2011 in Wales
Dragana is wearing the red skirt
If tragedy is suffering without meaning, then I am trying to give meaning to the untimely death of this beautiful woman on March 6, 2014. Please follow with me as I share the story of how our intertwined paths unfold. There is even a poignant cameo appearance by the late Dr. Hamblin
I first met Dragana on her 40th birthday in the magical kingdom of Bhutan in 1997, and I last saw her over two years ago though we Skyped often until a few weeks ago.
Let me linger on our first encounter seventeen years ago to place out connection in the exotic, mystical, and Eastern space where it flourished for so long.
Went we met in the land of the the peaceful dragon half way around the world, my best friend, Todd and I were traveling to celebrate his 50th birthday to escape all the "Depends and Geritol" jokes and instead spend his half century mark visiting as an exotic place as possible.
Those days, the Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan was not receiving too many tourists (still isn't), especially in the monsoon season when we slipped and slid around in the thin air on the narrow and muddy Himalyan roads, but what it lacked in creature comforts it made up for in the beauty of the people and their country.
Then there was no TV and no lawyers, the national sport was archery, polygamy was common, and everyone wore the traditional clothing of a "go" and argyle socks and spoke the queen's English. As a potency talisman, there were pictures and sculptures of erect ejaculating penises everywhere hanging from rafters in people's homes, inside Buddhist temples and on the walls of government buildings. We drank yak milk and ate red rice. We never encounter a Yeti, but he and she can be found commemorated on the country's stamps. Wedged in the Himalayan mountains and valleys between India and China, Nepal and Bangladesh, the citizens proudly say it would be the largest country in the world if you could iron it out.
It is also known since ancient times as the land of medical herbs.
That is where Dragana fits in.
Dragana was part of a small ex-pat community working in the capital, Thimphu, as a third generation herbalist for the government helping to modernize traditional Buddhist herbal medicine.
She was standardizing and identifying active agents, checking for bacterial and fungal contamination, and cataloging ancient therapies.
She proudly told me that she brought the first elevator to the country, actually a dumb waiter to deliver the bulk herbs to the traditional hospital.
She was melding modern technology and science with ancient wisdom, something she was expert at.
Her knowledge of botanical and traditional Chinese medicine, her amazing talent as artist painting the plants that she so loved, her creative approach to raw organic vegan food, her dizzying personal energy, her ruthless ability to see though my sometimes facile notions, and her complete commitment to her herbal way of life has been a beacon in my life.
We stayed in touch, at first by handwritten letters, then email, then phone and finally Skype. Though she was born in Croatia, she called England home and worked as an herbalist for Neil's Yard, a respected maker of various botanical products. My son Will once helped her pick wild lavender for one of her concoctions.
We met again in Spain when I was traveling with my same friend and my oldest daughter. I visited her twice in England, once with my two boys and yes the same friend (Todd and I have traveled a lot together), and the last time with my wife.
I remember us standing together in remote Druid stone circles in the rain at midnight or exploring the English country side for wild herbs and flowers or lounging in the sum In Parc Guell in Barcelona.
She visited the US with her friend Daphne (pictured above on the left) to attend my daughter's wedding and three of my four children visited her and stayed at her home in England. Just a few months ago, Dragana arranged for my oldest son to visit at last June's summer solstice celebration with the Druids at Stonehenge.
When she came here eight years ago for my daughter's wedding, she was one of the very few that I told of my cancer diagnosis one month earlier. She and Daphne immediately deconstructed my diet and my life, helped me shop for a juicer and order all the accruements of my new raw vegan lifestyle.
She had little faith in Western medicine, but I am proud that she would occasionally and reluctantly consult me on allopathic matters when her herbs were not strong enough.
When I visited her last, she had been diagnosed with cancer. I scheduled a trip to England to beg her to consider a likely life saving and curative surgery but she would have none of it. She came into the world with all her parts and she was leaving it the same way. We even all visited the wonderful CLL champion Dr. Terry Hamblin
not long before he passed on from his colon cancer. (Dragana was in his living room with us in the picture from my memorial post
). I had not prepped him in anyway, but somehow he came to tell us the story of how early in his career as as an oncologist he had had a patient that refused curative therapy for her cancer because she wanted to treat it naturally. She went on to die a needlessly horribly painful death from metastatic disease. I was moved by the story, but Dragana was not. She heard none of this. In fact, she felt sad for Dr. Hamblin and his sterile English diet and his trust in Western medicine.
She also heard none of my pleas to be open to all possible options to cure her cancer. She was clear and strong on this.
Instead, my wife and I traveled with her though southern England and Wales and had a marvelous time.
Near the end, the terrible pain of metastatic disease caused her to relent. Palliative radiation bought her respite to revisit her home in Croatia. Hospice care with pain meds made sure she was comfortable in her last few months. Even then, when she was so weak that she could barely speak, she still refused most therapies and used her herbs to ameliorate many of her symptoms.
She lived and died in a consistent and valiant way, congruent with her whole life's work and philosophy.
Now she's gone and I will miss her powerful and haunting spirit. She opened my eyes to a bigger world and changed my whole approach to food and herbs and really healing. She also became a dear friend and mentor to my whole family.
I am so sad that she's passed and I so wish that I could have changed her mind so that I could plan another visit to her home in the beautiful English countryside to learn from her and to eat one more of her amazing meals. I want to chat on SKYPE with her tomorrow and get her counsel on diet and herbs while she scolds me on my out of balance life choices.
There is a huge part of me that is in shock that I have outlived her. My cancer is still for the most part incurable. Her's was not.
Even if I wish it wasn't so, I respect and admire her decision.
My backbone is less strong. Though I hate chemo, if there was a chemotherapy available tomorrow that would for sure cure my CLL, I'd be first in line. Heck if it was proven homeopathy, which in the face of it seems completely nonsensical, could get me a lasting remission, I would give it a try, even if meant standing my whole allopathic understanding of medicine on its head.
I believe we need to use what is proven to work, and when that is unknown, which is too often the case, we should use what makes the most sense to our hearts and our brains.
But I also believe we need to be open to change, especially radical change, as Dr. Hamblin would say, "think laterally".
The Talmud teaches we are to live by the commandments, not die by them. I generalize that principle to be pragmatic core of my flexible approach to healing. I am results oriented. Dragana was process oriented, committed to a balanced and "eastern" way of seeing the world. If and when our we ever meet again, I am sure we would lovingly disagree on who chose the better path.
In the meantime, I cherish the nearly seventeen years that she was my dear dear friend.
Every time, and this would be many times every day, that I eat a sprouted grain or drink a raw vegetable juice or thumb my nose at a GMO highly processed food, I will think of her.
Rest in peace, Dragana. You are a very special person.
Labels: alternative medicine, Bhutan, change plans, Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, CLL, Death, decisions, Dr. Terry Hamblin, Dragana Vilinac, Herbs, travel