What I Learned About Health By Leaving My Medical Career
Thirteen 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.
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. :)