map Strange Medicine

by Sarah Schuetze

Published in Issue No. 228 ~ May, 2016


“We often put the old ways to work for cases like this, especially when we don’t get the results we want from other strategies.”

He means when what they thought would work doesn’t. He put took his hands from the pockets of his white coat and grabbed at each end of the stethoscope draped around his neck. He raised his eyebrows.

“Did you know that some doctors even use leeches today?”

I did know that. At least I’d seen it on TV. They even show doctors who put cadaver skin in people’s lips so they stay fattened up without needing new injections. The cadaver skin is disturbing, but so are the super allergic-reaction-style fat lips they produce. In college, I had learned that doctors sometimes use sterile maggots in surgery for certain bone infections. Sterile maggots. I wonder how they sterilize a maggot.

I’m aware that medicine can be weird. The body itself can be weird. My niece once had a tumor, a teratoma, that had teeth and hair in it. Imagine that—a spontaneous creature with teeth and hair just growing in your body.

So when you think about the crazy things a body can do, strange medicine doesn’t seem all that strange.

Dr. Chase told me that people get shot up with botox to help with migraines. I mean, that’s actual poison—they use botulism of all things. I want to get rid of these headaches and the neck pain that triggers them, but I’m not ready to inject my brain with bacterial spores for god’s sake.

I’ve taken the pills to stop a headache and the pills to prevent a headache, I’ve tried a chiropractor, acupuncture, massage, amber necklaces, magnet bracelets, magnesium supplements, a vitamin B cocktail, essential oils in a diffuser, creams and lotions… My own daily neck-cracks can produce an impressive series of snaps on a good day, sometimes with a companion sensation I can only describe as an electric charge that singes through my arms and fades fast. But it beats a headache. I’ll twist and tip and rotate my head to get my neck to release with a good crack because I know if it won’t, a headache is likely to come on. People hate that sound—they sometimes wince just to hear it, so I try to do it when no one’s around or when there’s enough noise to drown it out.

“It may sound unusual, but it’s an alternative to the botox method, which I know you want to avoid,” he continued. I could tell Dr. Chase didn’t approve of my choice. I had liked my other doctor fine enough, but she wasn’t in my new insurance network, so I found this guy online. “And it’s all very clinical. The nurse will give you the details and schedule your treatment before you go.” He assured me the new treatment would be covered by my insurance since it was no longer considered experimental.

I have to wonder if doctors are ever as sure as they try to convince me they are. I wonder if there’s a trend to return to the snake oil salesman methods too—not the snake oil itself, but the hard sell. I’d love to believe this will work, but I’ve gotten so used to having migraines that it’s hard to imagine not having them. They dictated everything from my sleep patterns, the kind of tea I drink, the kind of fruit I eat, even the distance I stand between me and someone with strong perfume. They’re so normal now, a part of my body. It would be a strange yet welcome amputation to eliminate them.

I had headaches as a kid, and sometimes I wonder if I didn’t smack my head too hard jumping into a pile of leaves or diving onto our neighbor’s Slip-n-Slide. I can almost hear the ringing in my head that I would try to pretend wasn’t there, too embarrassed that I had gotten hurt doing something that was supposed to be fun.

And my sister was brutal growing up; she loved to forge new means of torturing me. Maybe she wrenched my neck too hard one way or held a pillow on my face and threw everything off—I’d love to pin this on her.

One chiropractor I saw was certain it was something from childhood but another thought it was the car accident I had at 20—stopped at a light and rammed from the back once and once again because someone’s breaks had gone out on a rainy day. The jolt threw my head into the windshield both times, I broke the seat on the way down after smacking the glass. A quick check at the hospital and I was sent home—good to go. Meanwhile the cops or the tow truck guy stole the bag of weed I had in the glove compartment. You can’t exactly report that. I could probably qualify for medical marijuana now, but I felt too old to smoke pot and too young to take it medicinally.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I knew what a migraine was. Raw pain with no wound and no warning. It radiates and moves and stabs and dazzles and sickens. I can’t eat anything or even drink water when one starts—my stomach just cannot bear the pain. Once the smell of someone’s gum made me vomit when I had one of my migraines. Just the smell.

No talking, no light, no sleep. There’s too much pain to sleep.

When it’s finally over, the all-over stiffness I feel makes me realize that I must had been clenching my all my muscles waiting for it to stop.

The worst one lasted three days. “Three days?!” people always say. And it’s true. It came on fast and wouldn’t leave. I was out of town, staying with friends who would bring me bowls of ice to run over my temples and tip toe out of the door. “Can you eat some crackers? Do you want some coconut water?” There really is nothing to do when one of mine gets to that point. I just have to wait it out. Most of the time, I can catch them before they get that bad and take some medicine, but the medicine doesn’t always work. I realize I talk about my headaches like they are a fickle animal that claws around in my brain—sometimes cooperating, sometimes lashing out, breaking its leash and destroying all the furniture.

