Happy 1st Quarter Moon from outside the Juneau office!
Today I had the pleasure of meeting in virtual circle with physicians, physicians assistants, and nurse practitioners from all over the country, doing rad things to bring innovative, practical and effective healing to their communities.
Wow! What a way to get inspired!
In light of this sweet experience, I felt inclined to share the following story, which is actually the deep-seeded answer to a question I get all the time:
"What inspired you to become a doctor?"
As I write this I am 31 and have been a doctor for 6 years.
Finding the root of this story requires a mental reach of over two decades to the event that painted the archetypal picture of "physician" in my mind, creating my attraction to it.
So, here is the [real-life] version, or at least the best I can recall, of my "healer beginnings" :-)
I witnessed my first birth at age 9 which occurred in the Spring of 3rd grade when my youngest sister arrived in this world. The doctor gave me the task of cutting the thick gelatinous cord tethering the slippery, loud, red-raced 10lb infant to my mother, after which I felt so faint I was whisked away by a nurse to the juice closet where I sipped Welch’s trying to regain my composure, beads of sweat dripping down my brow and tears streaming down my face so moved, emotional and nauseated at the same time.
The event inspired a school project about wanting to be an ob/gyn, complete with photos, (to my mom’s later parent-teacher conference horror). I think it was really the magic of the event that got my attention though, more than the medicine. I had a keen curiosity the inner workings of not only the body, but also the mind and spirit. For example: how did the soul of my small sister find its way into her body? It looked like a carbon copy of mine though several sizes smaller, as if my mom had grabbed the same outfit from the front and back of the rack, and they came complete with matching children....or like two different sizes of those Russian stacking dolls. We were buddies, my baby sister and I. Understanding her wasn't too hard, how sometimes the degree of stress held in her little mind caused a snap, creating a fit or a shriek or a meltdown. I totally got it, but, being the big sister, didn’t exactly have the same luxury. That’s the thing about stress though: its potential energy or matter. It has to go somewhere, and for me that was typically my stomach.
Dance is my true passion, and if you had asked me as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, that is the answer you likely would have gotten. During a philosophy class at a yoga ashram in India the teacher explained: “Happiness is being in a no-thought state: people get the activity that produces the no-thought state confused with happiness”,. This was when I realized that as a child, dance was my meditation. Tuning the mind to the frequency of the body with the exclusion of outside worries or interference. In high school I began to nurture an interest in health more because I interpreted it as such a cornerstone for life, as having a healthy well-working body freed one to concentrate more fully on the profundity or our purpose in this life. Therefore I was interested in medicine, as it is somehow synonymous with “health” in our culture, because I wanted my own body to be as healthy as possible, and was interested in learning exactly how to do that. This was also the time when my friends were either riding or being pummeled by the wave of puberty and with it the minefields of sexuality and body image. I had known about sex and reproduction since the 3rd grade as well thanks to my mother’s well timed showing of a scientific video tape shedding light on the process using anatomical terms and describing the sperm’s movement beneath the lens of the microscope without a hint of skepticism. I was the one to enlighten most of my other friends, as well as make the ¼ mile trek from our high school to the public health department where we could get birth control pills or depo-provera shots without cash or parental oversight.
My parents are both teachers, who taught me from a young age to value education, and that college was a light at the end of the tunnel, especially so if something wasn’t going well on a more temporal-present level, similar to the heaven at the end of the trials and tribulations of Earth that I learned about in Sunday school; a view that became more and more oppressive to me as the years in the “just wait a little longer” stage drug on. At the time though, I thought preventing a teenage pregnancy was like saving a life as I wanted my friends to finish high school and get a chance at the college dream. This was before I made the startling discovery I was gay, but certainly in the midst of the angsty confusion leading up to it, and this small fact may have contributed to my women’s empowerment quest.
Meanwhile in health class I was taught the food pyramid as a way to eat, that food is calories and our bodies are machines that “burn” the calories and in simple, unemotional, math, we can make our bodies get bigger and smaller at will; of course making sure that we had 6-11 servings of bread, some “fruits-and-vegetables” and animal protein; learning to buy “low-fat” foods as a way to “take care of myself”. By then my stomach troubles were acting up more and more, sometimes I wouldn’t have any appetite, sometimes going through the day eating almost a dozen candy bars from the fundraising box in my locker that was supposed to be earning money for my dance team to go to New York City but instead was earning me a mental complex about why it was so hard for me to stop eating chocolate when I knew that it wasn’t healthy for me.
