Incomplete Medicine - Why I Became a Naturopath

imagesOver the past 2 decades, I have been asked why I had gone into naturopathic medicine, especially after having worked as a critical care nurse in a teaching hospital, and after having taught critical care neurology to registered nurses at a local college. In essence, people were asking me:  why did I venture on to the dark side? – or into the light? – or to whatever? - depending on your own point of view and your own belief systems. Why the switcheroo? Many people over the years have wondered and asked me this.

I didn't see medicine like that back then, that is, black and white;  polar opposites.  And I don't see medicine like that now.  Medicine is medicine;  whatever improves the health of a given individual, both objectively and subjectively, where there is both a short-term and long-term increase in the quantity and quality of life.  That's what medicine is to me.

Conventional medicine is good medicine. Sometimes, it's exquisitely fantastic medicine. Unfortunately, at other times, it is medicine that sucks big time, and causes unnecessary harm. However, all in all, on the average, it's good medicine.

But it is very incomplete medicine.

Why am I even bothering to write this blog (other than for my own posterity)?

Because just the other day, when it was too damn cold and too damn wet to go on a day hike up in the mountains, I decided to surf the internet instead. So instead of engaging in healthy behaviour for 7 hours, I wandered onto the SBM (Science Based Medicine) site and engaged into 7 hours of unhealthy masochistic reading. Well, I did learn a few useful medical information tidbits while reading some of the articles on the site, but for the most part, if you are a naturopathic physician and would like to read all of the reasons why you are a dangerous, useless, redundant, scum of a scam artist, then head over to the SBM site and get your dose of toxic brew – you know, the kind of brew that contains “unnamed”, “bogus”, “illusionary” toxins.

So my story goes . . .

Back in my teens and 20s, I experienced chronic headaches, fatigue, dysmenorrhea, intermittent abdominal pain, mood swings, depression and severe PMS. I was on the birth control pill for 7 years, which helped my dysmenorrhea, but aggravated most of my other symptoms. By my mid-20s, I developed frequent episodes of a pinpoint macular rash on my soft palate that was always followed by an acute bronchial infection. These frequent episodes of acute bronchitis laid me out flat for 3 weeks, 4 – 5 times per year. This had been going on for 2 years, and for each acute bronchial infection, my GP prescribed an antibiotic. My headaches became worse, my fatigue became worse, my moods became worse, my infectious episodes persisted, and then I thought, THIS SUCKS.

At that time, I was working in a fantastic hospital in Ontario, with all of the latest and greatest technological medical advancements. I witnessed incredible life-saving treatments while being an integral part of a life-saving critical care team, and yet when it came to my own health, I felt like shit most of the time.

How was it, that the medicine I was an integral part of, was so good for so many people (for the most part), yet this same medical way of approaching health, couldn't do a damn thing for me?

It was at that point that I saw a naturopath. I became well. I learned what good health meant. And the rest is history.

This was reason number one for the “switcheroo”.

Around the same time that I started on my road to wellness, while working in the ER, ICU and CCU, I saw the same people coming in over and over again: patients with bleeding eosophageal varices from alcoholism, patients with bleeding ulcers from NSAID abuse, patients with suicide-attempted overdoses, obese patients with recurrent heart attacks, etc., etc., etc., etc.

I wondered to myself, surely, these types of conditions can be prevented or ameliorated, long, long before they reached the critical breaking point that necessitated medical heroic intervention? Surely? These were the types of questions I was asking my colleagues at the time.

“Shit happens”, was the answer that some of my colleagues gave me. I thought about it. For sure, when an idiotic drunk driver wiped out an innocent family and I was in the ER pumping on the chest of one of the family members as a last ditch rescue effort - yeah, for sure. Shit happens.

But some "shit" can be turned around. Can't it? Lots of "shit" is preventable. Isn't it? After all, I was feeling like shit, and I regained my health, so why couldn't others do so as well? I started studying university biochemistry, physics and physiology for my pre-med entrance into naturopathic medical school, and at the same time I started learning about preventive health, far beyond the minuscule amount of information I had learned in nursing school.

That was reason number two for the “switcheroo”.

Around the same time that I started experiencing much better health and wondered about better health for others, I saw an overweight 34 year old woman in ICU, after what was suppose to be a routine gallbladder operation (an open cholecystecomy at that time). The surgeon accidently cut something he wasn't suppose to. (I don't recall now, 30 years later, whether it was the common bile duct, hepatic duct, hepatic artery, or what was accidently cut). All I remember was that an otherwise “healthy”, overweight young woman, walked into the hospital for a routine GB operation expecting to be home recuperating after a week, and instead, ended up septic in the ICU. For months, nurses changed and irrigated her open wound dressings that were continuously exuding pus from the visible intestines below. She eventually died in ICU.

Whoa. Shit really does happen. Yes, sometimes even the best and most skilled surgeons make accidental mistakes. But I asked myself back then, could her death have been prevented by the idea that a cholecystecomy should be used as a very last resort treatment option instead of a first line of attack in an otherwise stable patient with mild symptoms?

That was reason number three for the “switcheroo”.

Colleagues at the hospital I worked at, were mostly supportive of me taking the step toward the world of natural medicine.

The last and final reason for my “switcheroo” delved into the world of woo – the bane of all rigid SBM scientists.

A 36 year old pregnant patient of 30 weeks gestation with her second child, was admitted to ICU with a severe kidney infection. She rapidly deteriorated to the state of being comatose, despite being given multiple intravenous antibiotics to help reverse her disease state. She went into premature labour at 32 weeks gestation in the adult ICU. The Neonatal ICU team came down and delivered a healthy preemie that needed constant monitoring in the NICU which included gastric tube feedings.

Mom and babe were now separated: mom in the ICU on the second floor, and babe in the NICU on the fourth floor.

