vials.  His wife, my great-great Grandmother, was a mid-wife, and helped deliver a host of young-uns.  This was in the days before many physicians that were well-trained and professional had moved into the area.  Granddad’s other job was postmaster for a little community called “Kimbo” in Wise County, Virginia.  As far as any of us know, he was self-educated.

In our hills, in the county of Lee County, in the southwest corner of Virginia, a Methodist Preacher was living in a little house near the Natural Bridge, west of Jonesville, when his wife gave birth to a little boy.  The little boy was interested in his dad’s later job as traveling physician.  This little boy grew up into manhood and studied medicine, and as he did he developed a new way of doing medicine called “osteopathy.”  Andrew Taylor Still is known today as the “Father of Osteopathic Medicine.”  He had moved on to Missouri before he fully developed this method, but his origins are right here in the mountains.

When I began in ministry in a two-point circuit along the border of Russell and Tazewell Counties in Southwest Virginia, I found that medicine was still something people believed they needed, but they didn’t fully trust doctors.  One family in particular in the church had the habit of taking each other’s medicine.  I think one would get medicine, decide they didn’t want it and offer it to other members of the family who thought it might help with some ailment.  After all, it was supposed to be good for SOMETHING, so why not try it.

One member of that family was pretty messed up from different medicine she had taken over the years.  She was checked into the little hospital at Richlands for a time of coming off some of her meds when the pastor who served immediately before I got there was on call.  He went by to see her, and reported she was lying still on the bed.  She motioned for him to come closer.  He got a little closer, she motioned to come closer, he moved closer.  She motioned again, he came closer.  She hadn’t said a word.  He got right over her bed, and then, he reported to me, she reached up with both arms and grabbed a-hold of him, and held on with a strength he did not expect her to have.  He said he had to wiggle hard to get out of her grasp.  He was convinced, as was I when I got to know her, that she didn’t know what she was doing.  The medicine had caused it.

The area was served (and still is in large part) by doctors from foreign nations who had come over here to get medical training, and decided to stay.  Appalachians will give you a chance, so they usually do, but they don’t like being unable to understand what the doctor is saying, and the broken English is a huge problem in communicating, so most of them just sit quietly, expecting the doctor to know what’s wrong without them saying much.  “I don’t understand anything the Dr. says!” is an oft-heard statement.

I was sitting in a waiting room at the Washington Square clinic on the west side of Richlands when I overheard this conversation:

“Well, how are you doing?”

“I’m all right, just having a few little problems, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, honey, I know what you mean.”

“I’ve always said, ‘Don’t ever start going to the Doctor.’  You ever start you’ll never stop!”

In recent years, the Appalachian area has become beset with a scourge of pain-killer abuse.  High-powered pain pills like oxycontin and others, have been abused with regularity.  Counties like Lee County, have been in the news with the highest rate of death from these drugs.  Medicine doesn’t always help us.  Physicians have been guilty of over-prescribing medicine, and pushing pills.  The problem is nowhere near over.

A philosophical fatalism pervades the thinking of people in this region.  There’s nothing they feel they can do to improve their lives so they live with poor health, drug abuse, and poor nutrition.  And the high cost of medicine and medical care is one piece of that thinking.  People feel there’s no just no use.  You either have health or you don’t.  And if you do, you probably won’t have it long.

I pray one day the human spirit will rise again in this population.  As some of our population get trained in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and other areas, and if they’ll practice among the communities in this region, the mindsets could change, and health could improve.

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About Brad Scott

A pastor, husband, father, a sinner saved by grace.
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