by Dr. Wesley Beth Reiss
When I lecture, I tell the audience that I left the ER and entered into private practice to be able to "preach what I practice."
My journey starts way back. I grew up in a time of social consciousness, part of a generation that sought political justice, environmental conservation, and civil rights. I was always an activist on these causes even as a teenager. In addition, it has always been my inclination to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low in fat and avoiding chemicals as much as possible. In high school, I read Rachael Carsonís Silent Spring, and was both deeply moved and frightened by what I read.
I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. When I was very young I used to love looking through the World Book Encyclopedia, with its clear plastic layover illustrations of the human body. As I lifted each transparency, a new layer of anatomy would be revealed as if I was performing a dissection. I was utterly fascinated by it.
I remember when SUNY Downstate was being built in Brooklyn where I grew up. I was young enough so that in the back seat of the family car, my legs stuck straight out, being too short to bend at the knee over the seatís edge. Upon hearing of the plans for a new medical school, I thought, "If only I could go there and become a doctor." Back in grade school whenever someone became sick or fell in gym, I would have fantasies of running to the rescue with my doctor bag. As a high school student, I was performing in a choral concert at Lincoln Center, when in the middle of the performance, the conductor walked off stage clutching his chest. He died backstage. Later that evening, I was waiting outside for my ride when a man, who was a friend of the conductor, collapsed in front of me after learning of the death of his friend. I felt powerless watching this man dying in front of me. I had an intense desire to be able to intervene, but had no idea at that time what to do. I knew then that I never wanted to feel "useless" in such a situation again. It's not surprising that I spent so many years as an emergency room physician.
After three years of Premed at SUNY Buffalo, the apparent cutthroat competitiveness of those fellow students applying to medical school disillusioned me. At that time I also became ill with acute appendicitis and after initial misdiagnosis at the school infirmary had to have emergency surgery. Having lost time from schoolwork as well as from studying for the MCATs, I decided to postpone applying to medical school. I became very involved with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a consumer research and advocacy organization, and after graduation became a full time project coordinator for the Brooklyn College Chapter.
In that capacity I attended the National Academy of Sciences forum on genetic engineering back when the technology was very new and many people had serious concerns about its misuse (and still do). There I interacted with some of the most famous and elite physicians and researchers in the country. I realized I had to pursue my lifelong dream of becoming a doctor in order to be able to really make a difference.
As so many other hopeful physicians, I decided to optimize my chances of admission by applying to both D.O. and M.D. schools, although in my undergraduate days, Osteopathy was presented as a second-rate alternative to full licensure. How little they knew! I started reading about Andrew Taylor Still and his philosophies and practices of working with the bodyís own inherent healing forces. I was inspired by the profound insight and commitment to true healing, as well as the humility, of this man. I was thrilled to be accepted into the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.
As much as I loved and respected the principles and practices of Osteopathy, I did become enticed and enthralled by the science and technology of allopathic medicine, which was also part of the curriculum. Loving "all of it" and wanting to "know everything", I decided to become a family physician. But the allure of the emergency room had always excited me. Having moonlighted in the ER as a resident, I took a full time position as an ER physician after completion of my residency, and ultimately became the medical director there for several years.
Even as an ER doctor my D.O. training, as well as my own personality, had me being much more personal and "hands-on" than one would generally anticipate in an ER environment. In that setting of severe illness and injury I tried to use compassion and humor to allay the fears of patients and their families. So there I was practicing high tech, crisis intervening, invasive medicine, yet now one of my favorite quotes (in Osteopathic medicine) is "Donít just DO something, BE there!" What changed?
Back in high school, I was assigned to write an essay on "The Creation." I wrote about how man created God in his image so he could feel more comfortable with the uncertainties of the universe. Although I had grown up with a strong feeling of social responsibility and unity with my fellow man, I was very skeptical about anything religious or spiritual. I believed that religions had only served to divide and separate people and was responsible for wars. I was much more in tune with the Star Trek mentality Ė we are all humans from the planet Earth; race was meaningless and religion was dangerous. I was a scientist. If I couldnít see, feel, hear, or measure it, it did not exist. Besides, since all religions told a different story, I thought, "they couldnít all be right (could they?), therefore they must all be wrong." Like the little girl in Miracle on 34th Street, I thought they were just nice stories that different people in different cultures made up.
Then in 1988, while I was still the ER Director, my mother was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Suddenly I had to face the reality of my motherís mortality, and therefore my own. I had witnessed so many deaths as a physician, but this was different. After my motherís death I had a profound life-changing experience. I was at home in a moment of deeply felt and inconsolable grief. I was crying to the point were I was so congested I could barely see or hear. It was then that a visible energy filled the room. My first response was "What is this, Poltergeist?" But that energy lifted me from the black hole of pain I was in and filled me instead with a feeling of calmness and peace. I had a sense of my mother, unencumbered by human form; light, comfortable, easy, happy, and serene. The experience completely changed my perception and attitude. It was as if someone came along with a crowbar and pried open my previously closed mind. In effect, my mother gave birth to me twice, once in her life and once in her death. In her life, she gave birth to me physically; from her death, I was born spiritually.