At this point, the mother was on a ventilator and started having cardiac arrest after cardiac arrest. This went on for the next 4 - 5 days. “Code Blue” was called on this lady at least 7 times, and on some occasions I remember CPR being done on her for 30 - 40 minutes at a time.  Multiple regimes of the same heavy duty intravenous antibiotics continued to be administered despite her progressive deterioration.

This woman was in septic shock, her heart was failing, she was in multi-system organ failure, she was in a vegetative state, the drugs and CPR were barely keeping her on this side of the precipice, and none of us – not doctors, not nurses, - not one of us believed for a moment that this woman would not succumb to her illness or progress to a persistent vegetative state since the antibiotics were having no effect on her septicemia.

It was at this point in time that a nurse from NICU came up with the brilliant idea of bringing the baby and the incubator down to the adult ICU, to touch her dying mother. The nurse placed the baby on to her mother's belly.

I was amazed with what happened next.

This mother, who we all believed to be brain dead - (if I recall correctly, a BSEP done at that time showed no brain activity), - this mother started to have tears running down the sides of her face when the baby was placed on her belly and she slowly started to regain consciousness.

Over the next few days, as the baby was brought down to her everyday from NICU to lie on her belly, she regained her health to the point that after a few weeks, she was wheeled out of the ICU in a wheelchair with her baby in her arms.  Both were now ready to go home from the ICU.

This isn't only a story about the incredible power and efficacy of conventional medicine. This is also a story about something bigger than medicine. It's the story about some incredible force – life force, love, limitless energy – call it whatever you want, but to me it was the story of something much bigger. Spontaneous healing? Placebo response? No.  Even though it was intangible, it was more powerful than these common notions that allude to mere coincidence and wishful thinking.  And it was definitely something that couldn't be measured or quantified by a randomized clinical trial.

After that, I wanted to expand my understanding of health and healing, so I entered naturopathic medical school in 1989.

While experiencing my acute bout of temporary masochism a few days ago, I ran across a few articles written by Dr. Harriet Hall, a retired MD who speaks out against complementary medicine, integrative medicine, naturopathic medicine, acupuncture, etc.

In her article called Answering Our Critics, Part 1 of 2, Dr. Hall lists her answers to 30 criticisms hurled at the rigid SBM folk. I can't say I disagree with any of her answers except for this one:

  1. It worked for me.Maybe, maybe not. You can only know that you improved after the treatment; you can't know for sure that you improved because of the treatment. That could be a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy. You may not be able to imagine any other possible explanation, but that doesn't mean there isn't one.

Apparently, Dr. Hall has never met my brother Peter Savich and his MOFD (“My Own Freakin' Data”) theory. :)

In her follow-up article called Answering Our Critics, Part 2 of 2, she lists 6 more rebuttals to her critics, writes a blurb about placebos, and states her own belief about acupuncture:

What does “effective” mean? It's important to understand the difference between objective outcomes and patient perceptions. We can conclude from the evidence that acupunture is merely a theatrical placebo. We can conclude that it would be unethical for us to recommend it. But if a patient is already using acupunture and feels it is effective in relieving his symptoms, that falls into the category of comfort measures, where the patient is deriving a degree of comfort from a procedure with no objective effects.”

Apparently Dr. Hall has not read this particular study on acupuncture and depression.

All in all, for the most part, I would agree with her rebuttal points from 31 – 36, but I do take issue with #35:

  1. Conventional medicine doesn't have an effective treatment for my disease.

    CAM (Complentary Alternative Medicine) doesn't either. They may tell you they do, but they will only offer false hope and waste your time and money. Maybe it's time to accept that there is no effective treatment and concentrate on finding ways to cope and improve your quality of life.


And this is where I struggle to understand the rigidity of these MDs, including only a very small minority (thankfully) in my own community. They believe they have this foreknowledge for each and every individual person, that because a treatment has not yet been proven through the gold standard blinded RCT (randomized control trial), that the patient must accept that there is nothing available or of value to him/her because a particular treatment has not yet been clinically proven via this gold standard. How then, does one find ways to “cope and improve your quality of life”, as Dr. Hall suggests?  My answer is naturopathic medicine.

Had I believed my medical doctors when I was in my 20s, when they said to me: “there is nothing more that can be done for you”, my health and my life would not be what they are today. Had I listened to my pediatrician when she told me that I would have to “accept the fact” that my child would have lifelong respiratory illnesses and other infections, her health and her life now would not be what they are today.

What I struggle to grasp, is why, when rigid MDs are faced with a patient who continues to suffer, and then becomes well after seeking CAM therapies, believe it to be more important for that particular patient to follow a specific set of evidence-based medicine rules, instead of acknowledging that for this particular patient, there may be helpful answers that reside beyond the rigid science box for whom conventional medicine had no answers. Then what typically follows, is a circular conversation about efficacy regarding spontaneous healing, placebos, empirical observation and MOFD, and the value or lack of value of the latter two, for those who suffer and find no relief with conventional therapy.  However, circular conversations get us nowhere, so I will stop right here.

What is more important? Compassion or rigid science? The SBMers will say that rigid science is the epitome of compassion because newly discovered medical treatments will be of benefit to (hopefully) a majority of people. The CAMers will say that compassion must be all-inclusive right now, not just for those whom conventional medicine has been successful, but for many who have been met with its lack of efficacy.  In my opinion, both points of view are valid and are not mutually exclusive.

I will say though, that one size does not fit all. It never has, and it never will.  That, is what personal trial and error is all about, in the face of limited or no scientific proven data, and in the face of vast volumes of empirical observatory data.

Conventional medicine is good medicine, but it is incomplete medicine. Naturopathic medicine expands the possibilities for many who have not yet found answers to their health challenges.