Leaves, Berries, Flowers and Bark

One morning when I was 18, I went out for a run in the Adirondack woods and after I rounded a corner, I stopped dead on the narrow trail and looked up to see a buck standing in my way. I stood stock still for half a minute as we made eye contact. I think I took one or two steps back, which made him hesitate and glance over his shoulder, then stamp once. He was brownish grey with dark brown eyes and a small-ish rack of antlers that made me think he was fairly young. Another shift in my posture was all it took for him to turn abruptly and bound off into the woods to my right. (This was before smart phones, and there was no power plug within 2 miles of me to power it anyways, so I didn't catch a picture, but the image stays remarkably clear in my mind.)

This experience was one of several encounters with wild things I had over the summers I spent at Tanager Lodge, a summer camp in the Northern Adirondack Park in upstate New York (the same place I traveled to for that wedding mentioned in last week's post.) That wedding trip has inspired this meditation on what Tanager fostered in me that made me gravitate towards naturopathy more than any other school of the healing arts.

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Old Map of Tanager Lodge

Tanager is a self-proclaimed wilderness camp that engages "campers and staff in a small, non-competitive community dedicated to wilderness appreciation, life skills, and individual growth." This is its 90th summer in operation.

A day in the life of a camper or staff member (I was both) starts with waking to the sound of a flute (a real one, played from atop a cliff...I'm not kidding), followed by a dip in the lake, then breakfast on open porches, cleaning and prepping camp for the day by bailing boats, peeling carrots, sweeping docks, cleaning our tents, etc., and then choosing an activity for the morning.

My favorite activity was making herbal teas. We would hike out a mile or so into the woods on a rainy day and carefully harvest all kinds of edible leaves, berries, flowers and bark. Once back in main camp, we steeped them in varying combinations. After a while, we tasted all the different teas we'd made and they helped to warm us after a morning of tromping around in the rain. The steeping of teas is pretty darn naturopathic; there's even an elective class here at National called Special Topics in Botanical Medicine in which we learn to make medicinal herbal teas (and many other things like salves, tinctures, and elderflower fritters!)

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Looking south from Indian Point (a photo I took at Tanager years ago)

If you are just beginning to explore naturopathic medicine, please do not feel that you need to come with a past full of jaunts in the woods and time spent identifying plants. I have many exceptional peers here at NUHS who came right out of the heart of cities like New York and Detroit. Not every naturopathic student loves to get their hands dirty in the garden or yearns for a hike in the woods like I do, but I am pretty sure we all have a deep respect for the natural world.

The Tanager Lodge community I grew up with strives to live by 12 Woodcraft Laws that will likely resonate with naturopathic students in some way. These laws generally parallel the community, spiritual and ethical aspects of our Determinants of Health (listen to Dr. Louise Edwards speak on the topic). I'll leave you with the list and hope that you have learned a little more about what draws me to study Naturopathic Medicine.

  1. Be clean; both yourself and the place you live in.
  2. Be strong. Understand and respect your body.
  3. Protect all harmless wild life. Conserve the woods and flowers.
  4. Hold your word of honor sacred.
  5. Play fair for fair play is truth and foul play is treachery.
  6. Be reverent. Worship the Great Spirit and respect all worship of it by others. For none have all the truth and all who worship reverently have claims on our respect.
  7. Be brave. Courage is the noblest of all gifts.
  8. Be silent while your elders are speaking and otherwise show them deference.
  9. Obey. Obedience is the first duty of the Woodcrafter.
  10. Be Kind. Do at least one act of unbargained service each day.
  11. Be helpful. Do your share of the work.
  12. Be joyful. Seek the joy of being alive, for every reasonable gladness that you can give or get is a treasure that cannot be destroyed.

 

On Community (and Chocolates for Breakfast!)

I went home. I flew in and out of Boston on my way to and from a wedding in the Adirondack Park in northern New York. My parents have 2 more weeks to pack before they move out of my childhood home, a place they have lived for the past 30 years. While the home itself is large and lovely, it is really the neighbors that make that place home.

