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What I Learned About Health By Leaving My Medical Career

laptop and stethoscopeThirteen years ago I had a panic attack after finishing my last shift as a hospital doctor. I was hyperventilating and shaking. For a few minutes I wondered how I was going to survive without that familiar yet suffocating yoke around my neck that I had been carrying – no, not my stethoscope, but my career as a medical doctor. Then I pulled myself together – and I have never looked back since.

I had spent six years in medical school and three years as a junior doctor. I had witnessed dreadful things, distressing things, without any support from senior doctors. I felt like I was on a conveyor belt to Hell. Something seemed to be missing but I didn’t know what it was. So I enrolled in a Chinese Medicine Bachelor Degree and did not apply for a new job the following year. I sat in lectures about Yin and Yang and learned about the different types of Qi. I spent one year just learning about the hundreds of acupuncture points on the body. I learned about herbs that warmed, herbs that dispelled damp, herbs that invigorated Qi. I had become a Sinophile during medical school, in an attempt to discover my cultural “roots”. Studying Chinese Medicine seemed to be an obvious extension of my journey.

At first it was exotic, but then I began to see the parallels between Chinese and Western medicine. I learned about the influences of the five emotions on the body – especially anger and “over-thinking”. Chinese Medicine taught me to appreciate the impact of lifestyle on health. I also had an introduction to nutrition – a naturopath gave us lectures on vitamins, minerals and wholefoods. I was amazed. Nutrition in hospitals boiled down to serving bacon and eggs for oncology patients, and Sustagen to thin patients.

Gratuitous bacon meme... I couldn't resist ;)
Gratuitous bacon meme… I couldn’t resist ;)

I realised how unwell I was. I was plagued with hay fever symptoms, constant sinusitis, back pain, insomnia, constipation. My diet was terrible and I did no exercise. But gradually, with the dawning of a realisation that I should be taking better care of my health, and the blessing of free time – not needing to work 15 hour shifts several times a week – I started doing more exercise and improving what I ate. I started running. I slowly gave up junk food. My hay fever improved.

But I couldn’t leave Western Medicine behind. I felt there was something I hadn’t finished. I was accepted as a GP trainee after graduating from Chinese Medicine. Two years later, after obtaining my Fellowship, I joined an integrative GP clinic and I am still there, eight years on.

I’ve been on a journey to discover the answers to true wellbeing since I diverted from Western Medicine. Since then I’ve learned so much about nutrition, lifestyle, and the mind-body connection and how to use it. Taking a different tangent opened up my eyes to new paradigms. It was startling. I learned that there was more to medicine than prescriptions. I learned that every human being is a complex and unique creature, and that curing and preventing disease often required more than a drug order. I also learned that there were many situations where drugs saved lives and prevented complications. My job is to know what the situation calls for. I’ve returned to Western Medicine with a new set of eyes.

Now I find I’m moving away from acupuncture because it’s a passive treatment. I still use it in practice and am passionate about establishing rigorous evidence around its’ possible effectiveness. But I believe that active lifestyle changes will make the biggest impact on health in the “worried well” that consult me. Time and time again my advice is to eat less sugar, do more exercise, meditate, practise positive self-talk, go to bed at the same time every night. If patients did these religiously they would rarely need to see me. The other problems are easily fixed – the ones that require a prescription.

I consider myself very fortunate to have a career in Western Medicine. I took a roundabout way back to medicine, but I certainly haven’t ended up in the same place – or perhaps the same place, but with a new vision. If I hadn’t left for a little while, I may not have discovered my vocation – to teach and inspire others to find the answers to health and happiness. (One of the ancient definitions of “doctor” is “someone who teaches“). Inspiration implies I have to be a somewhat healthy role model myself. Now I spend my days and nights learning about health and wellbeing – about healing and nurturing the body, heart, mind and spirit. It’s an amazing and privileged journey and I intend to share it with everyone who wants to come along with me. :)

Photo credit: http://farm7.static.flickr.com/6079/6123892769_9fd6451484.jpg

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5 comments on “What I Learned About Health By Leaving My Medical Career

  1. Marianne
    May 11, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    I enjoyed reading this post. Thanks sharing your story – so interesting to hear about your journey – and learnings – so far!

    I agree that lifestyle changes have the potential to have a major impact on health and wellbeing. But I wonder how many doctors have time and/or capacity – to be able to raise these issues in a sensative and meaningful way (I don’t intend to blame doctors here – I think it may be a cultural issues). Likewise it may be hard for patients to raise these topics, particularly as they are often areas of shame and reflective of other psychological pain.

    I remember hearing a doctor reflect that it is very hard to talk to patients directly about being overweight/obese, particularly if the presentation is unrelated (that said, one doctor is not representative of everyone!). My research is looking at how to how doctors might have conversations about protective and risk factors with adolescents…so I guess I think about this a lot!

    (sorry, I’ve gone off-topic!)

  2. admin
    May 11, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    Hey Marianne! This is something I struggle with a lot. It’s often easier to connect and feel like I am making a difference if patients are on the same page already. But if not, then it’s often very difficult to bring up lifestyle issues in a sensitive way. Sometimes it’s just not appropriate at the time. Sometimes suggesting that this has helped other people might open up a conversation, perhaps not with me, but within the patient. My own journey took a very long time, and I’m supposed to know about all this stuff! From a wider perspective, there may be a role played by public health authorities etc. Changing habits takes three things: knowledge, ability and desire – and I think a fourth one, empathy from others. I am trying hard to work on this – my “real life” experiences at clinic help me with this!! Have a great week!

  3. Tina
    May 12, 2014 at 6:40 am

    Thank you for this article. My favorite part – that you realize you have to be a role model and practice what you teach! I have been turned off by medicine in general, both western and natural medicine, mostly because those that I have encountered that practiced were not healthy themselves. “If you cannot believe what you see, how can you believe in what you cannot see?”

  4. thefolia
    September 9, 2015 at 11:19 pm

    We need more doctors like you…I wish you were my doctor. Your journey reminds me of Dr. Alejandro Junger’s journey and his pursuit of being healthy. My only stays in hospitals had been because of the births of my children and I found it to be overrun with processed food and drug-pushing bullies—I couldn’t wait to get home and rest and eat something. Cheers to happy, healthy living!

  5. admin
    September 14, 2015 at 9:31 pm

    Just saw this, thanks for the lovely comments! You look after yourself and your babies x

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