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The death of Jennifer Drayton Austin (“Natural Causes,” 12/15) was a tragedy for her and her family. The conclusion that her life might have been saved by conventional medicine is nearly inescapable. But her story elucidates more than the sad journey of an individual; it raises the most fundamental questions of the value of mainstream medicine, self-determination, and the roles of family, friends, and caregivers.
We do not know what propelled Jennifer in the direction of unconventional treatment. Perhaps it was her bohemian upbringing in a family that gravitated toward alternatives; perhaps it was her mother’s ordeal with breast cancer; or perhaps it was the irresistible influence of a charismatic personality promising the least fearsome path through an uncertain future. Whatever it was, it compelled Jennifer to follow an extreme course that led directly to her death.
But who among us has not known a friend or loved one who submitted to the extremes of conventional medicineonly to die, in fear and in pain?
We cannot condemn Jennifer for seeking out treatment that seemed holistic, that promised to leave her “cured completely” while maintaining her dignity and personal control. But neither can we condemn nor dismiss conventional medicine that, despite the temporary sacrifice of self it may demand, saves lives daily and does often “cure completely.” Our challenge is to find the middle course, one that allows the patient to benefit from the best of both worlds.
It is just such a search that has led to the popular rediscovery of energy medicine, such as acupuncture or reiki; traditional healing practices, such as Chinese herbs or Ayurvedic; mind-body techniques, including meditation and imagery; and body work involving chiropractic or massage. Each of these methods emphasizes the innate power of the body to heal and the necessity of the patient’s participation in the healing process. But rather than alternative techniques, in their most recent and best incarnation, these methods have become part of integrative medicine.
Since 1998, at the George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine, our cancer patients have come to us at diagnosis or laterwhen they are in treatment, in remission, suffering a relapse, or nearing the ends of their lives. Whatever their stage of illness, the goal is the same: to maximize quality of life while taking best advantage of conventional
If Jennifer’s death is to have meaning, perhaps it is in compelling us to question what we value, and assess what we are offered. Her legacy may be the opportunity she affords us to affirm the imperative of integration in medical care. Lives and deaths may be better as a result.
The George Washington Center for Integrative Medicine can be reached at (202) 994-8870 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
George Washington Center
for Integrative Medicine