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On Sunday night we had our neighborhood grandmother, Mrs. Chris, over for apple pie to celebrate her 80-something birthday. She brought the remainder of a box of chocolates to share and when I asked if she had eaten the others for lunch, she giggled and replied, "Breakfast!"

The Hartnetts, our other neighbors, also came over to sing happy birthday and share dessert. You have to understand that all of this transpired over the course of about 15 minutes; my parents realized they had a pie to eat, Mrs. Chris popped her head in the door on her evening walk, I called my best friend Annie (living momentarily with her parents next door while she and her boyfriend wait for their new apartment to be ready), and within 5 minutes she and her family had walked the 100 yards from their front door to ours. And we had a little party!

After pie, Annie's boyfriend Drew helped my brother with his statistics homework, while Annie and I tried to come up with the perfect caption for the photo of Mrs. Chris and the birthday sparkler in her piece of pie.

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This is the community I come from. It explains the high expectations I have for Home, wherever that place turns out to be. I know that Chicago is not my true Home, but while I am here, the NUHS community is serving and supporting me better than I ever imagined it would. I chat with my professors in the hallway and I see them at our botanical garden, on the train, and walking around campus. There is an online community too, on Facebook pages, where my fellow students and our professors post links to relevant articles and information about upcoming seminars, workshops, presentations and club meetings.

The recent improvements on campus at the library and the ongoing work in Janse are providing us with more places to congregate during downtime and create community on campus. You might think that 28 credits and all the work that goes into keeping current in all those classes would leave us little time to engage with our community, but it seems that all that work actually brings us together. We commiserate, we struggle together, and we experience success together. We are a small community of hard workers with similar goals and morals when it comes to healthcare. Some of us come from different states, some of us love Chicagoland, and some of us feel lost in this expansive city, but no matter your perspective on this place as Home, the NUHS community certainly offers a supportive community if you are willing to engage.

Independence in Learning

A treat! Another day off during the summertime! Happy (belated) Independence Day! I went to the beach (again) on our day off with my boyfriend, my friend JheriAnne (also an ND student), and her husband Shane. During our afternoon and evening spent grilling, swimming, laughing, and lounging on the beach, JheriAnne and I talked about school (can't escape it!). Particularly relevant to the holiday was our conversation on independence in our studies and decision-making as we plan our schedules and careers. 

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Thanks to JA for capturing this picture of me on Independence Day
with the sun setting into the palm of my hand.

Let me preface this by saying that I am eternally grateful that I can be dependent on my friends at a moment's notice when the work overwhelms me or I have an idea that needs friendly scrutiny. My friends are there for me, and I am there for them. On the other hand, we can all too easily get wrapped up in each other's lives. As students, we spend around 30 hours together each week in class, and then also spend time outside of class recharging in each other's company. I've had to remind myself several times that I am, in fact, on my own journey here, despite how tightly bound my experiences are to those of the students around me.

One major challenge I experience daily is to break away from the established opinions and habits of students I study with, and those that came before me. Both positive and negative judgments about all things from professors to textbooks to scheduling are passed down from upper tri students and have, at times, been toxically pervasive among my peers. As medical students, we are juggling many balls at once, and it is easy to adopt an existing opinion (especially when you've just been thrown into 25+ credits of professional school), but I implore you to never forget to form your own opinions, no matter how exhausted you become. I truly believe independent thought wins when it comes to learning, which is after all, what we're here to do (whether we feel like it today, from this professor, or not.)

I am not suggesting that we just ignore all advice coming from upper tri students.  I am suggesting that we always take that advice with a grain of salt and view the issue through our own eyes, as we experience it on our own, individual journey through medical school.  Remember this tenet of our medicine: every person is different.

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John, Dr. Brad, Mia, Nadene, and a tree circle up
for a short group meditation session beside Lake Janse.

