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Tran khuong dan
heantos inventor
photo credit Alice Dunhill

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Physician, Hook Thyself

Tim Larimer
Hanoi, Vietnam
Time Asia, November 24, 1997 Vol. 150 No. 21

A Vietnamese medicine man gets addicted to drugs in an attempt to find an all-natural cure for addicts

Tran khuong dan, a hanoi construction foreman, moved to Saigon shortly after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. There, after 21 years of separation, he found his elder brother, a highly acclaimed herbal medicine man. Dan was stunned by the sight: gaunt and pale, his brother betrayed a condition that Dan had come to know all too well. He was addicted to opium.

"All around me," says Dan, "there were drug addicts." The former South Vietnam capital's population of soldiers, prostitutes and refugees from opium dens and heroin shooting galleries was a particularly painful scene for Dan. His father, an opium addict for more than two decades, died in 1976. Dan's brother died a year later. Both had been practitioners of traditional medicine, meting out herbal remedies to thousands of patients over the years. "But one question came to my mind when my brother died," says Dan. "Why didn't they find a medicine to cure themselves?"

Steeping himself in the knowledge passed down from his father and brother, Dan built a thriving herbal medicine practice in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victorious communists. He sold concoctions to treat everything from rheumatism to pre-menstrual cramps, sun stroke to impotence. After accumulating about $75,000 in savings, Dan set out to find a cure for the addiction that killed his father and brother. For three years, he moved around the country, smoking opium with village chieftains in an attempt to get close enough to them to gain their trust and learn their secret, home-made remedies for addiction. He collected more than 100 recipes involving herbs and plants that villagers used as makeshift substitutes when their poppy crops failed and their opium supplies disappeared.

Then, in a remarkable effort to unlock the mystery of dependence, Dan intentionally addicted himself to opium. "I knew from my brother how dangerous this could be," he says. "But I decided this was the only way." He returned home with a collection of home remedies and began experimenting with them, boiling pots of water and herbs in his kitchen. He tried one combination after another, going cold turkey while seeking a remedy. His withdrawal symptoms were "like torture,"he recalls, and time after time he went back to his opium pipe for relief. "Sometimes I couldn't stand it. It felt like a million maggots were crawling inside my legs." After six months of self-experimentation, Dan says he finally found a concoction that enabled him to kick his habit. To test it further, he allowed himself to become addicted to heroin - and found his brew cured him of that as well.

It was a muddy-brown syrup made from the leaves, roots and stems of 13 plants and a splash of alcohol. For commercial reasons, Dan is reluctant to talk publicly about the recipe, saying only that cinnamon bark and ginger are among the ingredients. It was named Heantos, after the Greek word for plants. After he announced his breakthrough in a government-owned newspaper in 1989, he was besieged by addicts. Since then, he says, more than 4,000 patients have been treated, and most of them have been cured.

Evidence of the medicine's effectiveness is largely anecdotal. Dan has not followed up on his patients to find out if they remain drug-free, nor have there been scientific studies of possible side effects. Researchers are, however, encouraged by a Vietnamese study of 107 patients who had become addicted to the pain-killer morphine in the course of their treatment. After being given Heantos, 72 stopped requesting their morphine doses. Dan and colleagues at Vietnam's Institute of Chemistry in Hanoi, where he now lives, say a modified, tablet form of the medicine prevents former addicts from returning to drug use. This follow-up medicine, Heantos 1, is said to have a deliberately negative side effect: should a patient slip back into drug use, he will suffer painful, convulsive fits.

Heantos is now regularly administered to addicts at clinics in Vietnam. An hour before expecting to crave a hit of opium or heroin, patients are given a cup of the Heantos liquid. Doses are then administered several times a day. The syrup, which has an earthy flavor and a smoky aftertaste, quickly makes patients fall asleep. After three or four days, they are discharged--and in most cases, say clinic directors, cured. "I used all kinds of drugs," says a 34-year-old man named Thai, recovering in a Hanoi clinic. "Heroin, opium, everything. For six or seven years. I tried to quit five or six times. My friends say this works."

Heantos has drawn the attention of researchers outside Vietnam. The United Nations Development Program has said it will spend $400,000 to test the substance under the guidance of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The brew will be analyzed at U.S. labs, and patients using it in Vietnam will be closely monitored. "Expectations are high," says Dr. Lutz Baehr, the U.N.'s international project coordinator. "This could help close the gap between Eastern herbal medicine on one side and the Western pharmacological approach on the other."

Dan, now 55, believes the medicine restores an imbalance of yin and yang that is a fundamental concept in Eastern medicine. Dan shows a Confucian respect for his teachers, giving credit to his father and to the village medicine men he consulted. "We have used traditional medicine based on plants for a thousand years," he says. "I am just basing my research on this tradition."

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