My life as a medical tourist began with an odd proposal from my dentist. Ted Murray had been trying to fix a lifetime of dental errors when he paused one day – me with my messed-up mouth as wide as I could get it, him with drill in hand – to say, “I should take you to Vegas.” I might have taken this as an ill-timed proposition, slapped him in the face, and stomped out, but he’s not that kind of guy. So I just repeated, “Vegas?”
Las Vegas, it turned out, is the home of a brilliant center for aesthetic dentistry, where Dr. Murray replaced the molars I had flattened with decades of nighttime grinding, as well as the ones in front turning gray from antibiotics that kept my skin clear. (Oh, the irony.) I wasn’t fun, but I saw the Blue Man Group on my first visit, and Cirque de Soleil on the follow-up.
When the sporadic headaches of my youth morphed into chronic migraine, I traveled all over the country in search of a cure. Being fired by my Dubuque neurologist sent me to Iowa City and Madison, both fine cities with great bookstores, scrumptious restaurants, and superlative healthcare.
A miserable evening in a Dubuque ER prompted my dear husband to suggest I find the best headache clinic within driving distance, which led to us to Ann Arbor, Michigan, another very fine place to hang out in between appointments. If you go, look for the fairy doors at the base of many downtown shops, with windows into tiny dioramas of elven shops and homes. Look down! They’re adorable.
The Michigan crew hospitalized me three times, trying out their cocktail of pain relievers and preventives, mixed with physical therapy, therapy dogs, and walks through beautiful woods on the hospital campus. It helped for awhile, until it didn’t.
We went to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where a kind optometrist fitted me with special glasses embedded with crystals – not the kind your holistic healer sells, but a medically designed tweak to the lenses meant to relieve migraines. They were free, even the frames, because I landed there in the middle of a study. I loved the rolling landscape, and it didn’t hurt that Omaha, where my new granddaughters lived, was a straight shot south.
When I gave up on Michigan – no hard feelings; they’d done what they could – the program at the Cleveland Clinic beckoned. The consultation was alarming, sounding like boot camp – walk on a treadmill all day! Don’t talk about your pain! The cost estimate increased every time I asked, so that road was not taken. We didn’t even see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
All of these adventures in Western medicine began to wear on my lifelong cynicism about holistic, New Age, woowoo curatives, priming me for something different. When a good friend said the word “shaman,” my willingness to even hear her story blew me away. I talked with James on the phone, then flew down for a week of something new, yet ages old. His space was full of art, feathers, stones, and calm. There were pictures of Buddha, Krishna, and Jesus on his altar, along with chairs to sit on for intense conversations, and a massage table where I would surrender to his chanting, prayers, and hands-on healing. It left me feeling open, acknowledged, heard, and hopeful. If I lived closer, I would be a regular. It’s not magic, but close enough.
Now my journey – and hey, I hate that term, just in case you think the shaman exorcised my world-class cynicism – has led me back to Western medicine, but a version leavened with thoughtfulness and solid scientific research. As I write this, I am back in Minnesota at the Mayo Clinic, a place that diagnosed me twenty years ago for a condition causing not pain, but fainting spells my hometown doc couldn’t figure out. Far too often, Mayo is the destination of last resort, the place you go when you’ve exhausted every other avenue. It should not be this way.
The Pain Rehab program sounds a lot like the one at the Cleveland Clinic, but Mayo has been doing it for forty years. It encompasses three kinds of therapy – physical, occupational, and cognitive behavioral – plus yoga, tai chi, occasional basketball (ugh), and pretty good box lunches. Every morning my group of eight masked musketeers gathers for what amounts to a 17-day regimen of brain reprogramming. Did you know pain is a product of your brain? It doesn’t reside in the finger you smashed, the back you twisted, or the toe you stubbed. Chronic pain might begin with a broken foot (take my left one – please), but when it persists long after it heals, it’s a malfunction of the brain, which has put down so many pain pathways and receptors, it cannot send the message that all is actually well.
That’s what I know so far. My cohort has just passed the tipping point, making a subtle shift from resisting the work and mourning our lost abilities and just wanting to “advertise our pain,” as one of my new friends put it. Now I think I’m ready to rewire my brain, to let go of the perverse human desire to hold on to the pain that has defined me. I could be wrong, of course. It’s no miracle cure. This is not Lourdes. It’s Rochester, a town with a great Indian restaurant and a lovely creek running by my Airbnb. But I am more than ready to turn in my medical tourism passport.