October 2016, Issue #4
Making Kin: Part I

Karen Mutter

Kinship and Murder

Forty-nine of my kin were killed early this morning. They were murdered in a hate crime. A gunman entered the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida with two firearms and began shooting. Some of the patrons on the dance floor thought that the loud booms were part of the music until people all around them fell to the ground wounded or killed by the barrage of bullets. One young man interviewed on the news escaped death by dropping to the floor and then shimmying out of the club on his belly. Another 53 wounded are at local hospitals and many of those are fighting for their lives right now. Right now.

Right now I sit at my computer 100 miles away from the massacre site, undone. My heart is aching for the family and friends who are waiting to find out if their loved one is one of the bodies still yet to be identified. Right now I am thinking about the irony of where I was last evening when the shooting occurred. Three of my longtime friends and I attended a play about five lesbians, desperately closeted in 1956. A nuclear explosion left them stuck in a bomb shelter. With nobody else alive on earth left to condemn them, they were free at last to fully express themselves. It was a comedic tragedy, a parody filled with innuendo--the appreciative audience far more straight than gay. Though the message about extreme repression was painfully clear, my friends and I laughed and reminisced after the show about how far we had come, both as individuals with our own anguishes and coming out stories and also as a society where just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court and the state of Florida condoned our relationships through the right of marriage. I am thinking of the false sense of security that this implies. To awaken to the news of this massacre reminds me that being gay in this country is still for some religious groups one of the greatest sins. I am thinking about my brothers and sisters living in the 76 other countries where homosexuality is illegal and in 10 of those places, punishable by death. Sadly, I no longer find this so hard to imagine.

Right now, my thoughts shift to Trayvon Martin, the young, unarmed black teen killed just outside of Orlando in 2012, gunned down by a man who positioned himself as neighborhood crime watch. The all-white female jury declared he was not guilty. Young black men everywhere beware, I thought to myself then. You are still being hunted. In 2015, police in the U.S killed five times more blacks than whites. In total, 102 unarmed blacks were killed, and of those cases only two deaths resulted in conviction of police officers. The murders continue.

Right now, my thoughts race to my kin—the Florida black bears. In just two days in October 2015, 295 bears were hunted and killed in Florida. The largest number—139—were gunned down in the central Florida region, the place I call home. The hunt was unanimously sanctioned by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). All seven of those commissioners were appointed by Florida Governor Scott, and all have ties to the private sector, including ranching, contracting and land development. Black bears are seen as a possible threat to such intentions, although black bear attacks in Florida are quite rare and are generally provoked by humans. Just three years earlier, the Florida Black Bear was listed as an endangered species largely due to the fact that more than a thousand bears had been lost to vehicular impact since 2009 alone. In that same time period, 11 bears were shot or euthanized after encounters with people. Florida’s bear population is currently estimated at around 3,500, compared to 12,000 before European settlement.

Right now, I don’t see any difference between those innocent Florida black bears, those beings hunted down in the Orlando nightclub or Trayvon Martin. In a world that does not see each living being as kin, we are all fair game.

Kinship in indigenous culture, the way of kin, was lived in every moment. Everything in nature— plant, animal, inanimate, elementals, including the Earth itself—all considered an essential member of the web. We all belonged to one another and were equal in stature. We recognized each being’s place. Each was essential for the survival of all. Hierarchy of existence was not part of the way of thinking. There was no entitlement. No mine and yours. As such, gratitude was the currency of exchange. A gift was given, like tobacco or cornmeal, for the plants harvested for food or clothing. Gratitude was offered to the animals, insects, water consumed for the sustenance of the village. Rituals and ceremony to celebrate gifts given—the lives offered for our nourishment and our medicines—were essential to keep the balance of give and take. We lived in relationship with and to each other. The result of not embracing this way of life is evident everywhere—rampant pollution, alarming extinction rates, despoliation of nature. Without conscious relationship— the core of kinship—life on Earth is simply not sustainable.

As a physician of nearly 30 years, I see the dire health consequences of this disregard for the Earth and all forms of life. I took an oath those many years ago when I was just a young woman. It was one of the greatest days of my life--surrounded by my classmates, witnessed by family and friends, my right hand raised, in cap and gown with the green hood for Medicine proudly worn. I swore to do no harm and preserve human life at all cost. But as I have learned over the years, this promise is woefully limited. It did not ask me to consider the lives of my kin beyond the human realm. It does not consider the consequences of pharmaceutical and radiologic pollution for the Earth and all beings. It places human need as supreme to everything else. It is based on the imperialist mores of a society born out of domination and conquest.

