As a child, I always wondered why we are here and why people suffer. Not surprisingly, I ended up becoming a doctor, driven by a heartfelt devotion to helping people get well and experience relief from suffering. I embraced the world of conventional medicine with my entire being.
The longer I worked in the field, however, the more disenchanted I became. While my colleagues and I were able to effectively help those with acute medical issues, such as life-threatening emergencies, we predominantly were unable to assist those with chronic health issues, who made up the overwhelming majority of our patient load. It became clear to me that I had to change how I was practicing medicine.
I began to study Eastern philosophy and indigenous medicine, and ultimately, I enrolled in the most rigorous integrative medicine program in the country. Over the years, as I combined the metaphysical and physical aspects of health, I was able to help my patients in ways I never had been able before. I came to feel happy, fulfilled, and in alignment with my work, knowing that I was manifesting my heart's desire to serve humanity.
As my path unfolded in the world of holistic health and integrative medicine, I met or heard about numerous other conventionally-trained doctors who also had shifted course. One such doctor is Martin Rossman, M.D., Dipl. Ac, (NCCAOM), a pioneer in the field of guided imagery. Rossman's ground-breaking work taps into the power of the unconscious mind, to gain insight and clarity about health issues, as well as to resolve those issues. As a result of his work, scores of patients have experienced relief or cure from ailments that were unsuccessfully treated through conventional medicine.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Rossman, and I was interested to learn not only about the particulars of his work, but also about how he came to do it, given that he too was trained in conventional medicine. What was the turning point for him?
From a young age, Rossman revealed, he was fascinated by the mind: "I was always interested in how we work, what makes us tick, what life's about, what we're here for," he said. "Most of my career has been investigating the question of why people treat themselves the way they do, how they can improve, and why that is often so difficult."
Passionate about social justice, Rossman spent the early part of his career running a clinic for the Black Panthers and offering house calls, often free of charge, to people in low-income neighborhoods. "I offered house calls because I wanted to understand why people persisted in doing things that everybody knew were detrimental to health." By visiting patients in their homes, Rossman continued, he saw what doctors do not pick up on in a clinical setting -- namely, "overwhelming obstacles of poverty and depression, leading to people just trying to get through the day."
The desperation of these conditions, Rossman explained, led people to reach for quick fixes -- like food, alcohol, or drugs -- that would numb the emotions and otherwise make reality more tolerable. The catch, he added, was that those quick-fixes were often "toxic" in the long run, "so most doctors in those situations were just sticking their fingers in the dike and trying to manage things with medication that then produced their own problems, leading doctors to add more medications."
It was the slow medicine principle that everything is inter-connected and has an impact, in a domino-like effect. Recognizing the negative domino effect but not yet aware of how to activate the positive domino effect, Rossman burned out after just a couple of years of practicing medicine, feeling that he was not making any significant difference and that he "had to find something else to do." As serendipity would have it, before leaving medicine altogether, Rossman was shown a video from the American Medical Association Blue Ribbon delegation to China:
A patient was having a pulmonary lobectomy, using only acupuncture needles for anesthesia. During the procedure, the patient was speaking with the nurses, sipping tea, and eating mandarin oranges, while the surgeon was cutting open the patient's rib and lifting a lung out of the chest. After the surgeon finished the operation and bandaged up the patient, the patient threw one arm around each surgeon and walked right out of the operating room.
"The top of my head just about came off," Rossman recalled. "I'd never seen or heard anything like that." The experience prompted Rossman to study Traditional Chinese Medicine and become an acupuncturist, "which was the crack in my cosmic egg," he said. "I saw that there was a whole other way of looking at what was going on with people when they were not feeling well, and a whole other way of approaching it." As he integrated acupuncture and conventional medicine, Rossman continued exploring many dimensions of holistic health, including hypnosis -- which ultimately led him to co-found the Academy of Guided Imagery and to publish numerous books and CDs on topic.
I am always heartened to hear the stories of the pioneering doctors of integrative medicine, who were willing to risk their professional comfort and ease, in the interest of helping people truly get better. Today a growing number of physicians recognize the connected dots of people's lives -- body, mind, heart, and soul, as well as individual and collective -- and are therefore taking a both/and approach instead of an either/or approach to medicine. By bringing together the best of conventional, complementary, and alternative healing modalities, all of us -- doctors and patients alike -- can only win.
Follow Michael Finkelstein, MD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SlowMedicineDr