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Interview: Considering a Career in Alternative Medicine

In early 2011, a fellow tennis player in Barrie, Caitlyn Lawrence, now a university student in South Carolina, asked me to participate in a career-related Q&A for a class project. I thought that some of the following would be useful to others considering a career in health care. - Ben Kim

What were your early aspirations as a child?

My dad is a baseball nut, and he trained me from an early age to be a solid ball player. I lost interest after a few bad hops led to one too many black eyes in my early teenage years.

In my late teens, I pretty much accepted that I was supposed to become a doctor - I wasn't raised to think about what would make me happy. I just accepted that becoming a doctor was my path. Not a sexy answer, I know, and even a little depressing, but this is a common thing among children of my parents' generation and culture.

Why did you decide to pursue the career you are currently following?

More than anything else, I consider myself to be someone who encourages self health care. This involves educating and empowering. There's something viscerally satisfying about seeing others get and stay well through their daily efforts.

So many of us are raised to believe that doctors and hospitals take care of our health. I like seeing that light bulb go off for people as they make the realization that no one can take better care of their health than them.

If I take a bad tumble and suffer an epidural hematoma from a blow to my head or a collapsed lung from a fractured rib, I want to be in the best hospital available with the most experienced physicians treating me. But in everyday life, I know that what I think, feel, and do are the main determinants of how healthy or unhealthy I am. I want others to consider this mindset because I believe it allows us to access the most of our health potential.

I was on your website and found out about most of your educational information, but I was wondering if you completed a full four years of undergrad or less?

When I was at University of Toronto, many chiropractic and medical schools accepted applications from students after just two years of undergraduate study. I knew that I didn't want to be a student in school any longer than I had to be, so I applied to and started chiropractic school after my requisite two years of undergrad.

How did you end up in Alaska? This seems a little out of the way. How did working at a clinic there affect you?

After graduating from chiropractic school, I had about $40,000 in student loans. Not bad compared to some of my fellow students, but still a heavy burden.

So my primary goals were to gain experience and pay down my loans as quickly as possible. With these objectives in mind, I contacted literally hundreds of clinics throughout the States and Canada in search of the right opportunity.

I was lucky to get a position running a clinic on my own at the very northernmost tip of Alaska in a little town called Barrow. I still remember the ad for this position:

Opportunity to run own clinic. Excellent compensation. Not for the city lover.

Barrow Chiropractic Clinic
About half of the five thousand or so people who lived in Barrow at the time were native Inuits, while the other half were folks from all over, most with a healthy sense of wanderlust.

Anyway, living and working in Barrow for almost two years was an incredibly valuable life experience. I treated a ton of people and conditions, so I had ample opportunity to hone my diagnostic and chiropractic skills.

I never had to market the clinic or sell patients treatment packages or products I didn't believe in to earn a living. Being the only horse in town and for hundreds of miles around was ideal; I was a doctor who was actually needed by my patients, not the other way around.

On a personal level, I think I really came into my own. When I first got up there, I was still somewhat uncomfortable shooting the breeze with new people. In university and graduate school, I was never one to hang out at house parties, downing beers and laughing out loud with my head tilted back and mouth wide open. I was...how shall I put it - awkward. Un-phony. Un-cool. My facial muscles would often cramp up when I was forced to make small talk with people and present a friendly smile.

In Barrow, as a 24-year old with very little to do but work during the day and rest on my own in the evenings, I read books. Lots and lots of books. I made good use of the local library and discovered The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which I credit as the most influential and helpful collection of thoughts I've ever come across. At that point in my life, for all that I was unsure about and seeking to understand, this book gave me all the answers I needed and then some, and I left Barrow feeling like a young man who would make the most of his life.

Since you have worked in the United States and in Canada what licensing procedures did you have to go through? Did you have to become licensed in both countries; if so how did the processes differ?

In the States, there is a series of four National Board examinations, including a clinical evaluation, that you need to pass to be eligible for licensure. Most if not all states also require that you pass a jurisprudence examination that is specific to their laws.

In Canada, if my memory serves me correct, there are two written board examinations that you have to pass to demonstrate competency, plus a separate clinical exam that involves diagnostic and treatment simulations involving mock patients. Just like the states, provinces in Canada give their own separate jurisprudence exams.

All in all, I would say that the testing process was similar between the States and Canada. So long as you go to a reputable school that has a strong history of academic excellence in basic and clinical sciences, you should be fine.

A license to practice in one state or province does not allow you to practice elsewhere; each state and province has its own requirements.

You also graduated from the Contemporary Medical Acupuncture Program at McMaster. How does this supplement your chiropractic work?

This was a 300-hour post-graduate course that I did over half a year on weekends while I was practicing in Toronto.

In practicing chiropractic, I use my hands to affect blood flow and nerve tone in joints and soft tissues. For areas that I can't access with my hands, like deep within a knee or shoulder joint, acupuncture needles are like extensions of my hands; I can use needles to stimulate blood flow and affect nerve tone on a deeper level.

I think acupuncture and chiropractic are perfect supplements to one another.

Are there any other degrees or certifications you would be interested in completing to further enhance your knowledge in this field?

If I could, I would go to medical school and get a license to practice medicine because sometimes, I see value in prescription drugs and easy access to diagnostic procedures that aren't available to chiropractors, at least not here in Canada. In this society, medical doctors are at the top of the food chain. Chiropractors, naturopaths, physiotherapists, osteopaths, and all other natural health practitioners do not seem to command the same widespread respect and access to diagnostic tools that medical doctors do.