When I was a first-year medical student, we were expected to participate in a physiology lab using live dogs. The dogs were anesthetized and then dissected to expose their beating hearts. Our educational responsibility was to administer different medications intravenously and observe their effects on cardiac function. At the end of the experiment, the dogs were euthanized. I was terribly upset about the prospect of participating in this exercise. I spoke to my professor about it privately and received a warning that an incomplete on my transcript might keep me from continuing to progress in my studies. What could I do? My sole focus and purpose in life was to become a doctor. I attended the lab but refused to be the one in our group to administer the drugs. It distressed me so much that I have only the faintest recollection of what actually happened that day. Only my regret and the memories of the dog splayed supine—its open chest cavity and the rich pink color of its heart—remain.

Each year, more than 100 million animals—including mice, rats, frogs, dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, monkeys, fish, and birds—are killed in U.S. laboratories for biology lessons, medical training, curiosity-driven experimentation, and chemical, drug, food, and cosmetics testing.1 The truth is that research done on animals does not translate to humans. This has been reported by prominent medical journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association2 and the British Medical Journal3 , and echoed by former directors of the National Institute for Health (NIH)4 and the National Cancer Institute (NCI).5 In 2006, The U.S. Food and Drug Administration stated, “Currently, nine out of 10 experimental drugs fail in clinical studies because we cannot accurately predict how they will behave in people based on laboratory and animal studies.”6 Despite this information, approximately 47 percent of NIH-funded research involves experimentation on nonhuman animals, and in 2012, NIH budgeted nearly 30 billion dollars for research and development.7 , 8 In addition, many charities –including the March of Dimes, the American Cancer Society, and countless others—use donations to fund experiments on animals.

Pollution from biomedical waste is another concern. A steady stream of pharmaceutical byproducts, both from human and veterinary medical practices and waste from medical supplies is leached into the environment each year. The largest pharmaceutical offenders are sex hormones, antiparasitics, antibiotics and steroids, which have already begun to alter the composition of bacteria in the soil, the insects that feed on them and on and on up the food chain. Antibiotic waste from manufacturing is one of the leading causes of antimicrobial resistance to antibiotics – a global emerging health crisis. China, one of the largest sites of antibiotic production, has pollution of active antibiotics in all of its main rivers and waterways.

Hospitals generate an enormous share of the waste burden, an estimated six million tons/year. This translates into about 34 pounds of waste per patient per day during a hospital stay.9 Surgical procedures generate a third of all hospital waste. A single knee replacement generates more waste than a family of four does in a single week. Surgical waste includes everything from disposable gowns, plastics, gloves and drapes, to sponges, gauzes and other infectious materials. On average, 64 plastic wrappers, 41 sterile surgical gloves, 29 green sterile towels, 10 vinyl gloves, five surgical gowns, five surgical drapes and three table covers are used per knee replacement, as reported in the Canadian Journal of Surgery.10

Medical waste winds up in landfills, which contributes to greenhouse gasses. Large amounts of dioxins, polyvinyl chlorides (PVCs), mercury, cadmium and arsenic are emitted in the incineration of paper and plastics in medical waste--extremely toxic chemicals that wind up in the soil, waters and in their inhabitants, which in turn are consumed by humans and contribute to birth defects, immune dysfunction and cancers.11

The enormous scope and global effects of medical waste pollution cannot be adequately expressed here. It is a critical challenge to our environment, our health and our progeny. Is it possible that the very system designed to help us in time of illness contributes largely to the cause of our diseases? Does the physician consider this when writing the prescription or admitting her patient to the hospital? Does the patient consider this when making choices about what ways she will treat her maladies or what steps she can take to prevent them to begin with? If we lived as if our choices about our health and wellbeing mattered not only to our families and ourselves but also to all other living beings as kin, might we live differently?

On the other hand, are our lives not better because of hospitals and pharmaceuticals? What would have been the fate of those wounded in the Orlando shooting if it were not for the hospitals nearby waiting ready for just such an occasion? Have we each not been impacted positively by some medical intervention in our lifetime?

The problems are complex and solutions of this magnitude require an entire paradigm shift. A great problem solver, Albert Einstein, wrote: “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Perhaps, like our ancestors, we might turn to our dreams and visions for guidance on such matters. This dream that came to me a couple of years ago has haunted me with its beauty and possibility:

I’m back in my residency training… I go to the classroom auditorium where we will start our day with a lecture. The room is buzzing with other young docs in white coats standing around the small auditorium talking with each other. The elder teacher sees me and immediately hands me a small clear cellophane bag filled with tiny wine colored seeds or shavings. Like red quinoa. The top is open and she tells me that this is very poisonous stuff. As she does this, the group of young doctors standing about the room gathers around me to see what is happening. I hold the small bag in my outstretched hands and see that somehow it is leaking out of the bag; the way sand falls through fingers. I try to stop it but I cannot. I feel panicked and look to the elder, questioning her with my eyes. She asks me to lead the sing that will stop this from happening. I hesitate for a moment pondering her request then take a deep breath and begin to sing to the poison in the bag.

