When Christopher Ashley ’05 got sick, he knew he was in trouble. His hacking cough kept him up all night, and he was missing classes left and right. It was essential that he get some kind of help. But Ashley did not seek professional help on the examination table, nor relief from a prescription bottle. Instead, he looked for it in the bottom of a teacup.

“I ran into a friend in the dining hall that night,” Ashley said. “Her suite makes a point of being skilled in the healing arts. She brewed me some tea and gave me some kind of natural cough drops.”

More than ever, students with minor ailments are consulting other students about their troubles — turning their friends into word-of-mouth medicinal gurus. With elderberry and ginger, licorice and echinacea, these amateur herbalists do their best to cure everything from the typical college cold to that nagging upset stomach.

Vardit Haimi-Cohen ’06, who ministered to Ashley, said most people she has helped were not necessarily seeking her out.

“More often than not, they’re complaining about their symptoms — ‘I feel so bad today!’ — and I tell them to come to my room and get something. Sometimes I’ll give them some tea bags to take home,” Haimi-Cohen said.

Haimi-Cohen also cautioned not to make too much of her interest in herbal remedies. Describing this unique hobby as something she picked up from her high school singing instructor — who taught her a few tricks to preserve her voice — she said she does not necessarily plan on taking the interest much further.

“I’m not planning on a career [in herbal medicine] or anything,” she said.

Like Haimi-Cohen, Daniel Jordan ’06 considers himself purely an amateur herbalist. After all, he learned most of what he knows from the back of Celestial Seasonings boxes. Nevertheless, he said he gets a constant stream of friends in search of help.

“My friends always come to me when they feel bad, even if it’s just stress,” he said.

But Jordan said people should not place too much trust in herbal medicine’s healing powers.

“There are really only four things herbs can help well: sleep troubles, sore throat, stuffy nose and stress,” he said. “For those things, they work very well. And besides, most of them taste really good.”

That’s not what some of Haimi-Cohen’s friends say about her menthol-free cough drops.

“My friends tell me [the cough drops] taste like poison,” she said.

Xizhou Zhou ’05 wishes it were only the taste his friends complained about. An ancient Chinese stomach remedy he readily dispenses once caused a great deal of trouble.

“I gave two friends a kind of Chinese medicine that takes care of upset stomach,” Zhou said. “One said it worked well and is still asking for more, but the other said it almost killed him.”

But some of these up-and-coming herbal care providers cited very different ways they learned their craft. While Zhou said his knowledge came from his family, Jordan took a more active approach.

An avid tea drinker, Jordan became curious about the ingredients.

“I went on the Internet and looked up the herbs I remembered, then ordered them online,” he said.

While use of the Internet as a diagnosis and health research tool has grown in popularity, Chief of Student Medicine James Perlotto had mixed things to say about students’ taking medicine into their own hands.

“Obviously, we here at University Health Services really encourage students to be active in researching their own health,” he said.

But the line gets crossed, he said, at actual diagnosis and treatment when the disease could be serious.

“That’s what doctors and nurses go through years of training to do,” he said. “We use our hands, our eyes, ears and thoughts. We use a person’s ideas and beliefs. It’s not even possible to diagnose a person over the telephone.”

Whether ginger to open the nasal passages, peppermint for a sore throat, or something a little more exotic, the herbal medicine trend seems bigger than ever, especially among students who might not have time to visit a professional doctor.

But herbs might not get to the root of most Yalies’ problems, considering their demanding schedules and constant stress.

“More than anything,” Haimi-Cohen said, “once in a while people need to be reminded to, you know, actually sleep.”

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