Ask most anyone who has known me for any significant length of time and they will tell you that I never do anything that is straight-forward or expected. That theme runs true in the naturopathic doctor career path as well my personal life. I am the third and youngest child in my family and we are all runners. I have been running since the 7th grade and continued to run in high school and college. I have run thousands of miles in various parts of the United States, Scotland, England, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Austria (my miles abroad are because my dad and his wife live in Austria and I did a study abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland during college). My absolutely wonderful, somewhat hobbit-like feet, have carried me through these many miles and they also, in a round-about way, brought me to the career I have chosen. So the term “long and winding road” can be used to describe my running adventures as well as my academic ones!
As a freshman in high school on the cross country team, I began to have foot and ankle problems. First, I suffered tendonitis in my ankles and second, severe bunions. My podiatrist helped fashion orthotics for my feet which greatly helped with over-pronation and the irritation in my tendons. She also ended up doing surgery on my left great toe joint on MLK day 1999, my senior year. I had had such severe pain due to a bunion that I would wake at night in agony as a 17 year old! She described my feet as those of an 80 year old. Members on both sides of my family have remarkably dim foot health, so I guess this was to be expected. (As part of another blog, I’ll write about my more recent theories on foot health!) I asked to watch my foot surgery…and they let me! It was quite odd to watch my foot being cut open, bones sawed apart, and tied back together with metal wire and then stitched back up…but I loved it.
Once I was in college, I worked with my podiatrist doing various tasks around the office and helping with patients. I saw how much her patients benefited from their relationship with her, both from the work she did with their feet as well as the conversations they had while she was debriding foot ulcers, trimming toenails, and tending to the remains of a foot that had required amputations of toes and beyond. Her bedside manner was remarkable and her sincerity helped them open up to her. She learned so much about them from their open and easy discussions. I wanted to do that. I wanted to develop real relationships with people and work with them to help them feel better and be healthier.
I chose a pre-med track in college as a biochemistry major (though I had always thought I would have gone into music or art), took the MCAT, and applied to podiatry school. I attended the podiatry school that was connected to the osteopathic medical school at Des Moines University. In that first year, however, I became unhappy as we were frequently learning about medications and side effects before we had even completed the study of physiology. Why learn how to “fix” something before you learn how it works?
Then I got a running injury and decided to go see the acupuncturist that was teaching my Complementary and Alternative Medicine elective. In just a couple of sessions he healed my injury and got me thinking about my career. I started researching natural medicine options and came across Naturopathic Medicine. I learned that I could be licensed as a primary care provider but have a specialty in natural medicine. That was it, I finally found what I wanted to do…I had just never known it actually existed! Having grown up in Tennessee where many of the “alternative” health sciences are not revered, I guess it isn’t a big surprise that I hadn’t heard of naturopathic medicine.
I transferred to the National College of Natural Medicine in 2006. My years in school were extremely transformative both for my personal health as well as my way of thinking about the body and health. I started seeing a naturopathic student doctor very soon after starting school. I had a number of different health complaints that I knew I needed to address in order to be able to help others with their health problems. Though my family had always been very health conscious, we had been steered onto some bad paths by fad diets like the fat-free phase of the 90s. At 25, I was about 20-30 lbs over weight, had a tender liver, elevated liver enzymes, multiple nodules on my thyroid, elevated cholesterol, borderline high blood sugar, mild depression, and was still running marathons (by the grace of God alone). In my first few visits at the school clinic, along with various naturopathic treatments, I was told to make radical changes to my diet. I was in shock when they told me what I could and could not eat. I followed what guidelines they laid out for me and very soon started to see the very positive changes. Seeing how drastically this changed my health and how I felt helped me believe in natural medicine more than I had before.
Tennessee is one of the states that doesn’t recognize or welcome naturopathic doctors. For that reason, I continue to hold my active license as a primary care provider in Oregon. Here in Tennessee, I work under Dr. Christopher Siano, DO and Emily Kopek, PA-C. At last count, there was only one other accredited ND in the state of Tennessee…so we have a ways to go toward getting NDs to be more common in these parts! If you have questions about what an accredited ND is, visit www.naturopathic.org. If you find a naturopathic doctor that i didn’t know of , contact me and join the Tennessee Naturopathic Doctors Association at www.TNNDA.org.
Since I graduated, completed my residency, and have been in practice for almost 7 years, I feel that I have grown a lot as a practitioner and learned so much from working with my patients. I have worked with babies, octagenarians, and every age in between. I cannot count how many patients have laughed, cried, and laughed to keep from crying as they tell me their complicated health history. Many ask me if I’ve ever seen someone so bad off. My response has become something along the lines of “not many people find me as their first option, so I have become used to getting people who feel they are at the end of the line…and yes, I think I can help”. I say that, not with an ego, but because I feel the tools I have been exposed to through natural medicine give me so many options to help and I’m continually amazed by the human body and human spirit.
Though what I do is not run of the mill, straight-forward, common, predictable, or even well known, I hope that it will become so! I’m hoping that in the near future it won’t be as long and winding of a road for people to come to natural medicine. Since I started working with everyone at Knox Wellness I have a renewed hope for East Tennessee’s movement toward functional medicine options and a new awareness of healthy lifestyles. Maybe soon, my path as an accredited naturopath in Tennessee won’t be such a lonesome road to travel.