“She was the one behind me with everything,” he says. “She was the one person I knew who genuinely cared about me.”
The bliss was short-lived. In 2003, when Christian was up in Philly, Greenlee was in a terrible car accident and died in the hospital after a blood transfusion gone wrong. He never got a chance to see if he could help her, or to say goodbye.
While dealing with the loss of his loved ones, his business plan was still not thriving like he wanted it to. He found plenty of customers looking for cheaper and more effective alternatives to what doctors and pharmacists had to offer, but for his friends he charged little profit, if any. There have been a few close calls—he says the Oakland Raiders briefly used a pain salve of his after he met the trainer while working at a Marriott hotel, but their corporate office put the kibosh on it. And once, he heard that Robert De Niro’s people had somehow heard about his skills and left a message for him at his convention center job when the actor was battling prostate cancer. Christian called the number that was left, but never made the connection. Call it bad luck, poor planning, trusting the wrong people or who knows what, but for whatever reason he still struggles to make ends meet.
So he scrapes by on his earnings as a laborer, living with his dreams of finally breaking through and making a decent income from his gift. “My goal is to become the world’s best alternative medicine expert,” Christian says, undaunted by life’s roadblocks. “I think I can hold my own.”
Long before men like Wellington Christian sought to offer alternatives to doctors, Philadelphia has been a center for unconventional medicine exploration. Hahnemann Medical College was originally founded as Homeopathic College of Pennsylvania in 1848, teaching an upstart practice of provoking similar symptoms to what a patient suffers from to supposedly cure a disease. By 1869, the school was renamed Hahnemann, after Samuel Hahnemann, considered the father of homeopathic medicine. “By the 1880s into 1890s, homeopathy was tremendously popular, mostly with the educated middle class,” says Steven Peitzman, a medical historian and professor of medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine.
“That was a period of a very wild medical marketplace,” Peitzman says. In the latter half of the 19th century, botanical medicine was also popular, as well as a system called eclectic medicine that claimed to take the best of other medical systems. However, around the turn of the century, professional M.D. medicine made a series of scientific triumphs that set it ahead of the pack, among them aspirin, germ theory, immunizations and the discovery of insulin. The alternative practices soon fell out of fashion.
Bits and pieces of alternatives remained—Hahnemann kept offering homeopathic courses as electives into the 1950s, and of course the rural poor like the Christian family kept making their own remedies out of necessity. Today, alternatives are seeing a resurgence, getting a second look even in professional schools, Peitzman says. “Until the last 10 years these have pretty much been excluded from American medical education,” he explains. But a younger generation of medical students seems more interested in exploring options outside the FDA-approved pharmacy. “In more recent times, there’s a lot of interest in homeopathy, in plant based medicines, acupuncture, and various kinds of spiritual based healing,” says Peitzman.
Studies over the past two decades support the assertion that use of alternative medicine is on the rise, and the practice is one that transcends race, class and age. A 2005 report on complementary and alternative medicine in the United States presented by the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences compiled a number of studies as to who is using alternative practices and why.
The most widely cited study was done in 1998 by David Eisenberg, director of the Harvard Medical School Osher Research Center. While most of Christian’s clients are working-class blacks, Eisenberg and his colleagues found that nearly every subgroup of the population, be it divided by age, race, gender or socioeconomics, showed usage rates of one-third of the population or above.
Eisenberg found usage of alternative remedies went up dramatically from 1990 to 1997, from 33.8 percent of the population to 42.1 percent. And users spent about $27 billion out-of-pocket for alternative treatment and medications in ’97, a similar number spent out-of-pocket for physician services. In fact, the study found 629 million visits to practitioners for alternative therapies (a 47 percent increase from 1990), compared to 386 million visits to primary care doctors.
A more recent survey by the Slone Epidemiology Center at Boston University in 2006 found that herbs and natural supplements were used by 22 percent of the adult population— that excludes practices like chiropracty and acupuncture covered in the other reports.
Results from Eisenberg’s and other studies found people using alternative meds for a wide range of ailments, everything from back pain, pregnancy-related illnesses, menopause, ADD, asthma, cancer and HIV/AIDS. Common motivations for using alt-meds included curiosity, belief in the principals behind various techniques, savings over professional medicinal services—especially poignant in light of the 50 million or so Americans who don’t have health insurance—and frustration or mistrust of the pharmaceutical industry.
“They want someone not using chemicals,” says Frank Wyatt, a doctor of naturopathic medicine who has run the University Herbs store and health clinic on 40th Street near Chestnut for 26 years. He says many of his customers are sick of pharmaceutical medicine and its side effects. “They usually get slammed by medical establishment,” he says.
“We have a whole unique system—we go back to ancient ways of figuring things out,” Wyatt explains. Plants are the basis for many modern drugs anyway, so why bother with the chemicals when you can have the real thing? “We just approach things differently,” he says. “We deal with the plants first.”
The varied schools of medicine aren’t mutually exclusive. Many patients use alternatives in addition to their regular care—Thomas Jefferson Hospital even offers a program incorporating complementary practices like acupuncture, herbal remedies and other alternatives alongside a patient’s normal treatment at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine.
However, widespread use by no means indicates that alternatives are accepted by the medical profession at large, says doctor Brian Strom, professor of public health and preventive medicine in biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “With alternative medicine, herbals, or homeopathic or anything like this, you’re talking about products that have never been proven to have benefits,” Strom says. Instead, the perception becomes reality, so to speak.
“It’s important to realize the placebo effect,” Strom explains. “If you give someone an injection of salt or sugar water, who just had surgery, 30 percent feel better. There’s no question the pain is relieved. The mind is very, very powerful.”
He is quick to caution that pain relief is no proof of scientific, medical efficacy. “It doesn’t mean the drug is effective or it should be given instead of normal medication in a life threatening situations,” Strom says. And he’s talking about herbals mixed in controlled environments by professionals. When he hears of people like Christian cooking up their own drugs, he is horrified. “That’s much worse. To have somebody basically mixing chemicals in their lab and saying this is a drug, that is really, really risky—there’s no oversight whatsoever.”
“Why in the world would you ever trust that a product that someone made in their own home would be pure, wouldn’t be contaminated, would have the right concentration?” he asks in bewilderment.
“Medicine you buy at a pharmacy goes through years of rigorous testing. Homemade medication is a different story,” Strom warns. If the treatments really worked they would be studied, tested, bottled and brought into the mainstream medical profession. “Alternative medicines don’t cure cancer or diabetes. They can make symptoms feel better sometimes,” he says firmly. As for people who purport that they have some knowledge or skill to make medicine in their basement that surpasses what doctors can provide, he has only one word: Quacks.
Letters to the Editor