I was definitely desperate and willing try just about anything, but I was pretty freaked out by MHM. My doctor gave me a pamphlet and assured me again that it sounded worse than it was. “Don’t let your imagination run wild with this, Lisa,” he warned me, “It’s a medical procedure.”

I didn’t tell anyone about the method—it wasn’t like anyone needed to know or as if I had to arrange for a ride to and from the treatment appointment. They don’t knock you out for it.

Somehow I couldn’t find the words to tell anyone the details, and it was easy enough to get a day off for a doctor’s appointment. They all knew I was constantly dealing with my headaches. Most people I’ve had more than a conversation with do. Talking about the pain makes people uncomfortable, though—there isn’t much to say. But I like for people to know I have migraines so I don’t have to explain it when one happens and I have to call in sick or cancel plans.

“The appointment is under Morgan. First name Lisa,” I said to the scrubbed young woman at the counter. The treatment center was in the same complex as my doctor’s office, but it seemed like each office was hermetically sealed from the other, so I might as well have been in another part of town. After a few minutes another scrubbed young woman, Cherise, took me to the treatment room and tried to put my mind at ease. Health care jobs are always hierarchical, and I wondered how Cherise ranked. CST? Phlebotomist? LPN? It wasn’t on her nametag. If a name’s on a nametag, I like to use it, especially if the person waiting on me or taking care of me knows my name and more. “Have you been in this clinic long, Cherise?” I said, trying out her name.

“I guess… maybe 4 months. No, six? I’m not sure. I like it though, the people are usually pretty nice.” I could tell by her answer that this was just a job, not a profession for her.

“I’m sure that makes a difference,” I say, certain that I am one of the nice ones. I always assume that caregivers or servers have to deal with pretty terrible people—people who complain or snap or insult or refuse. I like to ask about those terrible ones as if we two, me and Cherise, know how terrible people can be.

“It does. And some people really get creeped out by the treatment, so I try to keep them relaxed and calm.”

“Hmm.” I’m not sure if she thinks I’m creeped out yet. I might be.

When my doctor recommended trying MHM, Manus Hominus Mortu, to cure my headaches, I didn’t have a clue what that meant. “It’s actually an old folk remedy, but those often have some real curative merit. It was used to heal tumors. It’s the best antidote to inflammation you could ask for, so that will help with the neck pain. So we’re cutting the headache off at the head, as it were.”

When he told me what MHM meant, I wished he hadn’t made that last comment. Apparently the method was rediscovered by a historian who found a reference to MHM in some medical guide from the 1700s. The brochure Dr. Chase gave me had a quote from the original book that said the treatment was originally used for “scrufolic tumors” and it gave the patient an ice cold shudder upon application. A dead man’s hand.

Technically, they can use dead women’s hands too—it’s really about using a hand with a large palm and fingers. The smaller hands of some men and women did not produce the same intensity of chill in the patient during the testing phase. They’re severed at the wrists and “modeled” in a way that patients can’t see the ends of sinews or the edges of bones jutting out from the cut edge because it really bothered the first sample group to see the threads and hardware of the hands.

Cherise left me for a minute so I could change into a gown. Since the treatment was for my neck and head, she didn’t think it was necessary to change, but I preferred it. You could call it stalling, but mainly I wanted to remind myself of the clinical nature of this procedure and was worried the actual hand would touch my clothes. It probably won’t smell like a dead body or be dripping in formaldehyde, but I didn’t want to take my chances. Of course, medicine is so litigious these days, they probably have to legally tell me if a procedure is going to ruin my shirt. It’s not like I wore anything nice—I did think long and hard about what I should wear to be touched by a dead man or at least his hand. Yoga clothes seemed like the best option.

I didn’t know what to do with my hands while I waited in my gown, so I sat on them until Cherise knocked softly and came in. I could tell by her manner that she was gauging my anxiety level. She asked me if I was ready and someone else brought it in. It was enclosed in a white package like any other medical instrument, sealed and autoclaved.

I couldn’t tell you who carried the hand into the room because all I saw was the white package that contained it. It’s just medicine. One of us might have said.

“Ok, Lisa, let’s get started.” She ripped the package open. I hadn’t decided if I wanted to see it or not before I saw it.

Definitely a man’s hand. Definitely a dead man’s hand. I saw the dark hairs on knuckles and the flat transparent nails of someone who never filed or painted them. The fingers and palm had a slight curl like a sleeping hand with resting tendons. You can always tell if someone is pretending to sleep by their hands. Sleeping hands curl, awake hands clench or lay flat. The skin on this hand was much paler than it would have in life, more like in a pool. It didn’t smell like anything than more of the same doctor’s office scent that saturated everything.