Almost immediately, and to my surprise, the whole classroom of doctors joins in with me and the most beautiful sound comes out of all of us. We are transformed into a chorus of doctors in white coats, singing to stop the leaking poison. As we sing, the poison in the bag continues to diminish but it is no longer leaking out, just disappearing before our eyes. When the poison is all gone, we finish singing. I am ecstatic. As I look around at the fifty or so colleagues gathered around me, they too are excited and awestruck. They wait for me to speak but I am speechless, humbled, and incredulous. Many moments pass and finally I say: “Well then…we must keep singing together”.

This dream suggests a paradigm shift that could be the medicine for our time. It is a dream about kinship, not only amongst those in the white coats who, when joined in song together, become the true medicine women and men of their calling, but towards the poison itself—a profound teaching about right relationship and how this might restore, diminish, or balance the damage we have already caused. In the kinship of singing together, our hearts are opened and love becomes, rightfully so, the center of our healing presences and medicine bundles.

Right now, we are all endangered species. There has never been a time when it was more urgent to restore a way of living that honors all life. A cultural meme of our indigenous ancestors, “honor all life” is very different from “thou shalt not kill”-- a religious commandment about individual responsibility with individual repercussions for disobedience. “Honor all life” is explicitly about kinship, with broad implications for taking care of and respecting all beings. It implies that we are part of something larger than ourselves and as such, we must be accountable to the larger community of life. Somewhere along the way we have forgotten about this most basic and profound way of living.

To honor the guidance of the dream, what would it look like if we began to incorporate kinship as a way of life and as a way of healing large and small? Beyond simply utilizing natural and safer treatment options, to be in alliance with all the life around us might be the essential change required. To be in relationship with the infection, the cancer, the metabolic imbalance, the technology that has come to show us the path toward healing. Or to choose a treatment path that is not just best for self but takes into consideration where the medicine came from and where it might go after it leaves the body. Offering gratitude to the medicine itself, be it natural or synthetic, changes the way we see the world around us and inside of us. It transforms our reactions and behaviors from careless and irresponsible to taking care and considering both harmful and beneficent consequences.

When my friend Nora had exhausted all options to deal with unremitting hip pain she agreed to get an MRI. As she found herself inside the machine that she had tried so hard to avoid, the response that arose within her was a profound and beautiful example of kinship in action:

“Mine was an hour long and most of the time I prayed—for people who have claustrophobia having to endure tests, and all the really ill ones. I did guided breathing. Then somewhere it became very primary to me to pray for the machine, all the constituent parts that come from the earth, extracted and manipulated and used for our healing. So with every sound I'd say ‘thank you’ and ‘I'm sorry.’ ‘Earth, air, water, fire, magnetism, electricity, vibration.’ Then the dolphins were there and I thought about how they have been known to echolocate illness and emotional pain in people the way the magnets were resonating to my body and I wondered if the makers of this machine had studied the dolphins. And I thanked them, too.”

When Sharon was about to receive her first doses of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, she felt great concern about the toxicity of the medicines being utilized. So she called on two friends to be with her. In the doctor’s office just before the bag of chemotherapy was infused, it was passed around between them, prayed over, thanked, blessed and sung to. In this way, Sharon’s fear was largely reduced and a relationship of gratitude and kinship transmuted Sharon’s response to it, physically, mentally and emotionally.

The standard practice of conventional western medicine, while perhaps the best in the world for acute care, has become dangerous and is limited in its ability to prevent or reverse the course of chronic disease. There is a great division amongst physicians: those deemed conventional, self-proclaimed “evidence-based,” and those who have adopted holistic, integrative, medical practice. This is a sort of war unto itself and patients are unrightfully in the middle, often chastised by physicians or family members for straying outside of convention. Yet despite steady and intense opposition, integrative medicine has grown significantly over the past two decades, reflecting the collective mistrust of a medical system that kills over 120,000 patients annually due to medication adverse effects, infections or hospital errors. Doctors too are adversely affected by a system that is increasingly governmentally regulated, productivity-driven and focused on symptom mitigation, without adequate time to delve deeper into the underlying causes of disease. As a result, physicians are leaving medicine in record numbers.12

Perhaps if we gather together in open-hearted song to our kin— the murdered and the murderers, the black bears and the hunters, the toxic medicines and those who administer them—then the poisons of our time—disconnection, violence, oppression, disease—will diminish and maybe even begin to disappear. With love at the heart of kinship, let this be the medicine first and last employed. Let us make kinship the foundation of our medical, industrial, agricultural, educational and political decisions. On behalf of the earth, the ancestors and all beings, let us step into the river of love and gratitude that kinship engenders. In doing so, we will each of us become both healer and healed.

Right now.

Karen Mutter

Karen Mutter is a practicing physician in Clearwater, Florida. She founded Integrative Medicine Healing Center in 1998 to pursue the exploration of healing outside the confines of western medicine. Informed by specialty training in internal medicine, she relies on shamanic practices, dreams, the natural world, nutrition, osteopathic practices and principles, compassion and love as her primary healing modalities. She is an aspiring writer, peacemaker and policy changer of medical education and practice.


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