I did go to the doctor for the stomach troubles without any clear understanding, explanation or treatment plan save “you’re not going to die immediately”; the symptoms qualifying me for “irritable bowel syndrome” though that was less vogue in 1998.
Not coincidentally around this time my mood seemed to start stalling out and taking unexpected downward shifts jolting me around like my stepdad’s 1980 Ford F-150, which I learned to drive the summer it turned 23 and I turned 16 in the mountains of my childhood home in Southeast Alaska. It was 18 months before that when my best friend Chelsea was in the backseat of the Honda Civic her parents bought from our family friends Steve and Mary, when the car, somehow out of control was airborne coming down one of the main mountainside roads and was hit by an oncoming truck killing her and our friend Courtney, also 14 at the time, on impact. The grief we channeled into a dance, which we performed at Chelsea’s funeral, her sister who had been driving, dancing beside me. My mom brought me to counseling. I don’t think that worked.
Native art was part of my educational curriculum from Kindergarten through high school. Elders would come into our classroom wearing their tribal regalia telling us how just decades before they and their relatives were celebrating the land, moving with the seasons, leaving essentially no carbon footprint, dancing in the moonlight connected with the animals similar to how I was connected to my dog Lacey who I got in Kindergarten and raised me along with my parents, SO happy to see me every single time I stepped foot through the threshold of my house. In 1st grade we created paper headbands that had different clan animals on them. I was in the Eagle clan that year. In 2nd grade we began our art projects and the teacher gave me a picture of a raven to color. I handed it back and told her that I was in Eagle clan, I just hadn’t worn my headband that day, as I noticed some kids and the elders were wearing clan regalia. She gave me a puzzled look. That was the day I learned about race. We are all humans though, and in Native art class I always felt that, respect for Spirit. Because the truth is, those people hold the secrets of that land, what medicines grow there, how to maximize health and happiness by living in synchrony with what is there; they literally taught the visitors how to survive, because they had been doing it, for centuries.
My junior year of high school I took a “vocational medical science” elective during which we got to “job shadow” two different health care professionals for a few months. After careful consideration I decided on an orthopedic surgeon and an acupressurist who specialized in nutrition and taught Qi Gong…and thus began my lifelong dichotomous education in the healing arts. Nothing stands out to me about the physical built office space of the orthopedic surgeon, very cookie cutter American medicine, and I’m really not sure who decided that environment is healing to anyone. I do remember in rather vivid detail though the shoulder replacement surgery I watched, first hand, 12 inches away from a full anesthetized person peering over the anesthesiologists shoulder as they sawed off the shiny humeral head and the surgeon handed it off barely looking as he began drilling to make way for the metallic prosthesis, using impressive physical force putting the thing in place. My days JoAnn however, I found rather rivoting. She taught me about “real foods”, bringing me to the grocery store to read food labels, warning against eating ingredients that I could not pronounce, teaching me about advertising: “petroleum is natural, that doesn’t mean you want it in your food!”, that breakfast should be as healthy as dinner, and nothing is interchangeable with leafy greens. She seemed genuinely happy with a sparkle in her eye, greeting me in the mornings with tea and showing me how hot her fingers would get holding different acupressure points. Some evenings I would go to the yoga studio in downtown Ketchikan, just above the creek, and attend her Qi Gong class which consisted to listening to a recording of an ancient master and focusing on my hands moving positive energy around my body.
As senior year of high school rolled around though, my heart was decidedly still in dance, so I forwent any advanced math or science classes in favor of a stage production elective and photography. I left Alaska to move to Prescott, Arizona where I attended Yavapai Community College taking general classes toward an art degree. One of the classes I took that first year was a “careers class” where we attempted to match our values and interests with potential career fits. I realized then that dancing would actually be a pretty difficult path. I was drawn again to my former interests in public and women’s health. I knew if I pursued a career in medicine I wanted to be a physician; I enjoyed deductive reasoning and wanted the autonomy to do what I thought was right. My natural curiosity combined with honed discipline made school an overall successful endeavor for me, and I actually really enjoy learning. There weren’t any doctors in my family, and in all honesty I had no idea what being a conventional doctor in society truly meant at that point in my life, but it seemed within my capacity, and I thought it a respectable enough profession, so decided to go for it.
Luckily for me, I was one of those people who kind of fell in love with medicine as I was in the path of pursuing it. That is how it all started though.