09/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

What Is Work? Finding Your Path by Laying the Bricks

There's nothing like asking someone about their work to distract you from the fact that they're sticking a dozen needles into your torso.

And so, on a recent visit to my local naturopath, I popped the question:

How did you discover your passion for "alternative" medicine?

Like many young wanna-be MDs, JoHannah Reilly went pre-med in college. "I wanted to be a doctor. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I wanted to help people."

And she had a very personal stake in that issue.

JoHannah was intellectually curious about how the human body worked. She also had spent the last seven years in chronic pain, suffered from migraines, had experienced a loss of both sight and vision.

Every doctor she'd seen had said her disease was unknowable, which was to say, unfixable.
Out of options -- but far from out of pain -- she went to see a naturopathic physician.

Natural medicine looks at the body as a system as opposed to a set of drug-diffusable symptoms. It's called "alternative," But if you look at history's time-line, acupuncture and plant-based medicines predate "western" allopathic medicine by a few thousand years.

In our neo-organic age, one might assume that "natural" is better. But this isn't always the case. To paraphrase a line from Deepak Chopra, if I get hit by a car, take me the emergency room fast; hold the homeopathy.

But chronic illnesses aren't car crashes. They're more like stories with straying plot-lines.
Treating them symptom-by-symptom can be like trying to de-hole a piece of Swiss Cheese.

JoHannah's new doctor didn't try to stop her pain with pain-killers. He set out to detangle her body's mixed narratives instead. A change in diet; Rolfing to undo the bones growing out of her shoulders. Over time, her body rebuilt itself. And as it did, her path toward a medical degree shifted from MD to ND.

"Boom!" she said, "This is my path."

Five years later, she graduated from naturopathic medical school having studied everything from dissection to nutrition. She set up her practice doing acupuncture, chiropractic treatments and nutritional counseling. It's an approach that reflects her vision of the body as a whole (let's call it, "You, the person") as opposed to an independent series of parts ("You, two ears, a nose, some toes," etc.).

Finding the root cause of a complex condition isn't easy. But that's part of what JoHannah loves about her work.

Her diagnostic process starts with a 3 1/2 hour introductory patient interview. "I feel like Nancy Drew when I'm working," she says. "It's about the whole person -- the whole story. Body. Mind. Emotions."

This idea applies to her idea of working with passion.

After college and before naturopathy school, JoHannah wanted to get a construction job working on Boulder Colorado's new Pearl Street Mall. This was the 1970s, a time when female construction workers were as rare as naturopaths.

On her first Monday as a wanna-be construction worker, JoHannah suited up and headed down to the mall's building site.

The foreman greeted her with a decisive, "Go away."

So she came back.

She was still there on Friday afternoon, when a gust of wind sent some paper flying from its stanchion. JoHannah picked it up and brought it back.

The foreman hired her.

JoHannah became a brick hod, ferrying bricks along the site.

When the summer ended, her team didn't want her to leave.

But she'd laid out her career path -- and she followed it.

It was unusual path, but having someone she looked up to made things easier.

"I had a role model," she said, about the naturopathic doctor who helped her back in college. "And that's a huge piece."

But we can find our paths on our own, too. JoHannah prescribes this exercise to her patients:

Write down a list of how we nourish ourselves: mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Most people have an area that's underfed. Balance the system and new ideas will emerge.

This idea applies to the work of work itself. Some days we're laying the bricks. Some days we're walking on them, en route to our next step.

What is it? We may not know that...yet. But that's okay.

"I love what I do," JoHannah told me between needles. "But the basic principle is that the body can heal itself."