When I was 19, I worked for my mom, an MD, answering phones and filing charts at her dermatology practice. My first free lunch from a drug rep and his conversation with my mother was one of those experiences that every child dreads. I ate my free sandwich in horrified, bug-eyed silence as my mom interrogated this rep about the studies behind the drug he was touting. I swear that man shrank into his chair with every "Yes, but where is the research? I want to see the actual paper you keep referring to." For whatever reason, whether he was new or wasn't given the tools, this drug rep could not provide my doctor mother with the published paper showing the effects of the drug that this lunch was supposed to make her want to prescribe. By the time he slunk out of the office, promising to return with a copy of the published paper for this crazy doctor, I was just about never going to forgive my mom for displaying such unrelenting behavior. She sensed my anxiety and proceeded to explain that she would never prescribe a drug to a patient without knowing as much as possible about it. She would form her own independent opinion based on the evidence, and would not consider prescribing the drug until then. As NDs, we may not have a future full of lunch dates with pharmaceutical reps, but companies pushing supplements, diagnostic tests and other tools might surely come our way in this same fashion.

So, to my peers, I thank you for exercising your independence and forming your own opinions while on your individual journey. At the same time, I thank you for doing so as part of a team of students or interns who are present, ready to learn, and aware that we are all on our own path to doctorhood. And of course, thank you for allowing me my moments of dependence in the form of a hug, an ear, a shared moment of frustration, or a quiet group meditation session.

Maybe This Will Touch Your Heart Today

OK readers, I did it! I decided. My parents were a reliable sounding board in a conversation last week and while I trust my own intuition and will follow it even in the face of resistance, being reassured with parental support really sealed the deal. I plan to start the massage program in September!

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Source: www.ieet.org

Trusting intuition is something we address in class from the very first trimester. Mostly, we have these discussions in our naturopathic theory classes, although this week in Homeopathy 1 we started a topic on How To Take the Case, which is inseparable from learning about becoming a true healer. "Taking the case" means listening to our patients without any preconceptions; it means forgetting ourselves, and dissolving the boundary between the self and the world so as to note every important detail.

In discussing both homeopathic and naturopathic theory, our professors have talked about mirror neurons, a term that defines how empathy is evidenced in brain scans; the listener's brain lights up in exactly the same places as the storyteller's brain does. Our goal as doctors is to use our mirror neurons.

One of my peers asked about how, on the one hand, we dissolve the boundary between ourselves and our patients' stories of suffering, and on the other, maintain our own sanity and refrain from shouldering the burdens of every sick patient that walks through our doors.

It is a good question. How many mirror neurons can we afford to use? Turns out, the answer is different for every doc. Of course we knew that, everyone (every case, every patient) is different, after all.

One professor told us that he sits behind a desk, with the patient opposite him; this provides a physical boundary to remind him. Another professor spoke on how her spirituality and the healing cannot be separated. Her spiritual practice involves dissolving boundaries and finding compassion for every single living thing.

During several of these class discussions our professors have sited an author named Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a doctor known for her work teaching other physicians how to heal from the heart. On her blog, Remembering Your Power to Heal, Remen writes of physicians: "Our habitual way of seeing things and even our expertise can blind us to the meaning of even the simplest of our daily interactions and relationships." This tendency towards blindness is an obstacle to cultivating the healer in us, and comes at least in part, from our training. One of Dr. Remen's tools for learning to see through "new" eyes is to keep a "heart journal" in which you answer three questions each day.

The Heart Journal

The first question is: "What surprised me today?"

The size of the nose ring on the girl sitting next to us at the beach; it was huge but I figured she probably loves it that way!

The second question is: "What moved me or touched my heart today?"

On our way to the beach, Hanzi was looking out the window and said, "That was cute!" I asked what, and he told me that a little girl was leading her grandmother in an investigation of something smooshed on the sidewalk.

And the third question is "What inspired me today?"

The camaraderie of the group of "Bears" gathered at the beach, all bobbing together with their big bellies in the chilly Lake Michigan water.

If this exercise is something Remen thinks we should do as professional physicians, why not start practicing it now? In addition to practicing things like taking blood pressure, evaluating cervical range of motion, or taking a history from a SIM-patient, we should probably be cultivating the healer through exercises like this.

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Hard to believe, but I did study at the beach. Here's the evidence!
Want to find a Chicago beach to visit? It's easy: CPDBeaches.com.

