Welcome to our leadership blog series! This month, Randall Block-the Chief Financial Officer for the NMSA’s International Board-tells us about his life changing experiences in Jamaica.
Jamaican Me Grateful
I spent the past week in Jamaica with friends, colleagues, and professors from the University of Bridgeport College of Naturopathic Medicine. It is a trip that has been going on for the last 20 years, organized by Dr. Eugene Zampieron. While there, we were led through the bush of the North coast of the island by native Rasta farmers who live off of the land. I was able to learn firsthand from these men, the ways that they use the various herbs and plants of Jamaica as food, and as medicine. These were authentic medicine men. The people who I had so much wonder about as a child, and thought I would only find in the movies. It was an experience I will remember forever.
The second day there we took a two hour hike to a large waterfall. We collected leaves, bark, and roots of various plants throughout the hike, and were constantly being given information about the flora around us. It was a living, breathing learning experience! I walked around with a machete attached to my hip all week, and was given the name “cutlass man” by our fearless leader, Lion. It came in very handy for opening coconuts to drink out of wherever we stopped. Lion would sing about whatever we were doing, all the time. Sometimes he would yell out “full joy!” to express fully being in the moment.
The following day we spent a few hours processing the herbs we had collected. A few of us used knives to scrape the inside bark of Jamaican Dogwood (Piscidia erythrina or J-dog, as it is nicknamed) into a big fluffy brown pile. J-dog is a powerful analgesic and muscle relaxer, and is much safer and less toxic than conventional pain medications/opiates 1. We scraped and cut up roots, and chopped leaves into fine pieces. I paid careful attention to rasta John and Natty’s technique of dicing up those leaves, because they were far better at it than I was. They had done this a few times before.
The only thing we students were not allowed to process was the Guinea Hen (Petiveria alliacea) root. Binto called it “fire root” and I found out why when it started burning my eyes from 5 feet away as he stood right over it cutting it up, like a boss. It has a garlic smell, and the burning sensation is most likely due to the isothiocyanates (also present in wasabi), di and trisulfides. The dibenzyltrisulphides in guinea hen weed have been found in many studies to have strong anticancer activity 2,3, which just so happens to be one of the main uses of guinea hen in Jamaican folklore. I found this out hiking through the jungle as Dr. Z ripped some out of the ground and started giving a sermon on it. It was a very memorable way to learn about a good herb. After processing all the plant material we put them in glass jars and submerged them in alcohol for tinctures. It was only the second time in my life I have ever made my own tincture from scratch; the first being in Dr. Z’s class at school. I put my full attention into every piece of plant I worked with that day, and it added a whole new level of power to the medicine. Those glass jars are now in my kitchen, and will sit there for another two weeks before I can drain the menstruum to be used as tincture.
At night we would walk up to a raised rocky area on the water, with waves crashing all around it, and have a massive bonfire there while drinking tea from plants we collected that day. Most nights it was nervine tea, along with tonics, but the last night it was a bitter tea made from mormordica bitter melon, which is a great herb for metabolic syndrome, and lowering blood sugar4. Sometimes we would get a special meal with the tubers of the day, cooked in coconut, which tasted like butter. I drank and ate more hand picked herbs and plants than I had my entire life. I even was given a cure for my sweet tooth. After I told the Jamaicans I love sweets, they made me drink a concoction of bitterwood, and it did the job! I’m bringing that little pearl back home with me, because I am great at getting good nutrients in my body but sweets have always been my downfall. Even with all the Jamaican Dogwood nervine tea at night, I would still be up till three in the morning taking it all in.
Every night I made sure to go off on my own for a little time, to sit on the edge of a cliff about 25 feet up from the water and meditate. With the waves crashing below me, the strong winds blowing in, and the starry night sky reaching up in front of me, I felt as though I was taking deep breaths of the surroundings into my soul. As I sat there in my gratitude, naturally I began to think deeply about my life, and the situations that brought me to this rocky cliff in Jamaica.
I struggled for years in my 20’s worrying about whether I would be happy with my career choices. I wondered if I would choose a job out of comfort and financial gain, and end up hating it in 10 or 20 years. I also worried about choosing a job out of love and ending up broke for rest of my life! Two opposite ends of the spectrum. As with most worries, they were completely unnecessary. After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Applied Mathematics, and spending a few months studying for actuarial exams, I really started to question my motives and realize my lack of motivation. Money was never a big enough motivator for me, and in this dilemma, I finally surrendered to the fact that I would have to let my heart lead the way. I decided to go to one of my favorite places on Long Island, walking along the Nissequogue River just behind Sunken Meadow Beach, and do some serious soul searching and discernment. I came out two hours later with two options in mind, and within one short week I found a website speaking about doctoral programs in naturopathic medicine. I had no idea before that moment that you could practice herbal or alternative medicine as an actual physician. As I looked at the 6 principles, there were no more questions as to what I should do with my life.