“I’m glad you wore your hair up!” Cherise laughed. “As I explained earlier, I’m going to apply the instrument to your neck and cushion it with gauze. Then we’ll leave it in place for 20-30 minutes. Ok?” She’s not going to call it a hand, I thought.

I nodded. She placed it against my skin and pressed the palm and fingers so the hand shaped around the side of my neck. I felt dampness first but the fingers and palm weren’t wet. It had been stored at a very cold temperature, so it felt damp in the sense that anything cold feels damp first. But it wasn’t like applying an ice pack. They say the skin on the hand keeps it from being too harsh of a cold pack. “We might need any gauze,” she said, leaning back and admiring her… well, you get the idea. “I think you’re good to go, Lisa. Do you want a magazine?” she asked, pointing to the magazine holder attached to the wall. “No? Ok. I’ll put this blanket on your lap in case the chill gets too uncomfortable. I’ll check on you, so try to avoid removing the instrument yourself.”

The goal of the treatment is to induce the natural shudder a person feels when being touched by the dead, which is different, technically, from touching the dead. That can produce a shudder, but it’s less universal. The word shudder really doesn’t match what I felt. It wasn’t a quick chill or shiver that you get when someone tells you a story that you can feel in your body. If it had been like that, the so-called shudder would have came and passed all while Cherise was in the room.

What I felt came on slowly. Perhaps all the preparation and clinical-ness of the situation caused that reaction to be delayed, but I doubt it dimmed the effect. An effect that I can only described as a quake. A totalizing tremor that jogged every molecule and cilium. For the duration of the quake, I could feel every cell shake. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the idea that a dead hand was wrapped around my neck—I’m certain the same thing would have happened had I been asleep. Something in that hand spoke to something within me and it exploded. It was neither erotic nor frightening—it was a cold shock that shook every shutter on the windows of my body. I could feel something unhinge in my neck and head. It was working. The prickling ever-presence of my migraines even when dormant started to lift and it felt like the blood from my neck to my head flowed easily.

Not being frightened surprised me. The quaking began to still and I settled into the quiet contact with this man’s hand.

As the coldness radiated from the hand, it felt less and less like I was being touched, but the initial application, the sense of damp skin, the squeezing around my neck as Cherise fit it into place felt very human, like I was being grabbed by the neck while sinking underwater by a lifeguard—grabbed in the way you grip the scruff of a puppy to lift it away from the precipice of a staircase. It was reassuring in a way I hadn’t expected. But as the minutes passed, my neck and head had less and less sensation because of the cold. It began to feel more and more like the ghost of a touch when your skin tingles for a second or two after contact. But I liked that the hand was still there. I just closed my eyes and tried to feel through the cold.

I never thought about what things or people this hand touched in life—who held it, who stroked it when the body was dying. And I’m sure many people spend the time waiting in this room wondering about those things. Hands are so intimate, after all. I took comfort in the fact that it was a disconnected touch that had the capacity to fix me. I’m not sure I would have minded the ends of veins and sinews.

When Cherise came back 25 minutes later. “I’m sorry I didn’t get back to check on you! We’re down one girl, so we’re a bit shorthanded.” I missed the pun at first (and it didn’t seem she meant it as one).

She gently lifted the hand from my skin, placing it on a tray while she looked at my neck. “How do you feel? It looks like the inflammation has gone down quite a bit. Why don’t you get dressed and we can talk about scheduling another appointment in a few weeks.” Before she left, she covered the hand on the tray with the white package it had come it, but I could still see it from the side. It had warmed as my skin cooled; there was no blood to make its skin more pink like cheeks after coming in from a wintery day, but I could feel the edge of cold on my neck softening. It was a few moments before I actually stopped looking at it and got up to get dressed.

I met Cherise at the counter. “How do you feel?”

“Yeah. Good, fine,” I said.

“Good, Dr. Chase suggested you come back in six weeks. What’s a good day of the week for you?”

I picked a morning appointment and was happy it would be in a cold month, thinking it would enhance the effect. We had the requisite conversation about none of us believing it was going to get cold soon.

Putting the appointment card in a pocket of my bag. A thought crossed my mind. “So will I have the same…?”


“Yeah, the same MHM next time too?”

“No, we don’t reuse them. You’ll have a new sterilized instrument next time just like today.”

“Ok, that makes sense.” I paused.

I pretended to check where I had put that appointment card again and made my brow frown. I dug in my bag as if looking for something else. I didn’t like the idea of new hand, a new appendage. That was the one that stunned my headaches silent, that cut off that familiar yet hated part of my body.

“You know what? I think I left my book in the room. Can I just run back and grab it…?”

“Of course,” Cherise said, looking away. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks, see you in six weeks!” I walked back down the hall towards the treatment room, checking that there was enough space in my bag for what I needed.

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Sarah Schuetze is an English professor at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin where she lives with her husband and their pets.