A new patient came to me for an acute infection, and I thought it would be a quick and easy visit. During her exam, I asked about her weight, as she was quite thin. She had been recently diagnosed with Graves disease and was just now regaining the significant weight she had lost. Graves disease is an autoimmune disease of the thyroid, also known as hyperthyroidism. The thyroid is a small butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck that controls our metabolism, among other processes and hers was on overdrive. When she was diagnosed, her endocrinologist said immediately, "we'll just remove your thyroid." My patient responded by saying: "I have an autoimmune disease, if I had pneumonia, would you take out my lung?"
I'm not sure if her doctor had ever encountered such a savvy patient, but I thanked her for introducing me to a new perspective. She went on to say that she believes she brought it upon herself, which was an insight I was not expecting: "I was going rough time in my life, a lot of trauma, neglecting self-care, not sleeping and eating processed foods, then I got this diagnosis."
I was in total awe. She was relaying all the details of what I tell patients. She wholeheartedly believed that she had the power to reverse her disease with the help of some synthetic medicine, a change in her diet, improved self-care, quality sleep and removing herself from the toxic situation that got her there in the first place. I gave her a few more non-Western tips on chakra balancing, yoga therapy and breathing exercises and encouraged her to continue finding the healer within. I trust she will stay on course and will return when she falls off and needs some more partnering.
My approach was never like this. I was more ego-driven in my practice, thinking patients came to me, the trained expert, to fix them. I was trained in the ER. I saw miracles happen through the hands of doctors, nurses, techs. I fell in love with medicine because of those experiences. But primary care is different and chronic disease is a whole other animal. As I learned more about the power of our bodies to heal themselves, as long as we follow basic tenets of health and recognize there is a mental, emotional and spiritual component to disease, my role as a provider shifted. I began to give the power over to the expert, the patient, and give them the tools to find their inner-healer.
We, as medical providers and patients ourselves, need to let go of the victim role of disease and start taking ownership of how we got here in the first place. We're constantly being inundated with information, stimuli, toxins, chatter, that we've forgotten how to go silent and listen to our intuition and our gut for the answers. Journals, books, websites are replete with cases of self-healing. My two favorite books on the subject, Radical Remission by Dr. Kelly Turner and Mind Over Medicine by Dr. Lissa Rankin, have both anecdotal and evidence-based research on the subject of healing yourself.
Any physical structure will falter with enough trauma, toxins, abuse, neglect, it's that simple. What makes our physical bodies any different? It takes a long time to get to the place of disease. It will take work, self-reflection, time, patience, waking up and paying attention in order to get back to healthy. Your body and mind want this, give them the right tools and success is inevitable.
Medical providers must shift their focus from fixers to guides who impart necessary information, resources, tools, redirection, encouragement and hand the baton back to the patient. We should be available when they're veering off course, but otherwise let them steer the ship. Let's stop blaming them for non-compliance and start engaging them in conversations that allow them to feel empowered and in control. How about we spend some time asking questions about the six pillars of health-food, movement, sleep, stress-relief, play and community and troubleshoot their areas of improvement? Lets give them homework, allow them to reflect, give them lists of "should eat foods" instead of restrictive diets, cheer them on for any steps they take, readjust meds as needed and then see them back sooner rather than every three to six months to help them stay motivated. Eventually once they're on the track of true self-management, they will no longer need us as often. At least that's my approach these days.
I'm thankful to be on the learning side again. We can learn so much from every person we encounter, if we just remain open and patient. It's quite narcissistic to believe we have all the answers about someone else's health. Yes, we were trained to treat and practice based on populations of people with particular diseases, but we're all unique and our healing will take a personalized course that we, as practitioners, cannot predict. I may be ridiculed for trying to design a new paradigm, but I'm fine with that. I truly believe assisting, educating and empowering my patients to take control of their health and find the healer within is the only way to transform our healthcare system and I'm ready to take the baton.