Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Urban Homestead Series: From the Medicine Chest

I have written part of this post with the middle finger of my right hand lifted precariously above the keys, wrapped in wet mallow and violet leaves.

Let me 'splain.

A torn and irritated cuticle became badly infected on the weekend. I first noticed it on Saturday but was busy and distracted with preparing to host dinner guests. On Sunday I finally had time to pay attention to it, but it still didn't seem so bad. I treated it with some plantain tincture and that was it. By Monday though, it was clear that my finger was not happy.

I've never had anything like that happen before and it was scary because I'm a bit of a total hypochondriac. No really. I once convinced myself that a pain in my jaw was an abscessed tooth that was about to burst and spread poison into my brain, leaving me to die a slow and painful death all alone. Turned out it was actually muscular in nature, originating in my neck, which yoga and the chiropractor I work for, are able to keep under control. I learned a good lesson from that incident though: never do a symptom search for 'jaw pain' on the internet right before going to bed.

Anyway, when my finger turned red, ballooned to twice its size, throbbed hotly and eventually oozed two little bubbles of pus (I know, eww! right?), I totally freaked out. I'm going to lose my finger! I'm going to lose my hand! I'll never be able to use my new thrift store purchased, hand powered ice cream maker that friends got me for my birthday. The poison will spread to my brain and I will die a slow and painful death all alone!

Then I got a grip with my non-infected finger hand and thought, "Cool! Here's a chance to put some of my herbal learning into practice." Another person may have thought, "Jeez this is nasty, I should go to the doctor." But not me. Nope. There was no way I was going to sit forever in some walk-in clinic, breathing in germy air, only to have a curt and harried doctor give me a prescription for antibiotics and send me away without ever once actually looking at me.

Oh sure, if things didn't improve or took a turn for the worse, I would definitely have sought professional help and I recommend anyone else to do the same. And please keep in mind that the following is not medical advice, and I'm not saying that everyone should treat their own pus filled infections. Pus filled infections are serious business and you could die a slow and painful death all alone! So seek appropriate help if necessary, k?

So, as I said, I tried plantain tincture on Sunday. Plantain is supposed to be the go to remedy for wounds, bites, stings, inflammation and the like. Matthew Wood writes that plantain "is able to draw out and close up pus and is excellent for a dirty wound, to draw out the dirt and infection and leave it in a clean state, and for boils and abscesses."

Hmm...well it's possible that it did draw up the pus into the tip of my finger leaving it more red, swollen and throbbing than ever, but my finger wasn't getting any better and after a day of this I knew the plantain simply wasn't going to cut it. I needed something stronger.

I already knew about the anti-bacterial qualities of garlic and remembered learning about similar effects in turmeric and always keep some in the house for that purpose as well as for culinary deliciousness. Last year I preserved fresh garlic in honey (which is also very healing and anti-bacterial) so I took a bit of the garlic honey and mixed in some turmeric powder to create a paste and placed that on my finger and wrapped it up. With that in place, I went to my herb books to do some more research. I read up on some of the herbs I had harvested and stored last summer and settled on two currently in my apothecary (a.k.a. my bathroom closet).

Joyce Wardwell, author of The Herbal Home Remedy Book, writes about what plants can be used for inflammation and infections including mallow and violet.

"Mallow. Apply poultices of mallow root or mallow leaf to draw out infections and soothe inflamed tissues. Apply the poultice as hot as is tolerable, and then add a hot-water bottle or hot cloth on top to keep it warm. Renew the materials as they cool. Continue this treatment until relief is felt. This remedy works equally well with plantain leaves.

When my husband awoke to a wound with ugly red streaks radiating from a throbbing armpit (indicating blood poisoning), the doctor was unable to see him for several hours. So I treated it as above, and within an hour the swelling had noticeably decreased. By the time of the appointment, the red streaks were hardly noticeable, so we canceled and kept up the treatment. By morning, the wound itself was nearly healed.

Violet. Violet poultices will soothe inflamed skin sores and abscesses, as well as help to draw out stubborn infections. p. 133"

What kind of mallow wasn't specified here, so I went back to Matthew Wood to see what he had to say. Of Malva sylvestris and neglecta or Cheeses and Low Mallow, he writes, "A simple poultice of the widely available leaves are used in folk medicine on infected finger wounds, skin inflammation, insect bites and bee stings. It draws out inflammation and pus..."

I only have Malva moschata, but read in another source that it can be substituted and used similarly to the other mallows so that's what I did.

I also realised from reading Joyce Wardwell that I was missing the important element of heat. Heat also draws out infection and inflammation and also raises the temperature beyond that which bacteria can survive in, which is why infected wounds become hot and inflamed. It's your body's own way of fighting off the infection.

So I poured hot water over the mallow and violet leaves and when it was cool enough to put on my skin without burning, I poulticed my finger with the leaves, refreshing them periodically.

This has been my treatment protocol for the last couple of days. I do hot mallow and violet poultices morning and night, and bandage with the honey garlic, turmeric paste during the day. (Yes, my finger does smell a little like garlic, but only if you get really close, so no one else would notice except for me, and I don't mind it.) The swelling, pain and heat have subsided steadily and things are almost back to normal. I will keep up this routine until all the symptoms are completely gone to ensure that the infection is totally cleared and doesn't come back.

No doubt this is a time consuming process and I've been totally focused on healing my finger for the last few days, but for me it's still a much better option than waiting in a walk-in clinic and taking prescription drugs and the dependence on cheap fossil fuels associated with that. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful to have access to mostly free health care and if I had thought the situation warranted it, I would have made use of the system. But I also really like the sense of empowerment and independence that comes from being able to practice basic healing and health care in the comfort of my own home with remedies as close as my garden or the kitchen cupboard. It's comforting to know that, for whatever reason, should I no longer have easy or affordable access to conventional health care (for the long or short term), there are other options available to me.


Dan Boise said...

It's always fun to read about more natural ways to heal. Thank you!

Amber said...

Hi Dan. I really like the sense of connection I get from growing, harvesting and preparing some of my own medicine and the increased awareness and understanding of my body's processes that comes from taking care of it this way.


leaf said...

just so you know, i snorted twice in laughter at some puns you made, which is a heavy accomplishment when i've been in my cubicle all day, drowning in federal sorrow.

would like to know when said finger heals. (:

Amber said...

hi leaf. i've got to hand it to you. snorted cubicle laughter is an accomplishment indeed! and it's always nice to hear one when of my posts reaches out and touches someone. we both deserve a pat on the back. ;)

i'm happy to report that the finger has healed nicely. there is still just a touch of swelling that is only noticeable because i'm an obsessive freak and keep comparing the wounded finger with the normal finger on my other hand every 10 minutes. but all of the redness, heat and pain is completely gone. the skin at the base of my finger nail is a little blistered from an overzealous application of the poultice while it was still too hot. but that was just me being dumb and i've learned my lesson (probably).

i started treating the finger in earnest last sunday and will keep up a more relaxed regime for another day or two, poulticing once a day until the swelling is completely gone and a using a little bit of violet and plantain oil on the finger with a bandage, that's mostly for the blister at this point. i stopped the garlic honey and turmeric paste a day or so ago, once it seemed like it was no longer needed. it kinda felt like i was preparing a chicken wing for roasting or something!

but that's also one of the cool things i like about this kind of healing. everything i used was totally edible. it's food. i don't have to worry about peeing out pharmaceuticals into my drinking water.

and that's something i'll stand up and clap for!