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The Green Planet


Olesya SANDYHA tells a story of Natalya Zemna,
an enthusiastic advocate of treatment with medicinal plants in Ukraine today.


These days there is hardly anyone who doubts that living in an ecologically clean area is better than living in an environment badly affected by pollution. Similarly, it is not difficult to persuade people that to eat natural, ecologically clean products is better than to consume junk food. In the same line, it is in many cases better and safer to use medicinal herbs for treatment of malfunctions and diseases than chemical agents known as “medicaments.” What follows is a story about a woman who devoted her life to the study and use of nature’s healing properties. She not only provides people with advice how to use medicinal plants — she runs a vast business that collects plants, processes them, turns them into medicinal preparations and sells them in dozens of specialized drugstores across the nation.


A drug store with a difference

There is a drug store situated at the first floor of the outpatient hospital that belongs to the Union of Writers of Ukraine. In fact there are two drug stores facing each other in the spacious lobby. One is a regular pharmacy, and the other one, Zelena Planeta (Green Planet), sells medicinal plants and preparations made of them. At any time when these drugstores are open, there is a handful of customers in one of them, and a long queue in the other one, in Zelena Planeta. Patients want herbs rather than chemicals.

Two friendly women attendants wait on the customers, giving explanations and instructions as to the use of plants, herbs and preparations being purchased. In one of the corners, a consultant, sitting at a small table, provides more detailed information.

A young woman, holding in both hands several vials, asks, “All of it should be taken at the same time, right?”

“From these you drip five drops into one glass, add water and drink, and five minutes later you do the same with the rest. Two times a day, in the morning and in the evening.”

An older woman reads carefully the inscription on the label of the vial she has just purchased, and says uncertainly, “But it contains spirit! And I was told — no spirits for me!”

“You need only three drops per one glass of water and in such amounts spirits can do no harm. You see, you can’t get a proper infusion without pure spirits.”

A man who does look sick, wants to make sure he got the instructions right, “For how long should I be taking this? Several weeks?”

“Several months. With the problem you have, treatment cannot be quick.”

“But I thought…”

“For how many years you’ve been doing damage to your liver? And you want all that damage repaired in a couple of weeks? Once you’ve decided to use medicinal plants for treating your health problems, you do have to be patient. If you do properly what is prescribed — dosage, frequency — then you’re sure to feel better in maybe a month, but to get the really healing effect you have to stick to this for several months.”


Phytotherapy — treatment with medicinal plants

I arranged for an appointment with Mrs Zemna for two o’clock in the afternoon but I came earlier in the hope of having more time to talk to her. When I arrived, I discovered a dozen people in the waiting room, patiently waiting for their turn.

I explained the purpose of my visit to the tired-looking receptionist. She said with a sigh, “I don’t think Mrs Zemna will have time for you until she receives all these people. She arrived only this morning. She was on a business trip abroad. And she immediately rushed from the airport here. I’m not even sure she had breakfast. So, please wait if you can. I’ll invite you to her office when she’s through with the patients.”

I thought of leaving — Mrs Zemna will be too tired to give an interview! But the receptionist encouraged me to stay, adding, “It will not take her too much time to deal with all these patients.”

And I stayed. To while away the time, I began reading what was written on pieces of paper stuck to the sides of an old upright piano standing at one of the walls (except for the piano and benches there was no other furniture in the room which was enlivened only by the pots with houseplants, standing on the windowsills or hanging suspended on the walls). On those little sheets of paper I found information about the possibility of treating various diseases and health problems with all kinds of plants, plus all sorts of advice: how to get rid of painful calluses on the feet with the help of grated onions and heavy-duty soap; or how to get rid of excessive hair on the body; one paper advised which houseplants may have a beneficial effect on your health.

About only an hour later I was invited to go into Mrs Zemna’s office.

She did not look tired at all. It turned out, as I had suspected, that she needed only four to six hours of sleep to refresh her completely. She confessed that she did not have much time for interviews, preferring to talk to journalists at terminals while she was waiting for trains, planes or taxis. The atmosphere of our interview was very informal — people kept coming in with papers to sign and urgent information to share.

I must admit I began our conversation on a wrong note: I asked how it came about that a person with an education like hers got involved with “phytotherapy.” The thing is that Mrs Zemna graduated first — in 1976 — from the Kyiv Institute of Culture and then from the Moscow Literature Institute in 1981. She even published several collections of her poetry, including a rhymed ABC book of herbs for young readers. Later, she attended courses organized by the Ukrainian Association of Folk Medicine, had special training and then devoted herself entirely to medicinal herbs and herbal treatment. But she did not have a formal medical education and more than once she must have been accused by sceptics of having no proper qualifications for treating people.

