This past week I traveled to London to visit friends. From dining on traditional British fare to attending the theater to view a satire mocking the royal family, I took in the sights, sounds, and yes, dreary days, of England. On one sightseeing afternoon, my husband and I, along with our friends, stumbled in to the British Museum to escape the rainy afternoon and were pleasantly surprised at the landmark’s offerings.

The British Museum hosts an exhibit titled Living and Dying. It explores how different cultures throughout the world maintain health and well being. A giant stone from famed Easter Island show elements of the sacred and Mexican sculptures represent an ancient view of the Apocalypse. While these exhibits were interesting, one particular display caught my attention more than the others.

The Cradle to Grave exhibit in the British Museum presents a live picture of Western medicine from birth to death. The piece incorporates a lifetime supply of pills knitted into lengths of fabric illustrating the medical story of one man and one woman. The story begins at birth with a vitamin K injection and other immunizations, moving on to birth control pills and breast cancer chemotherapy treatments for the woman and antibiotics and Viagra for the man. Over the course of a lifetime, treatment of common ailments amounts to over 14,000 drugs consumed for each individual. This does not include pills purchased over the counter which lead to an estimated 40,000 pills consumed over the course of a westernized life. Seeing this number of tablets, capsules, and injections all in one place was shocking.

In creating the Cradle to Grave exhibit, authors Susie Freeman, a textile artist, and family doctor Liz Lee, consulted actual medical records giving the presentation added impact. Photos of individuals treated for these illnesses grace the exhibit and bear captions written by their owners. The personal touch brings the exhibit to life and made me consider my own life, health, and medical practice.

When put all in one place, the medications we take seemed excessive. They made me wonder if some could be done without. But, then, which ones? Was the woman’s chemotherapy unnecessary? No, it probably kept her alive. The birth control? Optional, but it likely improved her quality of life. What is the true effect of taking this many drugs over a lifetime? Could they really do more harm than good? Or, are they an significant advancement over the views taken on by other cultures?

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I came away from the exhibit with more questions than answers, but perhaps that’s a good thing. Seeing a lifetime of health laid out made me realize even further the choices we have when it comes to our medical care. Some of us will choose a more natural approach, others stick strictly to the latest scientific advancements. The beauty of our reality today is that we have a choice and more information than ever before to help us make decisions regarding our medical care.

The thought-provoking exhibit, Cradle to Grave, is part of a larger effort by authors titled Pharmacopeia. If you can’t make it to the British Museum anytime soon, check out the exhibit online for insight into what a lifetime of medications looks like.


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