Finding Modern Medicines in Ancient Cultures
Along with her B.S. in pharmacy from UNC-Chapel Hill, author Amy Greeson’s education has included some much more unique experiences. She’s been to Belize to study native therapies, studied in the Amazon with a local medicine man and woman, and learned from traditional healers in Mexico.
Amy Greeson, RPh, had her first experience in a pharmacy when she was young, at her father’s pharmacy in Thomasville, North Carolina. On the occasional days when her mother dropped the children off at the pharmacy, Greeson said it was up to her father to keep them entertained while he worked.
“He would have us on the floor in between the aisles of the pharmaceuticals with coloring books,” she recalled, laughing.
Nearly 50 years later, Greeson’s idea of pharmacy has changed somewhat. She still believes in the power of the profession to change lives, but she has combined that power with her passion for discovering untapped natural resources in the world’s most remote regions.
Along with her B.S. in pharmacy from UNC-Chapel Hill, Greeson’s education has included some much more unique experiences. She’s been to Belize to study native therapies, studied in the Amazon with a local medicine man and woman, and learned from traditional healers in Mexico. Now, as the founder of 2 companies that aim to combine modern medicine with traditional healing techniques, Greeson has found her niche.
Greeson’s company, Natural Discoveries, sends teams into the most unexplored, remote areas of the world to find specimens of natural resources used for centuries by indigenous tribes. Those specimens are brought back to her lab at Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, where extracts are prepared that can then be used to find innovative new compounds for difficult-to-treat diseases.
Healing Seekers, Greeson’s complementary non-profit company, uses the teams’ expeditions to create educational films on topics that include biology, geography, social studies, and global sustainability. Currently, those media materials have been distributed to almost 100,000 different schools, Greeson said.
The research trips and cultural experiences also are chronicled in Greeson's new book, And the Silent Spoke.
A BROADER UNDERSTANDING OF PHARMACY
Greeson’s background in pharmacy is extremely traditional, including internships in North Carolina and Alaska, and working at Thomasville Pharmacy with her father. She said it was a gradual realization, but eventually Greeson came to realize that natural and traditional medicines are not as different as people believe.
“I began to realize that so many of our pharmaceuticals had their origins from the novel compounds found in nature,” Greeson said. “And I realized that there was still so much of our planet that had yet to be researched.”
Instead of simply acquiring theoretical knowledge, Greeson decided to put her knowledge to work. She founded Healing Seekers in 2006, and their first expedition was to Ecuador, Amazon, and the Andes. This trip solidified Greeson’s passion for combining sustainability, healing, and indigenous cultures.
After this trip, Greeson established the 3 critical factors in selecting their future expeditions: the destinations must have the greatest possible biodiversity, they are the areas most threatened with serious habitat loss and destruction, and they have a critical threat to their indigenous cultures.
Based on those criteria, other expeditions have included Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and Congo.
All of these trips have resulted in a myriad of extracts and research, which is all now in labs at various universities, pharmaceutical companies, and agricultural companies.
“I think the research we’re doing with Natural Discoveries, which is still in the hands of a lot of very intelligent researchers, I have no doubt that there are going to be some significant discoveries that come out of that,” Greeson said.
OUTWEIGHING THE RISKS
It hasn’t been easy, Greeson said.
During a recent 2-month trek through the jungle in Congo, Greeson and her team were arrested 5 times and jailed twice for suspicion of espionage, when the police didn’t understand the purpose of their drones.
“Those are the times that you really question what you’re doing, but believe it or not, the benefits have always outweighed the risks,” she said.
There are a myriad of challenges that come with the work—travel logistics, funding, and ensuring that their equipment can withstand the conditions are just a few. But Greeson said safety and concerns for her team are an entirely new and more stressful element.
“You have to weigh that each time,” she said. “But every time, the chance that you might discover something that could help someone outweighs the risks.”
Greeson’s entire career has been risky, however, and she has no plans of stopping anytime soon. Their newest documentary, Return to Madagascar, features the team’s second expedition to the island. In addition to featuring the plants and wildlife native only to Madagascar, the team also aims to show the shocking amount of deforestation and habitat loss that has taken place since their original expedition there in 2008.
Looking back, Greeson said she’s amazed at how different her career is from how she imagined it would be. With multiple documentaries, educational materials, scientific developments, and a new book, Greeson has certainly accomplished more than she could have dreamed of when she was coloring in her father’s pharmacy.
“If someone had told me the challenges that I would face, I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to even put the first foot forward,” she said. “But you discover that every challenge is surmountable.”
Ultimately, Greeson said her goal is to bring something new to the pharmacy profession, while using her platform to shine a light on climate devastation and disappearing indigenous cultures. After all, she added, as a pharmacist it’s her life’s work to care for every patient she meets.
“I think in my life that was the impetus for everything I’ve done, that I wanted to keep searching and keep looking for a way to bring something new to our profession,” she said. “In a lot of ways, I think pharmacists are a very compassionate and empathetic group, and we all strive to make people’s lives better.”