Issue 471 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


I suffer from atrial fibrillation — a common type of heartbeat irregularity. When I have an episode, I take flecainide, a prescribed pharmaceutical. This morning, after an episode, I swallowed my medication and sat with an oximeter on my index finger. While I waited for my heart rate to return to normal, I decided to read “Living Medicine,” Akshay Ahuja’s interview with herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner [December 2014].

Buhner’s point of view resonated with my own feelings of being one with all life on earth. The notion of a living planet has always fascinated me, and I believe that all beings can and do communicate with one another on deep levels.

Although I will most likely continue to take a pharmaceutical for my abnormal heart rhythm, I am open to learning more about herbal medicine and possibly discovering a healthier way to treat my condition.

Carol I. Collins Great Falls, Montana

I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner. When I was a magazine editor, there was always a firm rule that nothing could be printed that might offend an advertiser. I can remember turning down articles of merit because our advertisers might have thought the content did not support their products or services. We need magazines like yours to keep us balanced at a time when most publications are controlled by the advertising dollar.

Name Withheld

I had a subscription to The Sun for a few decades, but a year ago I decided to end it. I was tired of the magazine’s strange mixture of hope and despair, the vital and the moribund (with the emphasis on the latter); the plunges into the self-indulgence of idiosyncratic experience under the guise of universality. So I said, “No more!” and have dwelt in the light for over a year now.

Recently I received your offer of a free issue with no obligation, and I accepted. The December issue, featuring the interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner, reminded me why I had read The Sun for so long. I came away from it feeling hopeful. So I’m renewing my subscription. The interviews alone are well worth the price.

Esmond Lyons Glens Falls, New York

I enjoyed the December issue on medicine. Stephen Harrod Buhner’s scary predictions about the rise of super bacteria due to our sadly misguided overuse of antibiotics make me glad I am eighty-three and will likely be blissfully recycled back into the soil when bacterial Armageddon strikes. Stephen J. Lyon’s powerful essay “My Left Eye,” about intraocular injections, hit close to home. I share his sentence of having Avastin injected into my eye every eight to ten weeks for the rest of my life — which, if I live to be a hundred, means eighty-eight more needles stuck into my eyeball. At least, thanks to Sparrow’s toe-fungus essay [“Unexpected Medicine”], I have a cure for my athlete’s foot. Just pee on it.

Harvey Gardner Oro Valley, Arizona

I found Akshay Ahuja’s interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner to be the most perplexing combination of bullshit and profound truth that I have ever laid eyes upon. I am now wishing I could chat with Buhner over a cup of coffee or walk silently through a forest with him, observing him observe the natural world.

James Imholte Phoenix, Arizona

As a plant physiologist, I read your interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner with interest. I have little doubt that he is a competent herbalist, but many of the ideas he propagates about plant biology and ecology are pseudo-scientific nonsense. He claims that plants have “brains” and speaks of “plant neurobiology” as though it were a recognized discipline. Plants do not have central nervous systems, or even nerve cells. Furthermore, he implies that invasive, exotic plants aren’t really a problem for ecosystems, revealing a misunderstanding of plant interactions.

Plants are among the most amazing organisms that inhabit this planet. On this I think Buhner and I can agree. But we need not resort to fairy tales to establish their importance.

Chris Bickford Gambier, Ohio

I was disappointed and alarmed to read Stephen Harrod Buhner’s utterly false claim regarding medical-school education. He says, “There is no training in empathy, no training in communication, no training in being a companion to people in their suffering.” Is he not aware of the six Core Competencies requirement initiated by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education — one of which is “interpersonal and communication skills”? Does he know the pioneering work of the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Dr. Anthony Back, coauthor of Mastering Communication with Seriously Ill Patients: Balancing Honesty with Empathy and Hope?

Buhner’s claims are misinformed and misleading. They threaten to damage trust in the medical community and strengthen ignorance. If he can be so wrong on this important subject, how can we trust anything else he says?

David Tobin Houston, Texas

Unfortunately space considerations prevent me from giving Chris Bickford and David Tobin the comprehensive response I believe they deserve. So, to be briefer than I would like: Charles Darwin was the first to identify the root system as the brain of plants. Jagadis Bose did significant work on plant neural systems in the early 1900s, and plant neurobiologists Anthony Trewavas and Frantisek Baluska have done remarkable work recently. There are hundreds of studies (cleverly hidden in peer-reviewed journals) and a number of very good academic texts on the subject. As well, there are scores of research papers on plant population movements by earth-system scientists who disagree with Bickford’s comments. (This planet, by the way, does not recognize the word invasive.) The problem here is one of competing paradigms, not of science — in essence, a holistic view rooted in self-organization and an understanding of complexity theory versus reductive mechanicalism.

Regrettably, David Tobin’s comments show little understanding of the emotional pain most doctors cause their patients. My comments regarding medical training and behavior are nothing new: many have made them before me; many will continue to make them after I do so here. Research on the current failings within the medical profession (again, carefully hidden in peer-reviewed journals) has revealed intractable problems that are not being addressed, and most likely will not be addressed.

The average number of minutes a physician spends with a patient (eight) hardly leads to companionship, irrespective of any minimal training doctors receive in “interpersonal and communication skills.” And it is minimal. A review of medical-school curricula at, for example, Yale, reveals no required classes focusing on such a skill base.

The Wall Street Journal, hardly a bastion of liberal expostulation, recently noted that “patients today are increasingly disenchanted with a medical system that is often indifferent to their needs.” Hardly a blanket endorsement of physician empathy. And Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, has commented: “It is simply no longer possible to . . . rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.”

In truth, as most Americans know, the medical system in the United States is broken. People may become ill, but they don’t suddenly become stupid when they do. They know whether enough time is being taken with them (it’s not). They know whether they are being treated with respect by their physicians (rarely), by the hospital (very rarely), or by the system (never). Medicine is a major cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. It is absolutely not functioning primarily to provide care but rather for its own profit above all other things. People know when they are being lied to, no matter how well dressed the lie, no matter the smiling babies on the billboards.

Tobin states that my comments “threaten to damage trust in the medical community and strengthen ignorance.” The medical community needs no help from me in that regard; it is accomplishing it very well on its own.

A few weeks ago I woke up alone in my house on Christmas morning for the first time in my life. My children are grown, and my husband, Bryan, died from liver cancer on December 12, 2013. I sat down with my coffee and the December 2014 issue of The Sun, hoping to find a connection.

What I found was Beth Alvarado’s essay “Stars and Moons and Comets.” She, too, had lost her husband to liver cancer in 2013, and reading about her experience helped me feel a much-needed bond. When I finished, I was weeping, not only from sorrow but from a newfound feeling of being part of the web of humanity. I planted Bryan’s favorite wildflower that day in his memory, enriching the soil around the seeds with his ashes.

Marilyn Joyce Racine, Wisconsin

Tony Hoagland’s poems in the November 2014 issue [“Upward,” “Little Champion,” and “Ship”] are perfect. He amazingly understands Zen, humanity, women, men, and me.

Bill Martin Gimli, Manitoba
What Do You Think? Has something we published moved you? Fired you up? Did we miss the mark? We'd love to hear about it. Send Us A Letter