After that, I felt compelled to look at time, space, life, death, mass, and energy from a completely different perspective. I didnít realize that the physicists were already there, and that in the strange world of quantum mechanics, science and mysticism converge. I began to read, to study (many of those books are now on my recommended reading list for my patients). I took courses and workshops in communication, meditation, mind-body healing, and different forms of ancient healing. I even studied the Inca Medicine Wheel for two years and traveled to Peru to sit in ceremony with the last of the Incas at the base of their Holy Mountain Ausangate ("ah-sen-GA-tay") and at Machu Picchu.
During this period, I became aware of the importance of self-care as a priority. Getting enough rest, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, prayer (yes, prayer!), meditation, and for me practicing music became required activities, although it is still a challenge to find the time for all with a busy schedule. I strive to achieve the right balance Ė and continue to take courses, workshops, and read to expand my horizons and push my limits.
Eventually it became clear that my goals for a more peaceful, spiritual, holistic life were difficult to manifest when I was spending so much time in crisis in the ER. And then there came a moment of epiphany. One day a patient in cardiac arrest was brought to the ER. The patientís son was a local fire department volunteer and so was watching on as we attempted resuscitation. In the end we were unsuccessful. I went into the room where the wife was awaiting word and had to inform her of her husbandís death. As was my custom I was trying to be as gentle and consoling as possible, telling her we had "tried everything." The son said, "I was watching you, and I know you did." At that moment I heard myself say, "I wish I could have done more, but the outcome was not up to me." It was as if someone else was speaking! Until that time I had always felt completely responsible for my patientsí outcomes. I took pride in my "successes" and critiqued (severely at times) my "failures." In that moment I realized a tremendous shift had occurred in me. I no longer saw myself as being "in charge" but rather as the vehicle, the instrument, the conduit of the "one in charge", whatever that One was. Call it God, a Higher Power, the Universal Energy, Spirit, Prana, Chi, or the Vital Force, but whatever "it" is, I was suddenly aware of it going way beyond me, and I knew that it was much bigger than me. I still felt responsible for my actions but I viewed my role very differently. It was my job to practice my skills and utilize my training to the best of my ability. But the outcome was not up to me.
I began taking advanced classes in Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM), including Cranial Osteopathy. I had the privilege of studying the use of the Percussion Hammer with Robert Fulford, D.O., who became a great mentor for me. You may know Dr. Fulfordís name from chapter 2 in Andrew Weilís Spontaneous Healing. I also started to study nutritional medicine. Finally, although I did not feel ready, I took the plunge and left the ER for private practice. It was a very courageous thing for me as I had no experience in business and was very comfortable with a dependable salary based on the hours worked. I knew that an OMM practice was rare and that it would take a great deal of community outreach to get it going. But in private practice I would have greater freedom and opportunity to express and explore that new way of being as a physician.
I was fortunate to meet along the way several colleagues who became my friends but more importantly, my counselors and teachers. They showed me how to begin by taking baby steps, and gave me support, encouragement, and inspiration. One woman in particular took me under her wing and gave me a place to get started. I am eternally grateful to these people.
It has now been several years and I have had many ups and downs, having to move my practice several times, practically rebuilding from the ground up each time. It remains a challenge because so few people have ever heard of Osteopathy, much less understand what it is and how it differs from chiropractic and other forms of "hands-on" therapies. I have had to learn to communicate what it is that I do and help people understand the concepts of Osteopathy; what it is weíre trying to accomplish and how this unique approach can help them meet their healthcare needs. So the outreach programs continue with public speaking and whenever possible radio and television appearances.
My practice now is 100 percent OMM with nutritional and exercise counseling, including the use of supplements. I find that in practicing OMM Iím tapped into that Life Force within the patient and in the Universe. It is a most meaningful, satisfying, and gratifying place of being. On a bad day it is my work that grounds me and provides comfort and reassurance, reconnecting me spiritually like a walk on the beach or in the woods. I pride myself on my listening skills and the time I devote to hearing the whole story. I strive to educate and to empower patients; to have them understand both their potential to heal and my role as guide and assistant to those processes already present within them. This is a delicate and challenging task, as some patients mistake these concepts as blame and responsibility for their illness.
I find myself pouring out love for these people whom I know so superficially, even those who are difficult and, at times, irritating. Dr. Fulford always emphasized the importance of attention and intention, and the healing power of love. He also reminded us, his students, that we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience but are spiritual beings having a physical experience, and that we must maintain this awareness when treating patients. The Incas say that the difference between a Shaman and a Sorcerer is intention. It is my intention to treat people always with love and compassion, with respect and non-judgment. It is my intention as well to lead by example.
So many of the Principles of Holistic Medicine set forth by the American Board of Holistic Medicine (for whom this story was originally written) ring true and home for me. They are the same as the principles and practices of Osteopathy that I have long ago incorporated into my practice and my life. I continue to pursue greater understanding and achievement of spiritual development, growing professionally and personally along the ongoing journey of being a human on planet Earth who happens to be a physician.
A final noteÖ I was once asked for the definition of success. My response was doing what Iím doing. Being able to practice and provide a skill that feels so right for me and is so beneficial to other people. To actually make my living by doing something that is so congruent with my set of values and my needs as a human being. It feels wonderful to do that Ė thatís success!