I don’t know why it took so many years of questions to find Naturopathic Medicine, but I have a feeling it came along at the exact time it was suppose to. At that point in my life, it was the easiest decision I had ever made. Two years of fulfilling pre-requisites and a year paying off debt later, at 30 years old I started classes at UBCNM.
I joined NMSA my first semester, almost by accident. The local chapter sent out an email stating that they were in need of a treasurer, to which I replied I was interested in knowing what that entailed. I received an email back informing me that I was now the treasurer, and the date of our next meeting! I was also somewhat tricked into the Philosophy Committee, when a sheet was passed around our freshmen class asking to write our name down if we are “ interested in Philosophy”. At the time I had no idea that the committee was only made of two students per graduating class, and that it would be our task to plan Philosophy Day for the school. I am very glad things went that way because I may have turned those propositions down otherwise, and would have missed out on many things that came out of it. At the time I was trying (very hard obviously) not to get involved in too many groups the first semester of medical school until I figured out how much work we would be wrapped up in, and because I have a tendency to spread myself too thin. On the contrary, these two groups turned out to be a bright spot in my life and almost two years later, both are going strong. I remember that first semester looking through the leadership positions on the NMSA website, and I’ll say with complete humility that as I read some of the bios, the thought that went through my head was “Wow, I could never be like one of these people”. But, just half a year later I was at DC-FLI, and found myself chatting with our former CFO Christine, being coached to run for her position.
The past year as CFO has been fun, trying, motivating, challenging, and an extremely rewarding time. From jumping in at the AANP/NMSA conference in AZ last summer, meeting so many doctors and colleagues, to sitting in front of a computer for ten hours at a clip working out financials, and preparing for the tax season, it has been an amazing learning experience.
And then of course there is Naturopathic medical school in general. The first year was extremely tough. I did not take care of myself nearly enough, and spent way too many nights up late studying. After the second semester it took about a month of summer break before I felt normal again. I spent the summer camping and spending as much time on the beach with friends as possible, and it got me back to center. The night before classes started back up again I was dreading having to drive back to CT and dive back into school work. I woke up in the morning and was a little terrified driving in, but then something interesting happened. I sat down in a pathology class at 8am-the professor started teaching about cardiology, and after about 5 minutes of the lecture I finally remembered-I love this stuff! This year I am trying to enjoy my classes, and take care of myself at the same time. I will probably miss it when it’s over, because I’m weird like that. Three years ago I would have paid money just to be able to sit in on one of the classes I am today and hear about the medicine. I try and keep that up front when we have those tough weeks, or months.
This was all going through my head as I sat at the edge of a cliff at midnight in Jamaica. Many amazing experiences have come about in these past two years-none of which I can fully take credit for. You never know what life is going to throw at you. For myself, I can say that having an open mind and willingness to go with the flow-taking those leaps when opportunity arises-has made all the difference. I am back from the Caribbean with not only a much deeper connection to herbs, but also a clear view of what I have to be appreciative for today.
Thank you for reading, and try to remember-full joy, whenever possible mon.
In love and service.
- Costello, C.H., & Butler, C.L. (1948). An Investigation of Piscidia Erythrina(Jamaican Dogwood). Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association. 37(3), 89-97. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0095955315313123.
- Lowe, H.I., & Facey, C.O., and & Toyang, N.J., & Bryant, J.L. (2014). Specific RSK Kinase Inhibition by Dibenzyl Trisulfide and Implication for Therapeutic Treatment of Cancer. International Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment, 34(4), 1637-1641. Retrieved from http://ar.iiarjournals.org/content/34/4/1637.long.
- Williams, L.A., Barton, E.N., Kraus, W., Rosner, H. (2009). Implications of Dibenzyl Trisulphide for Disease Treatment Based on its Mode of Action. West Indian Med J. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pubmed/20441056-implications-of-dibenzyl-trisulphide-for-disease-treatment-based-on-its-mode-of-action/.
- Alam, M. A., Uddin, R., Subhan, N., Rahman, M. M., Jain, P., & Reza, H. M. (2015). Beneficial Role of Bitter Melon Supplementation in Obesity and Related Complications in Metabolic Syndrome. Journal of Lipids, 2015, 496169. http://doi.org/10.1155/2015/496169.
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