I had an angst-filled week as I prepared for the TEDx talk I just gave in Fargo, North Dakota, and it took me a while to figure out the source of my angst. The speech I had written was initially titled, “Is Your Doctor Killing You?” and it was all about how preventable medical error is the #3 cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer but ahead of chronic lung disease and stroke.
It wasn’t just about medical error. It was about the very nature of the pill-popping medical culture that doctors and patients alike have adopted, a culture that is more about slapping Band-aids on symptoms than on healing from the root.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 90% of doctor’s visits are the result of stress, and yet I wasn’t taught that it was my job to help my patients deal with their stress. If a patient was having trouble at home or unhappy at work or not dealing with unresolved childhood issues, that was supposed to be someone else’s job.
And yet, in my clinical practice, I kept getting these hunches that what my patients really needed wasn’t more drugs or yet another surgery. They needed someone to love and nurture them while they examined what might be out of alignment in their lives so they could muster up the moxy to live a more courageous, authentic life. They needed, in essence, a healer. That’s when I started asking my patients probing questions, and that led me to research Mind Over Medicine, and the rest is history.
How Provocative Can You Get?
The case I was trying to make in my TEDx talk is that doctors need to help patients illuminate stressors in their lives that might be contributing to health issues. And patients need to take responsibility for how their stressful lifestyles might be causing or exacerbating their health conditions, rather than just covering up the symptoms with the Band-aid of more pills or more surgery. That we need not just drugs, but soul medicine as well.
My initial title for the talk wasn’t quite right. When I asked the doctors in the Whole Health Medicine Institute how they felt about the title, they felt like I was throwing them under the bus. And that wasn’t my goal at all. I wanted to be provocative, to wake people up, to shock people into listening to what I had to say, but the last thing I wanted to do was to take my inner circle sisterhood of doctors and make them feel unappreciated or defensive or as if I don’t respect all the sacrifices they make every day or don't appreciate how Western medicine saves lives everyday. These doctors in my program are the best doctors I know. If the title didn’t work for them, I couldn’t use it.
Is Medicine Killing Us?
So I switched the title to “Is Medicine Killing Us?”
Takes some of the pressure off the docs, transfers some of it to the actual pills and the side effects they cause, makes the pharmaceutical industry and the broken health care system shoulder some of the burden.
But even that isn’t quite right. Because the patient is just as responsible! I could call it “Are You Killing Yourself?” but then that sounds like I’m blaming the patient, and that’s the last thing on earth I’d want to do. Yes, it’s the patient’s job to be proactive about their health, to be an empowered patient, to take charge of his health and take a brave, deep inner quest to examine what might underlie the root cause of an illness.
But I kept thinking of Katie Smith, the young mother I met on my book tour who had brain cancer, and who just got brain surgery this week. I didn’t want Katie to watch this talk and think that I’m in any way blaming her for getting cancer because she might not have been dealing with the stress in her life. I’m not blaming the patient who is doing everything right, and who is still saddled with a chronic or even terminal disease. As Brené Brown teaches us, blaming and shaming never empowers or helps us. It only poisons us.
With patients, I’m trying to empower, to encourage, to inspire, not blame or shame. So “Are You Killing Yourself?” wouldn’t work either.
The Medicine We REALLY Need
So I thought about switching the title to “The Medicine We REALLY Need,” because it’s all about soul medicine, about how we can’t truly heal unless we give our souls what they crave: love, community, meaning and purpose, healthy food, communing with nature, laughter, the unconditional love of animals, a sense of belonging, great sex, a serene living environment. It’s all about how we have to balance our Whole Health Cairns in order for our bodies to need less medicine.
But that title felt so…vanilla. I wanted to make a bold statement. And the truth is that medicine is killing us. And it’s saving us. Both are true. And what do we DO about that? So I decided to go with “Is Medicine Killing Us?”
It was the least polarizing but still provocative.
That’s when I realized there’s this whole polarity in medicine between two often vehemently aggressive camps. There’s the closed-minded Western medical camp who believes that it’s all bunk unless you can prove it in a randomized controlled clinical trial. (These are the mind-body skeptics for whom I wrote Mind Over Medicine! For years, I was firmly in this camp. Dr. Paul Offit, who wrote Do You Believe In Magic, is still firmly in this camp.)
Then there’s the alternative/holistic/anti-medicine camp, who believes doctors are evil, and Western medicine is out to get us and we should skip all drugs and surgeries.
I am not in either camp. I am Switzerland, and when I sought counsel from Brené Brown around this, she reinforced that I must stay Switzerland, that as long as I refuse to be baited into picking sides, I can be of great service, because neither side can write me off as “one of those people.”
As I wrote about in Why Your Doctor Has PTSD, all players in our broken health care system have been traumatized. As a dysfunctional, traumatized family of doctors, nurses, alternative health care providers, and patients, my role as a force for healing health care is the role of family therapist, so it’s imperative that I not take sides. I must remain Switzerland.
I’ve definitely veered way more toward the alternative medicine camp than I used to be, and because I’ve been sympathetic to that camp, many have wanted me to denounce Western medicine with the promise of finally finding a community of real healers who will be my tribe. It’s so easy to get seduced by our desire to feel like we belong.
Thank God For Modern Medicine
But I cannot renounce modern medicine. I bow at the feet of Western medicine! Modern medicine may be killing you. But it’s also saving your life. If I’m in a car accident or I break a bone or if I’m having a stroke or a heart attack, get me to a Level 1 trauma center, STAT.
Modern medicine does acute and trauma care brilliantly. If you’re pregnant and start seizing from eclampsia or hemorrhaging from a placenta previa, or if you’re about to deliver a baby that is 15 weeks premature, get thee to a hospital with a NICU and a high risk OB doctor.
People who would have died or become disabled are rescued every day by well-intentioned doctors who dedicate their lives to saving your life. I am grateful for these doctors every day.
When my husband Matt cut two fingers off his left hand with a table saw and I saw those two dismembered fingers lying, detached, in a work glove, and when I saw them reattached 10 hours later after Dr. Jones had painstakingly reattached every bone, nerve, and artery, I bowed at his feet.
But I am also grateful for the alternative medicine healers who save patients in their own way. They are serving a need doctors aren’t serving adequately. They are spending time, sitting at the bedside, holding a scared hand, giving a much needed hug, and helping patients reduce stress responses and relax their nervous systems so the patient’s natural self-repair mechanisms can activate.
And we need them just as much as we need doctors, especially when it comes to the treatment of chronic diseases for which Western medicine doesn’t have much to offer: like autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndromes, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, and many other conditions.
Thank God for the healers who play a role doctors are often too busy and traumatized by the system to play.
We need not choose camps. I’d like to invite you to join me here in Switzerland, in this middle place, where there’s no camp, where we just appreciate that we all have tools in our toolbox and the more tools we have available to us as patients, the more healing is possible.
Are You In A Camp?
Would you be willing to defect and join me in Switzerland? Tell us your stories in the comments.