My training in conventional family medicine was thorough, captivating & ultimately disappointing. I had many wonderful mentors along the way – Larry & Laura Weed; Christopher Smith, a small town doc in rural northern Maine; John Bland; the venerable Lou Rosin (who came out of retirement from 40 years in rural family practice to direct my residency program); Shelly Burchmann, a semi-retired anaethsesiologist who directed the hospice & chronic pain programs at my residency; John Linn (obstetrics); Lynn Vice PhD (a clinical psychologist working within my residency program); fellow family practice resident Drew Palin, a former professional football player gone over to rugby who attended each Monday with his nose in a new place; too many others to mention, including a number of valuable teachers whom I resented at the time & only came to fully appreciate later.
I began my practice career post residency in Bethel Maine, a gorgeous town in Oxford County nestled in the Mahoussic Mountains, on the Androscoggin River, Mary giving birth there to our two sons, at home. As a solo practitioner taking on an abandoned practice 30 miles from the nearest other medical practice, I quickly experienced the difficulties of handling the demands of practitioner availability. I’d been trained in the philosophy of “biopsychosocial medicine” – a catch-term in the family practice community 0f the ‘60s-‘80s – suggesting the need to integrate an appreciation of patients’ psychosocial needs with the narrowly-focused medical diagnosis in understanding illness and in designing effective therapeutics. In practice this too-often translated into copious chart notes accompanying the inevitable pharmacologic prescription, with psychosocial information principally guiding the decision to provide pharmaceuticals from the clinic’s sample stock rather than write an expensive prescription. With one of the towns I served hosting a paper factory, I had a dream one night of writing chart notes on the sheet of paper issuing from a 6-foot-diameter reel of paper at the plant, spinning off as rapidly as I could scribble, a Sisyphean task.
Bethel is the nearest town to a popular ski area near to the Maine/New Hampshire border, so in addition to local clients, in winters I served a population of folks “from away,” often tending to lacerations, sprained ankles & minor & major ski injuries outside of normal practice hours, frequently missing dinners & bedtimes with my wife & young children. With the attendant tasks of managing a practice & raising a growing family, I found myself under considerable stress, and my body responded with an outbreak of shingles.
I was bathing the boys one evening, & experiencing some considerable pain in my thoracic back. With my history of mechanical back pain I assumed this was merely one more mechanical pain expression a bit higher up my back, and the warm bathwater seemed rather appealing (unusual for me – homeopathic colleagues, follow along & organize/analize the emerging totality). I climbed in & cranked up the hot water, ‘till the boys & I looked rather like lobsters ready for the table; Mary ran in & rescued the boys from the steamy cauldron, & I cranked the heat up a little more. That night I had dreams of splitting wood for the wood stove for the winter, the unsplit pile growing larger with each swing of the maul.
The next morning the first vesicles appeared, arching around my left chest from mid-back to sternum, dusky red with pain radiating in the same pattern, & my academic mind quickly leapt to the diagnosis.
I spent much of the morning, between patient visits, staring at a sample bottle of acyclovir, the conventional treatment for acute shingles, but could not bring myself to take it, having recently read Jurassic Park & having newfound respect for messing with DNA. I called a colleague, a conventional doc I worked with who had recently been studying homeopathic medicine who had offered to extend treatment to me anytime should need arise; & told him I did not believe in his witchcraft, but was feeling desperate.
The visit involved a drive to Portsmouth New Hampshire. He saw me for nearly two hours, asking questions that dived deeply into that “biopsychosocial” model, barely touching on the kinds of queries that would be the focus of conventional medical attention. He seemed to be most intrigued by the story of the evening bath, the nature of my splitting wood dream, and my growing dissatisfaction with conventional rural family practice, once my vocational “north star.” He did look at the shingles eruption, with his attention focussed on the precise color of the surrounding skin, and the size and clustering of the vesicles, details that conventional approaches would consider to be without significance.
His treatment was a single poppy-seed-sized pellet of the homeopathic remedy Rhus toxicodendron (Toxicodendron radicans, the eastern poison ivy), at the 10M potency, an astronomic dilution of the actual substance.
I figured “whatever,” the time was not fully wasted, he was pleasant to hang out with, the drive was lovely & it sure beat another day of Sisyphean charting. Ignoring his caveat to avoid eating for a few hours, I stopped at a dock-side eatery for fried clams on the way home.