I did my best to overcome the coldness that emerged after my ill-advised conversational gambit, and I think I managed to do that.

Mrs Zemna possesses a profound knowledge of medicinal plants and their health-giving properties. She carefully studies folk medicine, long neglected by “the official medicine.” In fact, she was one of the first to start tapping the knowledge, expertise and skills of folk medicine.


Responsibility towards God and people

Phytotherapy finds itself in a difficult situation — on one side, it is challenged by the traditional pharmacology, and on the other side, the trust in it is undermined by quacks who practice what they call “untraditional medicine” exploiting people’s trust and desire to get cured, particularly those whose diseases have not been cured by medicines or operations.

Mrs Zemna is very strict about the physician’s code of behaviour in practicing her trade of travnyk, or “the one who collects herbs and other plants to use them for medical treatment.” During the interview she kept referring all the time to the ethics of the Hippocratic oath and strict observance of it. She reiterated that in her work she observes the principals “make sure you don’t do any harm”; “know your limitations”; “let your conscience be your guide”; “don’t practice medicine just for money.”

“A sick person who takes medicines runs a risk of doing damage to his or her health. Chemical agents deal with one problem but they can cause other problems by damaging internal organs, causing allergic reactions, and so on. I don’t want to make any comments about all those who claim they can heal just by touch, or by incantations or other such things — I am a travnyk, I’m practicing only phytotherapy. Everybody should be responsible towards God and people for what they do. It is a particularly great responsibility to be engaged in medical treatment. Let your conscience be your judge, I keep saying — If a person who turns for help, comes back a month later and says things got worse than they used to be before treatment, it means you have done something very wrong and you’ll have a crisis of conscience.

If I see that I cannot give help in dealing with this or that disease, I always say so. If, say, a person comes to me with a multiple sclerosis, or a cancer at its latest stages, I’m powerless to help. And I don’t promise such a person anything, I just don’t have the right to do it, I can’t give that person false hope.”

For her first instructor Natalya Zemna had her grandmother who told her a lot of exciting things about nature in general and herbs in particular. In 1991, she opened her first apothecary, Apteka narodnykh likiv (Apothecary of Folk Medicine), with her late husband, Danyliy Zubytsky as a cofounder. Now, thirteen years later, Mrs Zemna runs an apothecary chain, Zelena planeta (Green Planet) with 60 stores in all parts of Ukraine, in which you can buy plants and plant preparations, and get free qualified consultations. Your problem can even be diagnosed and corresponding advice given. Mrs Zemna told me that she regularly — every month — inspected every apothecary in the chain.

“In January 2003 we set up an organization which we called Zelena planeta too, and which unites medical doctors, pharmacists, botanists who specialize in the study of medicinal plants, and healers. We approach treatment in a comprehensive way — collection of plants; their processing, packaging, etc; diagnosis, and prescription. No similar organizations have ever existed in Ukraine before. In fact, there are no organizations like ours in the world, and our work generates a lot of interest in many foreign countries. I’ve just returned from conferences in Switzerland and Hungary, and tomorrow I leave again for another conference.”

The Zelena planeta organization has its own “phytolaboratory” at which freshly gathered plants are processed; the use of special technologies makes it possible to preserve most of medicinal properties of plants. About two thousand species of medicinal plants are collected in ecologically clean zones of the Crimea, the Carpathians, in the Lands of Volyn and of Kyivshchyna and other places. Whenever she can, Mrs Zemna takes part in plant collecting excursions. It is not enough to know which plants to pick — you have to know at which time of the day and at which place it would be best to pick this or that plant. Even the mood of the travnyk matters.

“More than 200 medical preparations made of plants have been already patented by Zelena planeta. And it’s a time and labour consuming work to get such a preparation created. We often use folk recipes too. And try the effect they have on people, first on volunteers, of course (Mrs Zemna is one of them). To test the full effect the dose should be large enough. We often have people coming to us who are badly ill and whom the standard medical care has failed to help, and we offer them to try our preparations which have not yet been fully tested. We know for sure though that the patient’s condition will not get worse after we administer our herbal preparation, but there is always a chance it may get better. Every tiny blade of grass, every little plant has its own secrets and potential curative strength. Look at the animals — cats and dogs when they are sick or suffering from vitamin deficiency, find and eat some plants that help them. We, humans, have lost that instinctual ability to find plants that may help us. Some children can still do it, but most of us can’t. And we, at Zelena planeta, want to help.”


Business or calling?

