By Kathryn Hayward, MD co-founder of International Integrators
The image that life’s journey involves a flowing river appeals to me. We start upstream and travel downstream, encountering crystal clear calm pools, gentle and placid currents, warm eddies, whitewater rapids,waterfalls, ice, boulders, fallen trees, muck, rusty cans, old tires, and pollution. We greet some creatures, and dodge others: fish, amphibians, insects, birds and mammals, including humans. Along the banks are fertile valleys and majestic mountains, urban sprawl, pesticide runoff and spewing factories.
The more curious I am about all that is in and around my river, the more keenly I develop my senses, especially my peripheral vision. And, the more curious I am, the more I learn to accept.
My life’s river has been blessed with good health, loving family and friends, education and a fulfilling profession. With these blessings has come the awareness of challenges we all face in our downstream journeys, and the courage to do my part to contribute to solutions.
On our first day as freshmen in Boston University School of Medicine in 1982, our dean told our nervous class that we would add 10,000 new words to our vocabulary in the next four years. That was before we learned about a new killer disease targeting young gay men, Haitians, IV drug users and hemophiliacs, before the term “Integrative Medicine” was coined, and before the internet.
By 1985, I had added those 10,000 words and was caring for patients with a terrifying disease called AIDS. Intriguing conversations with adventuresome patients taught me about disciplines like acupuncture that I was not learning about in medical school. And my husband and I were juggling challenging careers with parenting a preschool son and toddler daughter. The internet was still years away.
I offered my dying AIDS patients my tears, my touch, my helplessness and my determination to learn more.
I offered my adventuresome patients my open curiosity about things they were doing that conventional medicine did not approve of.
I offered my children and husband the best I could when I was not working 36-hour hospital shifts every three days.
Within a few years, I was far enough downstream to be immersed in the tensions that make up the sticky substance of human life. I loved the practice of medicine, the infinite things to learn, the privileged connections. I hated leaving my family for such long periods of time, my children’s clinging tears and, eventually, their resigned acceptance of my career commitment. I absorbed my patients’ exhaustion, stress, pain, fear and shame, which mirrored my own feelings about being a budding doctor and conflicted mother. I realized I needed to care for myself, so I could care for my family, as well as my patients.
My adventuresome patients slipped me the names of their alternative medicine practitioners. The acupuncturist I shadowed allowed me to interview his patients, all of whom had the same chronic conditions that I cared for in my hospital clinic. Whether they had asthma, cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, mood disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep problems, infertility or chronic fatigue, they felt they had “hit the wall” with conventional medicine’s offerings, and were being benefited by acupuncture and herbs, and a more holistic approach to their health.
When the acupuncturist invited me to experience a treatment, I relaxed into a state I had never felt before. Before I left his office, I scheduled a series of appointments for myself.
I surreptitiously began collaborating in the care of my patients with that acupuncturist, then a massage therapist, and later a structural integration expert, an experiential psychotherapist, and a Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner. With each, I experienced their work before referring patients to them. We created informal “teams” within which we collaborated. Working together, we learned about and appreciated one another’s fields of expertise. It was a marvelous way to approach the complex challenges of health and healing.
In my own self-care, I practiced meditation and the power of breath. Responding to the influence of my children, I transitioned to a plant-based way of eating and felt firsthand how much better my body functioned. I shelved my Jane Fonda and Buns of Steel videos, adding new forms of movement to my daily routine, including yoga, tai chi, qi gong, kung fu and Pilates. It was an evolving process, and it is ongoing to this day.
My Massachusetts General Hospital patients responded to my request for discretion with conspiratorial allegiance. “I will order the medications, tests, scans and specialist referrals that any doctor would order. I also want to give you the names of a few practitioners who do not work here at MGH. You will have to pay them out of your pocket. See what appeals to you. And, if you would be so kind, it would be better for me if you didn’t advertise that I was the one to give you these names. I am ‘in the closet’ as far as my Harvard colleagues are concerned.”
The more experience I gained practicing medicine and caring for myself in these informal teams, the more convinced I became that this expanded, holistic view of health was beneficial. I was exploring and addressing health challenges at their roots.
During those decades, the media offered various ways to describe this style of practicing medicine, including the terms “holistic” and “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). Along the way, “integrative medicine” became popular, and people began speaking more openly.
I prefer the term “Integrative Health” at this point in the journey of accepting, and sometimes even embracing, the idea that healthcare involves the integration of conventional medicine, food, movement and mind/body/spirit disciplines.
Integrative Health involves people working together, collaborating in teams to assess and take action on the root causes of health challenges.
Thirty-two years after I started medical school, I still know those 10,000 words. AIDS is getting more focused attention worldwide. My children are grown, married and have their own children. The internet allows us to blog about our mutual interests in Integrative Health, connecting people from around the globe to collaborate on this issue that unites us all. I continue to evolve my self-care practice, sharing it with others along the way.
The more conscious I become, the more freely my life’s river flows, and the more easily it connects with the life rivers of those around me.
Why are you reading this blog? Are you interested in Integrative Health? Have you had personal experiences that you are willing to share with us? Perhaps you want to participate in our immersion program, Living Whole, in the redwood forest in March to experience Integrative Health and self-care. You might be curious about our philanthropy projects. Perhaps you would like to personally connect with individuals in International Integrators (both facilitators and advisory council members) who are doing things that especially appeal to you.
We in International Integrators are thrilled to have you join us, conversing, learning and working together, developing and practicing Integrative Health. We hope you will share your comments about your experiences and interests, for we love networking. We see great power and potential in the development of our global community. Welcome to International Integrators!
Kathryn practiced conventional medicine for 30 years, including primary care internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School from 1992 until 2012. Drawing from her experiences in both conventional and holistic medicine Kathryn created Odyssey Journey: a Collaborative Approach to Wellness an all encompassing integrative health practice that includes Family Systems work, guidance in Plant-Based Nourishment, and other Mind/Body/Spirit Disciplines. Kathryn will be featured in the Living Whole retreat in March where she’ll be teaching an Odyssey Family Systems workshop.