Medicine is my second career, but one that fulfills and challenges me like nothing else has before. It started in the late 1990s, when I was an industrial energy efficiency researcher. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of that work, but found myself wanting more engagement with people, and to feel concrete benefits of my work. I started doing some volunteer work in medicine to see if that was a better choice.
I initially volunteered at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. It is dedicated to helping people who could not afford a regular doctor, or who felt marginalized by the conventional medical system. It gave me an early introduction in to the amazing power of modern medicine, and the great practitioners who work in it. On the other hand, it showed me how poorly the system of medicine actually serves people. Even great institutions like the free clinic seem always to be teetering from one crisis to the next, never being able to move people into a higher state of health.
I still loved the patients and the people I worked with. I started treating simple medical problems at the Berkeley Free Clinic, as a lay health worker. This is a unique designation which uses careful protocols to help nonmedical practitioners diagnose and treat simple illness. Before I went off to medical school, I also helped found the Street Level Health Project, which brings the free clinic model to some of the poorest areas around San Francisco.
While I was getting involved in medical care, I was having a medical crisis of my own. I came down with a bad case of eczema, which eventually covered 2/3 of my skin in an itchy, sometimes oozing rash. I tried the conventional medical route, which mostly involves high potency steroids. They would work for a while, but all came with dire warnings about brittle skin and infections with long term use. I began to experiment with diet changes, which helped a little.
I finally sought treatment with acupuncture, which improved my symptoms 50% overnight. The other 50% took another 2 years, but this was dramatically better than the conventional treatment I had tried. Based on this experience, I took some classes at a local acupressure school, but found myself more and more drawn to healing with plants.
Initially I mostly taught myself herbal medicine, reading and gardening voraciously, while looking for the right teacher. I then enrolled in the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine in 2003, and it changed my life. Not only did it build my knowledge of herbal actions, it gave me the missing piece of working with plant energies. It is not about treating disease, it was about working with plants to help guide a person’s awakening and spiritual development.
After some significant internal struggle, I decided to enroll in medical school in 2004. This had been my goal as I had been increasingly engaged with the free clinic work, but I began to doubt it as I got more involved in holistic medicine. In the end I decided to go because both worlds do really complement each other, and because low income people often can only access conventional medicine.
In medical school, I founded a holistic medicine interest group, and then went on to a Family Medicine Residency that had additional training in integrative medicine. This program, called Integrative Medicine in Residency, is run through the University of Arizona and headed by Dr Andrew Weil. It teaches an overview of different holistic techniques with the goal of being able to work with them as a conventional practitioner. It also teaches nutrition and exercise in much more detail than is found in most medical schools.
I completed residency in 2011, and started to work towards my dream of starting my own practice. In medical school, I got introduced to a group called “Ideal Medical Practices.” This group is geared towards reinventing the traditional solo doctor, coping with today’s additional demands through the use of technology. It also tries to model a practice focused on the two most important predictors of health outcomes: people’s understanding of their own disease, and their understanding about what can be done about it. This seemed like a perfect fit for my own holistic bent, and indeed many other IMP members are holistically oriented as well.
The final piece fell into place as I was volunteering in Avena’s herb garden, and Deb Soule and I began discussing the possibility of starting a clinic there. Once the idea came up, it was clearly perfect. I would be able to practice independently, but alongside other skilled holistic practitioners. I would be able to practice in the middle of a healing garden, and I would be able to contribute to an institution that has been an important part of the Central Coast community. So here I am…