“You should not make business out of medicine,” says Mrs Zemna. It sounds paradoxical coming from a woman who runs a large business indeed — the Zelena planeta organization and an apothecary chain all across Ukraine.

“It’s a pity that so many people nowadays, when they catch a regular cold, rush to a drugstore and buy a drug that has been advertised on television instead of using old, time-tested methods of treating colds and coughing. If something is wrong with your health you should treat the cause and not the symptoms. We do not place any advertisement in papers, on radio or television — people get to know about Zelena planeta medicinal plants and preparations on the grapevine and also we publish a lot of relevant information in our own bimonthly, Zelena planeta. Also, I have a regular programme on the radio which is also called Zelena planeta.”

Both the periodical and the radio programme provide advice and information about the properties of plants, their proper use and lots of tips of the following kind: by rinsing the mouth with a tincture made from the stalk of a pumpkin, you strengthen the teeth enamel; rubbing the infusion made from acacia’s blossoms into the skin is good for varicose veins; tea made of wormwood is good for the sclerosis of brain vessels, etc., etc.

“Being a travnyk means you have to be a botanist, a chemist, a pharmacist, an anatomist, and many other things rolled into one. We keep collecting folk recipes, studying plants’ properties, looking for new plants with curative potentials. Some plants have names in Ukrainian which indicate their medicinal properties. The plant, called materynka, for example (this word is derived from the word maty, mother”) is very useful for treating gynaecological diseases, and mykolaychyky (from the man’s name Mykola) is a plant which is very useful for restoring potency in men.”

Mrs Zemna is convinced that in the next decade or so, medicinal plants will be used on a much wider scale and the drugs made of chemicals will give way to medicinal plants in treatment of many diseases.

“Of course, a lot of problems will still be dealt with chemical medicaments when a powerful effect is needed fast, but always remember that it is much better to treat chronic diseases with medicinal plants, particularly when the immune system is weakened. Also, it should be borne in mind that chemical medicaments are particularly harmful to children. An aspirin can start an ulcer of the stomach and if a child is running a temperature you don’t have to give this child an aspirin — you can bring the child’s temperature down by rubbing the child’s body with a cloth soaked in a solution made of a glassful of water, a spoonful of vinegar and a spoonful of vodka. It will make the child sweat profusely — and the fever is gone!”


Establishing diagnosis

In most cases, Mrs Zemna can establish what is wrong with a person who enters her office literally within minutes. Even the visual examination can tell her a lot. Palpation is her main diagnostic aid. It is a medical examination using gentle pressure of the fingers on the body of the patient. Mrs Zemna’s fingers apparently can tell her more than all kinds of tests.

Some people have a special gift of “feeling” and diagnosing someone else’s diseases. Similarly, there are people with a gift for music, painting, and so on. But palpation is more a skill than a gift and it can be taught and learned.

“For that you have to possess a high level of tactile sensitivity. I never expected I had this ability until not so long ago. I learnt I had it more or less accidentally. Some time ago I took one of our patients who had a problem with internal organs to an old woman, a znakharka (literally: “a witch doctor”; in a wider meaning — a person who uses untraditional methods of treating diseases) of wide fame who lived in Moldova. This znakharka was reported to be very good at palpation too. It turned out that she was looking for a disciple to pass her knowledge and skills to. I volunteered to try whether my fingers were sensitive enough. She pulled a hair out of her head, put it on the table and covered it with a sheet of rough paper. Then she invited me to find where the hair was lying beneath the paper by running my fingers over it. I did find it! To make sure there was no mistake, I drew the position of the hair with a pencil. The znakharka was not quite convinced, dismissing my discovery as a coincidence. She grabbed hold of a cat that was walking around, pulled out several of its hairs, put them on the table, covered them with a sheet of paper and asked me to count how many were there. I did. In fact, there was one hair which I missed — two hairs were stuck so close together that they felt like one. The znakharka agreed to take me as her disciple. I had already had some experience of diagnosis with the help of palpation but that old woman taught me a lot of new skills, one of which was how to diagnose one organ through another. This skill, like any other skill for that matter, can be developed and honed, and I continue to improve it. On average, I receive from two to three hundred patients a day and there are days when their number reaches four hundred. A lot of practice for my fingers.”


As I was leaving and thanking Mrs Zemna for her time, she said, “I remembered that you asked about ‘natural’ pain killers. There are many but the easiest to obtain is willow. Take a willow twig, fold it several times, put it into a cup, pour boiling water over tea, brew tea and then drink it. And the pain will be gone. It’s much better than aspirin or Tylenol.”

I tried — and it helped to kill my headache. I also tried that trick with hairs and a sheet of paper. Alas, I failed to feel anything but the surface of the paper.


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