I was trained in a very traditional medical school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a city steeped in medical tradition with long white coats, stacks of books, and 36 hour shifts with seemingly endless patients. But I learned. I learned to speak to patients about their symptoms, examine them and then come to a diagnosis. The “diagnosis” was the prize we were all working for. The best physicians, we were told, were master diagnosticians.
The beauty of the diagnosis was that you could then “name” the ailment and give the patient the right potion or procedure to help them feel better. Through many hours of instruction and “on the job training” (residency), we were taught their was a “pill for every ill” and a drug for every bug. Don’t get me wrong, I have been involved in thousands of cases in my career as an Emergency Physician where medications I gave in the acute phase of an illness saved lives. I opened clogged coronary arteries with clot busting medications and treated potentially deadly heart rhythms and infections with drugs that I know saved lives acutely. It is very satisfying to be a part of the miracle when God saves a husband, or father, or child from a seemingly certain death.
But…there were the others… There were other cases I saw every day and still see every day that I work in the Emergency Department. These are the patients on 10 daily medications or more who seem to get sicker from day to day. These patients start a slow decline from the age of 40. They acquire a new “diagnosis” and with it a new prescription drug every 3 to 4 years. They have been conditioned to think that as you get older, you are supposed to have daily pain and things are gradually supposed to wear out. Sometimes, new medications are needed to manage side effects from their other medicines. Sadly, chronic disease is a worldwide epidemic and has passed infectious disease and trauma as the number one cause of death in the world.
In 2004, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and experienced what can only be called a miraculous healing. Although I had no further symptoms and my MRI was essentially normal, years later I was still on medication to prevent seizures and took something for stomach acid reflux, several allergy medications and inhalers, and frequently took Ibuprofen when I ran or did any physical activity. I woke each day exhausted and had back pain when I got up out of bed. I could not ride in a car or sit on the couch at night without falling asleep. I was in my early 40’s and beginning to accumulate my own list of chronic diseases.
While on vacation in Mexico with my family several years ago, my wife suggested I read a book on “Functional Medicine” by Dr. Mark Hyman. I was very resistant. To me, it seemed like a group of people who were placing too much importance on “lifestyle modification,” “stress management,” and “vitamins and supplements”. This did not fit with my “traditional” medical training that held that “vitamins only make expensive urine”. Reluctantly, I read the book. What I read absolutely stunned me. (So much so that I literally jumped up out of my beach chair in shock) I read study after study about the proven benefits of this new approach to medicine. The simple fact that I had to admit to myself was that the things we were doing with medications to manage symptoms (and the lifestyle factors we were told to ignore) were making patients sicker. We had lost the ability to consider the “root cause” of a problem. I was suddenly excited about medicine again.
Following in the footsteps of my wife, I began my training in Functional Medicine a year later with the Institute of Functional Medicine and subsequently with The Metabolic Medical Institute. These were dedicated physicians who were willing to go back to the molecular biochemistry and genetics of each person as an individual and look for the inciting events and interventions to halt or possibly reverse chronic illness. I learned of people like Terry Wahls—an Internal Medicine physician who was confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. A year after instituting dietary changes and adding some simple supplements she was walking and bicycling. Terry’s progress, I learned, was not an unexplainable fluke. There was suddenly hope for the chronically ill patients I saw. Eventually, I joined my wife in practice at Vine Healthcare and now get to participate in this revolution called Functional Medicine. There will always be a role for traditional medications and treatments for patients. But, there are some patients we must rescue from treatments that are doing more harm than good. It is a joy to participate in this journey with our patients.
What about me?…. Once I gave up gluten, dairy, sugar filled drinks, processed, and non-organic foods and added supplements and healthy organic foods, I lost 30 pounds, was able to come off all medications (except my seizure medication) and I am no longer troubled by insomnia, daytime fatigue, back pain, stomach acid reflux, or allergies. I was perhaps my wife’s first Functional Medicine patient–and one of her biggest success stories. From my own case I know that this is true–You never really realize how bad you felt until you feel better.