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A medicine man without limits

By Tamar Ben-Yosef
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 9-08

Walking through the garden with Dr. Ted Mala at Southcentral Foundation’s Traditional Healing Clinic, it is easy to forget that many of the flourishing plants surrounding us are essentially what some people consider weeds.

Not according to Mala. In his eyes, there is no such thing as a weed and all plants were put on earth for a reason.

Mala, director of the clinic and director of tribal relations at the Southcentral Foundation, is at ease in the garden, strolling calmly from bush to flower, naming each one with apparent delight as if he were walking through a beautiful botanical garden.

Mala in July was selected as Native Physician of the Year by the Association of American Indian Physicians in its summer convention.

A modest, soft-spoken man with a resume to flaunt, Mala was comfortable talking about everyone and everything but himself.

The honorable title, he admitted, was a very pleasant and welcomed surprise, but more than anything it is was a validation from his peers.

“When Western medicine recognizes the value of traditional healing, it is an affirmation and recognition of what we do,” Mala said.

It hasn’t always been the case. Often traditional healing was confused with shamanism and frowned upon by the Western medical world. Mala draws a clear distinction between the two, the former being a less supernatural version of healing that uses plants, spirituality, sweat baths, touch and story telling to treat people.

Mala, part Inupiat and part Russian, was raised between the village of Buckland, in the Northwest Arctic Region of the state, and California, where he attended boarding school.

He is the son of Ray Mala, the first Native American movie star, the father of two growing Hollywood actors and is the first male Alaska Native physician.

At the age of 6, Mala saw his father die from heart disease, and soon after he lost his mother. Mala was raised by his grandmother, a traditional healer who comes from a long line of healers. She taught him a lot of what he knows.

The rest he picked up studying and traveling.

Mala said his exposure to sickness and death had a lot to do with his choice to study medicine. But rather than fixing people one at a time, Mala committed himself to the path of attacking ailments from the root and following medical school attended Harvard’s School of Public Health for his master’s degree.

Once proficient in Western medicine, Mala could then reach in to his traditional healing knowledge and combine the two for a more individual and cultural approach to curing.

Mala’s office, complete with a Blackberry, cell phone, computer and several other electronic gadgets alongside artifacts given to him as gifts or collected in his many travels, is a mixture of modern technology and Native culture. It’s just like his life and career.

“People exist in two worlds spiritual and material,” Mala said as we walked toward the garden. “I was born to be the bridge of understanding between the two.

“There are many roads to health. I bring them together and it is a wonderful choice.”

From day one as a physician, mentor and teacher, Mala has been on a learning path. His dedication to healing fellow Natives took him farther north to study the Native cultures of the circumpolar countries.

There are a lot of similarities between the environments, problems and concerns in these countries, Mala said.

Every couple of years, Mala meets with members of the International Union of Circumpolar Health to discuss shared issues. He also established several research programs, including the institute for Circumpolar Health Studies and the Alaska Siberia Medical Research Program.

Through this research and cooperation, Mala blurs the manmade borders that separate these people, who share so much in common. The borders create a big mess because the knowledge goes across them.

It was this dedication to helping others that earned him the AAIP title of Physician of the Year, according to the association.

There is plenty of room in Mala’s world for allopathic medicine, but it is not complete without digging deeper into a person’s personal history and background.

His biggest challenge, perhaps, has been reprogramming young doctors he mentors to set aside some of what they learned in medical school and let some new approaches in.

“Everything was put on earth for a purpose,” Mala said – even dandelions, devil’s club and digitalis plants. And also pain.

 

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