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Physician Heal Thyself: My Journey from Conventional Medicine to Acupuncture

The question I am asked most frequently is, “How did you go from being an MD to doing acupuncture?” For me, it isn’t an either/or situation, although I understand why people are curious. In this first of many planned blogs about my enthusiasm for Medical Acupuncture, I’ll share how I got here…

As you can see from the photo of me at age 4, I was called at a very young age to comfort people and help them heal. My family moved from Riverside, California to San Diego in the late 1970s. I attended middle school and high school here, graduating as one of five valedictorians in my class and as a National Merit Scholarship awardee. I loved my four years in Massachusetts attending Wellesley College, where I majored in Medieval/Renaissance Studies while also completing the prerequisites for medical school. Although I had already made a commitment to medicine, I did not want to focus only on science. The interdepartmental Medieval/Renaissance Studies major gave me the opportunity to study history, literature, art and philosophy as well. My particular interest in the history of medicine helped me to recognize aspects of healing that often get lost as medical technology advances, and to value the wisdom that can be found in pre-scientific medical thought. I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as a third year student and graduated magna cum laude. I mention all of this only to illustrate that I was very academically inclined, and therefore completely surprised by what came next.

As a “nearly native” Southern Californian, I chose to return to attend medical school at UCLA. I realized early on that I was not a good fit in a large academic medical center. My learning style had shifted during my undergraduate years to synthesizing information in a more analytical and organized way. Medical education at that time was mostly still using read-memorize-regurgitate methods. I remember commiserating with Kris, my closest medical school friend, that we felt like our brains were atrophying. I was uninspired during the first two years, which presented masses of information with little context to understand how it fit together. For the first time in my life, learning was not exciting and joyful for me.

Time to Reassess

I reached a crisis point in the middle of second year, when I experienced the only panic attack I’ve ever had. Fortunately I already had enough training to recognize what was happening. Suddenly I also experienced the first of several bursts of clarity in my life. As soon as the thought crystallized that my mental and physical health was threatened, I also knew the goal I had been pursuing since 8th grade was not worth that risk. In the next moment, I chose to take a leave of absence from medical school, something almost unheard of at that time. My mind calmed, my body relaxed, and I knew with absolute certainty that it was the right decision.

Although I was deeply depressed (and of course seeing a therapist,) I persevered through the remaining 6 months of lectures and lab work. My dream of becoming a doctor now seemed like a nightmare. Yet somehow I couldn’t envision feeling fulfilled doing any other kind of work. Despite my disappointment in medical education, my fascination with the workings of the human body and awe at its ability to heal never left me. With time to breathe, take stock, and talk to those I trusted most, I knew being a doctor was still my calling.

Fortunately, interacting with patients during clinical rotations renewed my enthusiasm. Even so, the specialties I had always thought I would enjoy didn’t appeal to me as much as I expected. As the time to choose a residency approached, I was disillusioned and again wondering if becoming a doctor would be a mistake. One evening, my friend Kris called to ask if I might be willing to join her for a clinical elective caring for repatriated citizens in a rural area of El Salvador, which had endured years of horrific civil war. Although United Nations peacekeepers were still there, the country was not considered a safe place to be. As Kris and I talked, I had my second experience of clarity, what I now refer to as “the Divine 2 by 4 to the head.” Somehow I knew this experience would provide what I needed. Sure enough, during that elective I was drawn to Family Medicine as a specialty that would train me for lifelong collaboration with my patients.

Stitching up a machete wound for a farmer in Guarjila, El Salvador.

With Kris at Medical School graduation.

I completed the three years of Family Medicine residency at Mercy Hospital in Redding, California, and finally felt I had found my true place among the friends and colleagues with whom I worked. After returning to San Diego, I served as a primary care physician for another seven years. And yet, within my first year of practice, I found myself troubled during encounters with patients who clearly weren’t “well” even though diagnostic tests and investigations indicated they had no disease. I had always believed medical training would provide all the tools needed to treat people’s illnesses and help them maintain their health. How disheartening it was to realize that wasn’t true. Since college I had been intrigued by systems of medical care developed before modern, evidence-based medicine, and I renewed my investigation of the things that seemed to have benefit.

Discovering My Path

My particular interest in acupuncture was sparked by conversations with a Licensed Acupuncturist who regularly treated patients in the office where I worked. Simultaneously, people I knew outside of work shared their stories of remarkable responses to acupuncture therapy. When I received a brochure for the Acupuncture for Physicians course developed by Joseph Helms, MD, I was already primed to embark on a journey that would supply me with additional knowledge and skills to provide more holistic care to my patients. From the outset, traditional Chinese medical theory affirmed my belief that systems of the body are as interdependent with each other as humans are with the rest of the natural world. When everything is in balance, both the body and an ecosystem are better able to respond to destructive forces and regain health. As one of my colleagues in the course noted, I was “a true believer.” I was excited to begin applying my new skills in my primary care practice.

It turned out not to be as easy as I had hoped to incorporate acupuncture into conventional practice. Whereas modern medicine tends to address specific body systems and illnesses separately, Chinese Medicine considers how injury or dysfunction of one part can influence any of the others. Making an accurate diagnosis for acupuncture treatment involves sharing the full story of the ailment on the part of the patient and receptive, intuitive listening on the part of the provider. The time constraints imposed on patient encounters by current medical economics don’t allow for that. After trying several methods to balance the two approaches, I ultimately left primary care practice. I accepted a part-time administrative position which made good use of my training and provided financial stability while I devoted the rest of my professional time to pursuing further study and providing acupuncture. Although it remained a challenge to build my practice as a solo Medical Acupuncture practitioner, whenever I considered giving it up my heart would sink.

Recommitting to Joy

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down “non-essential” care, I closed my acupuncture office, believing we would quickly get the infection rate to a level that would allow safe reopening. When it became possible to do so with more stringent infection precautions, I chose not to because I both treat and live with people at risk for severe COVID llness. Even those of us who have not lost anyone close to us due to COVID have suffered losses of some kind during the pandemic. One of mine was making the difficult decision to give up my former office space last summer. Such times of crisis prompt us to consider what is truly important in our lives and necessary for our happiness. Many of us prioritized the well-being of our loved ones above all else. Some gained new appreciation for time with family, or time to read for pleasure, or simply for a slower pace. The silver lining for me during the pandemic was that I had the opportunity to treat family and close friends with acupuncture at home. Each time, I was struck by how fulfilled and at peace I feel at the end of every treatment I give, even beyond the satisfaction of hearing patients tell me their pain is relieved, their mood and sleep are better, or they no longer need a medication they had been taking.

So my most recent burst of clarity confirmed for me that I want to devote the rest of my professional life to offering the gift of acupuncture. I look forward to welcoming you to my beautiful new office location, where I’ve created a peaceful and healing atmosphere, and where I take time to hear and understand your goals. My intention is to nurture your health – of body, mind, and spirit – as we work in partnership to restore balance after many months of turmoil. I’ve come to realize that when I approach treatment with a relaxed body, open mind, and compassionate spirit, healing can be as profound for me as for my patients.

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