Archive for January, 2001

Phil Borges

January 22, 2001

Do you trust your doctor? When you feel like you’re getting the flu, do you pick up the phone right away and trot on over to his/her office for your requisite dose of antibiotics? What if it’s something worse? You go through CAT scans, MRIs, blood work, multiple opinions, treatment, and even more drugs. Then the lingering feelings of hopelessness arise. Somewhere deep in the back of your mind you wonder if the doctor is merely guessing at what’s wrong. Does he/she really know your specific diagnosis?
Doctors are only human, you think to yourself, fallible and overworked at best, sometimes downright distracted and impersonal. You feel alone, isolated, scared. But at least you have at your disposal the best medical care in the world, right? After all, this is the United States. You’re very glad for that. What if this was a Third World country with no “modern” medical system for the great multitudes of people? You would be at the mercy of your body and its slow and certain deterioration. Now that would be real fear.
Maybe not. There is little doubt that Western medicine has made enormous leaps in understanding the human condition over the last century. But for every advance in science, for every new hospital that springs up, for every HMO that adds a new specialist to its list, are we losing something that is integral to the healing process? What role does the spiritual have in our modern notion of medicine? Where are our traditions, our rituals, our shamans? As a photographer, Phil Borges has studied the ancient methods of healing in remote regions across the globe in an attempt to reconcile the need for science to embrace the spiritual aspects of medicine and recognize its inherent worth. In his travels, Borges has visited and photographed indigenous healers of the Philippines, Mongolia, Africa, and locations in the Amazon Basin. The intimate portraits are images of people who keep alive a dying practice, one that Borges believes we cannot afford to let become extinct. “The healing traditions of these people have been around for thousands of years. They are the oldest cultures in the world and use methods that have been lost for centuries.” His work has brought him closer to understanding how those of us in the modern world could benefit from the healing traditions of the ancient world.
“I think the only thing that will stem the complete loss of these people and their belief system is if we in the West are to value it. They have a ‘connectedness’ and a bonding with the environment and their ancestors at a much more developed state than we have.” Borges asserts that for all the advances we have made in medicine, we have lost a fundamental sense of caring and a bond for one another. “We have essentially become disembodied from the earth and each other,” says Borges. “What with our desire to accumulate personal wealth, the isolating effects of advanced communications, and our perceived distance from our own environment, we have come to a state where we see our friends and family less and have little connection to the place in which we live.”
Borges points to the practice of shamanism as an example of the way indigenous people maintain their tight communities. These healers, young and old, men and women, are much more than mere doctors of the Third World. “Shamans have many roles in these cultures. They are usually from hunter/gatherer societies and therefore often function as the priests, the healers, the seers, and the guides.” By carrying out the rituals that bind people’s belief system together, as well as serving as an active participant in the community, the shaman becomes a trusted and revered member of a tribe. The faith that is put into the ceremonies they perform makes their methods effective, even if we in Western culture tend to look upon their work as nothing more than superstition. “We seem to believe in our culture that anything that is old is anachronistic and useless. I think that is a real mistake in our thinking. We think of the practice of shamanistic healing as having no value. When you start looking at these mythologies and understand the bond people have with their spirituality, you realize that it is very healthy.”

At the start of his professional life, Borges was a dentist and ran a successful practice for 18 years. Because he was trained in the scientific method of rejecting what cannot be proven through experimentation, one would suspect that he would therefore be naturally inclined to view the work of the shamans with some amount of skepticism. Yet, in the final analysis, Borges recognizes the value of their work.

“There are studies that show that if you increase the time a doctor spends with his/her patient, there is a corresponding increase in the effectiveness of the treatment. There’s also a placebo effect. If you believe in what your doctor or healer is doing ,you are aiding your own recovery. Shamans reconnect patients with their surroundings. We don’t have that in Western medicine. You can go on the Internet, get diagnosed, and get prescribed pills without ever seeing a human being. There’s so much richness in the healing process that comes with caring.”
In keeping with his medical background, Borges is also involved with an organization called Interplast. The group sends doctors and dentists to impoverished areas around the globe to volunteer their expertise by treating children afflicted with cleft palate, a deformity where the roof of a child’s mouth is essentially missing. The condition, when untreated, can have a devastating effect on a patient, both physically and emotionally. Borges is compiling a book of photographs, entitled The Gift, to raise awareness of Interplast’s success in transforming the lives of hundreds of children. “The real gift of the project is not the life- altering effect the surgery has on the children, but the life affirming effect the work has on the volunteers.

I’ve seen doctors re-invigorated after working on dozens of patients in a day without the encumbrance of HMOs, insurance claims, and all the bureaucratic burdens that comes with their careers here in the United States.” Additionally, Borges sees the support given to the children by their families and communities as a reaffirmation of the theory that human interaction and caring is often the greatest healer. “I noticed how tight the families are when a member is getting this procedure performed. There’s an army of people gathered in the recovery room: parents, brothers, sister, aunts, uncles. They come from miles and camp out just to be there when the child comes out of surgery. It makes a huge difference in the amount of time a patient recovers when he/she knows there are people who care.”

Borges sees the Western world absorbing what is most effective from the cultures he has studied and integrating those methods into the way we practice medicine. “I don’t want to paint a romantic picture of these cultures. They have to face some extreme challenges that we don’t have to face because we have all this technology. Technology itself is wonderful, it’s just that we tend to let other things atrophy when we have it. Everything we do is literal: you don’t have to use your sense of intuition, whereas these people have to use a different level of communication. They have to use tools that are more humanistic.” Caring, bonding, and a higher level of commitment to patients are qualities we must adopt, says Borges, if we are to truly use our medical technology to its fullest advantage.