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Why I don’t fix people-and why it matters (Part 1 of 2)

Why I don’t fix people-and why it matters (Part 1 of 2)

Early in my career, I fixed people. Before I worked in holistic health, I was a PT aide at SF General hospital and at a sports rehab center in San Rafael. Patients would come in and say things like, “Doc, my back is messed up, can you fix it?” Or, “I broke my knee, fix me!” And I would. I would fix them and off they would go. Problem solved. But invariably, in a few weeks, or months, they’d be back. Often worse than before, frequently with a new injury. It troubled me, but what did I know? I was just starting out. 

Then one patient came along, pulled me up short, and taught me about my values. At the Occupational Therapy department at SFGH, I was assigned to an older gentleman in a wheelchair who’d recently had a mild stroke. It was my job to help him learn to move his arm and feed himself again. Over the course of the few months we worked together, we developed a camaraderie. I learned that he was a military veteran and that he was often homeless. I also learned that he frequently had insufficient food, no way to bathe, no bed to rest in. Yet, I wasn’t supposed to see any of that—or help with any of that. Just the arm. Not even his arm attached to him, the person. My orders were to fix the arm and send him out the door and move on to the next one. I didn’t even have adequate time to treat the arm, before the next one came in. 

He was a real person, with not just an arm problem but a life problem. A few months after being discharged from my care, he returned, this time with a broken leg. He had fallen out of his wheelchair on the street, and had laid there alone for hours before anyone helped. It broke my heart and made me feel powerless, to not be permitted to address this and to serve him better. He didn’t get the support he needed to actually live in health or dignity, and I didn’t get the support I needed to adequately help him. Instead, I was told how proud I should be that he could use a fork. It was an achievement, for sure, but if he had no home to eat in, it didn’t feel like much to be proud of. 

It was at that moment that I realized this kind of siloed, allopathic approach wasn’t for me. I know that there are many dedicated providers working in the Western care model, but I could not and did not want to spend my life as a good person in a dysfunctional system. I wanted more. 

This led me to train in a more holistic approach. Becoming a Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (DACM) gave me a systematic training in a medical model that sees people within the context of their lives and treats them with an innate dignity.  Becoming a reiki and energy medicine practitioner has allowed me to address the spiritual body within the physical. Studying forms of conflict negotiation and radical therapy has given me a context for demystifying oppression and bringing empowerment into my healthcare work. 

In short, I want more in every sector of healthcare, for everyone. More love. More respect. More agency. More collaboration. More systemic change. We all deserve to be happy, healthy, and respected over the course of our lives. I believed—and still do—that this kind of entitlement to health is something to fight for and feel passionate about.   

I get that we are all feeling stuck running on this squeaky, dysfunctional wheel, but if we want to start feeling better—feeling good even—and having a future, it’s worth the trouble to try something new. By participating in the standard, Western, public health medical model, I was certain that I was also participating in the social and economic model of inhumane, profit-first, unethical capitalism. A system built and reliant upon racism, sexism, classism, and environmental destruction for profit. Within this model, I was inadvertently discriminating against people. I was disempowering people. I was killing people by working in this way. No wonder it made me feel sick. Thank god it made me feel sick. Which led me to believe that in order to change how healthcare functions we must change the way we understand illness.

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