But at this point in my life, with two young boys, I would not go back to school. And everything that I want to learn I can learn from my own office.

For someone who can make time to pursue more formal training, I would take a look at Active Release Technique, a systematic way of stripping muscles, tendons and ligaments to optimize performance. You can provide this type of treatment with or without certification, but taking a formal course can't hurt.

Beyond this, I would encourage you to listen to your heart and invest in life experiences and friendships that call to you. Your development as a person will be the most important tool you can use to help others with their health.

You have to learn how to listen to others. Learn how to feel what they're feeling. Learn how to help them know that you understand and feel their angst. And if you don't really feel for others when they are down, being a health care provider probably isn't your calling. Put another way, I don't think that most people can manufacture a heart that genuinely cares to see others happy and healthy. If you're going to be a health care provider who changes people's lives for the better, I believe this has to be there.

What are the duties and responsibilities associated with your job? I know you run a website as well. Why did you decide to go down this path?

These days, I see few new patients. For the most part, I take care of family and existing clients that I've long provided chiropractic and acupuncture to.

I prefer to spend the bulk of my working hours creating resources for our website that encourage self health care.

Don't get me wrong. I feel there's great value in treating ten to twenty people a day, thirty minutes per person. At this point in my life, I find more value in sharing my thoughts with and creating resources for a larger audience, and I'm grateful that our website provides such a platform.

I started a website for my fasting clinic back in 2003 to stay in touch with clients who came from all over the world; sharing tips and resources online was the least expensive and most practical way to do this. Gradually, with I don't know how many thousands of hours of work, the site evolved into what you see today.

What are the experiences that you have had that have best contributed to your career?

My vitiligo. Losing my skin color in patches starting when I was 19 years old was the stimulus to learn as much as I could about self health care and how the body heals and maintains its health.

You can read more about my thoughts on vitiligo and how it has shaped me here:

Thoughts on Managing Vitiligo Naturally

What are your favourite and least favourite aspects of your job?

Favourite: I enjoy seeing and hearing from people who have overcome a health challenge with their daily efforts.

Least favourite: every once in a while, I'll hear from someone who doesn't agree with something that I've written and isn't polite about it. Or sometimes, I'll get trapped by someone who doesn't recognize that you can't monopolize another person's time, especially when you work on an appointment basis. I still haven't learned how to cut people off when I really have to go.

Is there a certain group of people you prefer to work with the most?

Socioeconomically, I think I enjoy all groups the same. I think the traits that I appreciate most in clients are a willingness to think for themselves and a fire to figure out what they can do to take care of themselves.

Do you think the popularity of natural medicine will overtake that of “modern day” medicine?

I think that the practice of conventional allopathic medicine is incorporating more from the world of natural and holistic therapies. So I don't see natural medicine becoming more popular than allopathic medicine; rather, I see all types of health care providers becoming more aware of and skilled in the delivery of both types of "medicine."

What is your favourite health tip?

Ooh, hard to name just one. Here are a few favourites:

  1. Spend time on things that make you feel alive and useful.

  2. Do things that genuinely bring you joy. Things that are fun and make you smile or laugh, even when no one else is watching.

  3. Work at becoming a master of the Golden Rule - remember that treating others the way you want to be treated requires that you become really good at listening and understanding. Not so easy to do consistently.

  4. Show respect for your body in the way that you use it. This includes giving it adequate rest.

  5. Fuel your body with nutrient-rich, minimally processed foods and avoid large quantities of junk.

  6. Chew your foods well - such a simple habit that can relieve your digestive organs of great burden and maximize what you get out of the foods you eat.

What is your life motto and how do you think that applies to your job?

My motto: Life is designed to provide perfect consequences for every action.

I suppose this reminds me to try to do the right thing as often as possible, and whenever I fail, to keep on trying because consequences never stop rippling in all directions.

How do you think your practice differs from others in the same field?

This is difficult to say, as the practice of chiropractic is extremely diverse. You have a whole group of chiropractors who emphasize the philosophy of chiropractic, which involves ensuring proper alignment of the spine to allow for optimal nerve signaling throughout the body. Then you have the other major group that takes more of a biomechanical, "evidence-based" approach to diagnosing and treating various ailments.

Both groups have in common the use of chiropractic adjustments, but then, there are different types of adjusting. Some use their hands, others use hand-held devices.

And then you have chiropractors who specialize in other approaches to health care, such as energy work and nutritional and lifestyle counseling.

I use my hands to adjust. I follow a neuro-anatomical approach to delivering acupuncture, as opposed to the traditional Chinese approach. And I emphasize dietary and lifestyle choices above all else.

If you could offer any advice to someone looking into this field what would it be?

I would look for opportunities to volunteer in a few different clinics, preferably those with contrasting styles so that you can get a sense of what's out there. I would also take a close look at other health professions to see which one is best suited to your personality.

***

Many thanks to Caitlyn Lawrence for putting together this interview. Caitlyn hails from Barrie, Ontario, and is currently attending the University of South Carolina on a tennis scholarship. From May to August, she can be found on public tennis courts in and around the city of Barrie.

 
 

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Comments

Ben: that was an illuminating piece on your health care influences. I especially take to heart your favourite health tips, and will endeavour to embrace each of them. Outdoor tennis has had a little set back this week!

Insightful view in health section.

 

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