Back home, I woke later that night to the absence of pain; the sudden cessation of the intense feeling of being chainsawed in half through the left chest. Following a glorious rest for the remainder of the night, I found the vesicular rash healing at my morning shower.
A few days later the saga extended somewhat. I continued to do well, but my sons broke out with chickenpox, acquired most certainly in the tub from varicella virus I’d shed into the bathwater. We were driving through Waterville on an errand & stopped at a natural foods store for lunch kibbies, & along with the yogurts & bread, Mary picked out Maesi Panos’ book Homeopathic Medicine At Home along with a few vials of remedies she’d mentioned in the context of chickenpox. She set me to work reading & organizing the boys’ symptoms, and some Antimonium tartaricum in 12C potency brought speedy relief, sufficient to take them to the local beach a few days later without precipitating an epidemic among fellow bathers.
Mary purchased a few more books for me, along with a 50-vial kit of remedies for homecare purposes.
A few weeks later a letter arrived in the mail, advertising a year-long course in homeopathy in Boston for medical professionals, meeting on weekends once monthly. The narrative described many primary care physicians becoming disillusioned with conventional practice, & I wondered who’d been looking over my shoulder. Mary asked if I might be interested, I said it looked interesting, & she replied “well good – ‘cause I just transferred money out of our savings and enrolled you.” Bless her.
After a few months of the course, and investment in a few more books for my personal library, I began using homeopathy cautiously in a few perplexing cases, with invariably good results. I often joke that God & Hahnemann conspire in sending us easy cases early in our careers, to hook us on this wonderful approach to healing.
As time rolled on, it was common for me, describing proposed conventional treatment options to a client, to have them ask me “doc, if I were Family, what would you recommend?” I’d respond honestly along the lines of “I’ve been working with this old approach to healing that’s a bit outside what I was taught in my conventional medical training,” & quite commonly they’d respond, “well, I’d go with what you’d do for your family.” So I was soon thrust into nearly full-time homeopathic practice, pushing my envelope of learning. I was delighted to immerse myself into an approach to healing in which that “biopsychosocial” model translated directly into a treatment plan, rather than sit on the side in common deference to a simple myopic iatromechanical model of illness & treatment. The previously Sisyphean task of obtaining a comprehensive history now obtained a fully useful meaning.
At this point, I’d left the clinic in Bethel and was practicing in the field of occupational medicine and chronic pain management, with a few general family practice clients, down on the coast in South Freeport Maine.
At one point I found myself torn, feeling like the old Olive Oyl of the Popeye comics, between the worlds of conventional and homeopathic medicine, feeling that the task of maintaining and further developing skills in both simultaneously was insurmountable. There were many fine, competent & compassionate conventional family physicians in my community, but nary a homeopath. In order to be able to devote myself squarely to the practice of homeopathy, I picked up and relocated to the lovely town of Blue Hill, on a coastal peninsula at the junction of midcoast & downeast Maine, an area well-served conventionally, with a large alternative community hungry for a homeopathic practitioner as well as a more traditional community including folks inevitably not sufficiently served by even well-executed & compassionately-delivered conventional medicine.
I smile reflecting on the first office space I came close to renting in Blue Hill; with a large semi-circular window overlooking the rocky Blue Hill harbor, it is unlikely I could have attended to any serious work; I ended up reserving the spectacular ocean views for my homes, initially in Sedgwick & subsequently in Brooksville. Very fond memories of raising my family in these communities. Leaving Maine was difficult for us, I recall the old Quaker lady story of Hester, returning from visiting her son who’d moved to Portland Oregon, telling her friend Mable, “it was a pleasant visit, but the weather was some awful.” Mable’s response, “Well, Hester, what did you expect, 3,000 miles from the ocean?”
I maintained an active practice devoted to homeopathic family medicine in Blue Hill from 1993 through 2001, traveling to teach part-time at a weekend-attendance homeopathy school in New York City, at some state society meetings in Pennsylvania & Ohio, and at the National Center for Homeopathy’s annual conference; and began some international teaching in Belgium , Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, when I was invited in 2001 to direct the homeopathy program at the National College of Naturopathic (Natural) Medicine in Portland Oregon, which brought me to my current home, 3,000 miles from the ocean.