The skill set of a healer includes knowing how to find the beauty in the midst of the suffering we are exposed to daily for the duration of our professional lives. So, to my fellow students, don't write in a journal every day if the time commitment freaks you out, but at the very least, have these conversations with each other. Try to talk about the heart-full things, rather than the test you're dreading or the professor you can't stand. Look for the things that inspire you, the things that touch your heart, and the things that surprise you. Forgetting to cultivate our eye for these things will, I suspect, prove a grave mistake whose consequences we will learn when we go out into the real world and try to heal people.

So, I encourage you to notice the things that make you smile more than the things that make you groan. You may even find less to groan about....

To Enjoy a Gorgeous Carrot

Our long weekend off due to Homecoming has come to a close and I am so, so thankful for having had those extra days without classes! While I suppose I could have joined in the festivities on campus, I decided instead to take advantage of 48 extra hours of unscheduled time and do some Mackie things.  

Don't worry! I did contribute to some Homecoming prep; we worked on beautifying the garden with more weeding and new mulch! Current students, if you'd like to stay up to date on garden happenings, check out the NUHS Botanical Garden Project on Facebook!

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After classes ended for the week on Wednesday (amid the cracking of a powerful thunderstorm, the lightening vivid in the grey sky), I joined some ND girlfriends at a nearby wine bar for a drink and some appetizers. The five of us each toasted to intelligent and loving company, the beauty of a steel-grey sky amid the storm, and our ND student friend Anayibe, who took this tri off to go on an adventure to the World Cup in Brazil, and to visit her family in her home country of Colombia. Ana is a vibrant friend, so positive, so present, so quietly loving and funny. She may be only 4'11-¾" tall, but her presence is huge; we feel her with us every day. It is a powerful thing to find a friend like this, and I speak for many when I say we miss her in a wild way.

Illustration by Rigel Stuhmiller - www.rigelstuhmiller.comIn the spirit of my friend Anayibe, I watched an episode of Anthony Bourdain's newest show, "Parts Unknown," (a food travel show), that takes place in Colombia. Now I can't wait to tell Ana about my hopes that she'll take me on a trip to her country and show me around! (Maybe we can even apply our ND training somehow; I guess we'll see when the time comes for adventure…)  The best line in the show came from a Colombian musician-turned-chef who tells Bourdain, "I believe more in a beautiful carrot than in a good recipe." 

Thank goodness for chefs like this!  To me (and in the context of this show), a beautiful carrot signifies the harmonious interaction between humans and nature, the ability for humans to enjoy a gorgeous carrot born of the earth and to glean both nutrition and pleasure from it. According to naturopathic philosophy, if one lives by nature's laws, health is "the innate and natural state of being" because humans evolved on this planet, selecting for traits that allow for survival in harmony with the environment here. We practice Earth Medicine because we do so on Earth.

When I lived in the mountains of Northern California I got a CSA (community sustained agriculture) box bursting with fresh produce once a week. When I moved to Chicago, I vowed that no student budget would keep me from living close to nature through my food. As Michael Pollan says in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, "Eating's not a bad way to get to know a place." I shop at the farmer's market here in Oak Park every weekend.

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Last weekend a few NMSA members met at the farmer's market
to stock up on veggies, flowers, and yes, those irresistible donuts, too.

Supporting local farmers, especially those who use organic or hazard-free methods, ensures that I get the most nutrients through my food. It also allows me to participate in one important aspect of my community that supports the basic determinants of health (hydration, sleep, nutrition, breath, and rest & recreation aka Vitamin R) that lie at the core of naturopathic medicine. In the back corner of the market there are always musicians gathered for a bluegrass jam session, the local church sells irresistible donuts to support their work, and the high school athletics department sells baked goods to raise money for travel and equipment.

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The vegetable scene at the Oak Park farmer's market.

The weekly market cultivates community, good nutrition, rejuvenation and belonging. Some might say that life in the city is irreconcilably distant from the natural world, but I argue otherwise. I have found, through my friendships and through my community, many ways to live by nature's laws. To name a couple, I eat good food, and I take a wine break every now and then to stock up on some Vitamin R.