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Posted on / Dr. Susan Wilder

What Doctors Don’t Know CAN Hurt You

Decades ago, I thought I was at the “pinnacle” of my career directing a prestigious Family Medicine Residency and boasting exceptional Board Exam scores. I knew my stuff, loved teaching, and felt confident caring for patients. As many of us do, I also believed I was “pretty healthy.”
When I needed a surgical procedure to excise a skin cancer on my face and a benign cyst on my wrist, I cavalierly disregarded potential risks going in. I truly thought this was no big deal. I had blind trust in my surgeon, our anesthesiology staff at this distinguished academic medical center, and my own “pretty good” health. Hence, I plunged into surgery completely unprepared. Unfortunately, the surgery took several hours, more than twice as long as expected, and afterward I experienced significant problems with memory and focus. I lost IQ points I feared I would never regain. I suffered weeks of brain fog and chronic fatigue. My energy was so low that gravity seemed too heavy. I could barely get off the floor. I also experienced diffuse muscle pain typical of a condition called fibromyalgia.
After this humbling experience, I desperately dove into studying possible underlying causes of my challenges and fortunately stumbled upon the field of Functional Medicine. In 2000, Functional Medicine was an emerging movement aimed at delving into the root causes of chronic disease. Though the biochemistry review was intense enough to trigger a bit of medical school PTSD, the paradigm shift of uncovering roots vs medicating symptoms provided the enlightenment I desperately craved for my sake and that of my patients. Applying it clinically and witnessing patient’s health flourish and their medication dependence wane sealed my commitment to this refreshing, holistic perspective.

I studied pharmacogenetics, learning I was a “poor metabolizer” for many medications and had several genetic issues, or SNPs, that impaired my ability to clear toxins and hormones. I learned too late, that these very same genetic findings likely contributed to my Mother’s multiple cancers and my sister’s premature demise from breast cancer at the devastating age of 42. I studied advanced nutritional testing and discovered my dozens of nutrient deficiencies, likely due to my diet full of processed foods, daily diet soda habit, and the powerful acid blockers on which I had been dependent on for years. My Functional Medicine physician uncovered hormone and neurochemical imbalances due to insufficient sleep and woefully inadequate stress management strategies. My perception of “pretty healthy” crumbled amid the sad reality. I realized I never really understood how “healthy” felt.
I started to make small habit changes. Initially eliminating sodas and adding more plant-based whole foods daily. Next, I eliminated gluten grains, which commonly trigger inflammation and damage the gut lining resulting in food sensitivities and impaired nutrient absorption. Eliminating gluten magically evaporated all my muscle and joint pains, acid reflux and digestive issues. All recurred when I tried to resume these foods. I loved breads and cookies but, by paying attention, finally realized these foods did not love me back.
I added daily exercise and meditation practice — learning how to breathe effectively for the first time in a lifetime. I corrected nutrient deficits, rapidly reviving my energy and focus. I will never forget the moment my energy turned on like a light switch. I felt it surge as I took my three small children to the park and actually felt like playing with them instead of just lying on the grass while they played. Prioritizing 8 hours of sleep nightly, for the first time in decades, along with the diet changes, stress management, and nutrient support naturally resurrected my hormones, resolving “premature ovarian failure” an infertility specialist had previously shrugged-off with, “nothing we can do about that.”
I had thought I was healthy before but, in retrospect, I was a walking disaster headed towards a path of early disability, likely early cancer, and potential dementia. These minor habit changes eventually gave rise to this phenomenal glow of health and vitality I never knew was possible. Even my telomeres, genetic markers of aging that usually shrink with age, continue growing longer over the past decades, meaning I am literally getting younger at the genetic level!
Ultimately, I realized that despite all that I had learned and taught through my fifteen-year academic career, I was just beginning to grasp the roots of truly optimal health. In the decades since I left academic medicine to found LifeScape, I have witnessed hundreds of similar health transformations. I came to realize that throwing a prescription at a symptom is a cop-out, disabling patients from taking action in their health. The common phrase in primary care, “chronic disease management,” is a travesty. Why should we “manage” what we can often prevent or even reverse? As one of my patients lamented, “all my other doctors just monitor my deterioration.” No wonder public confidence in healthcare is waning. The current iteration of “healthcare” has little to do with “health” and minimal time or energy to “care” leaving patients over-medicated and under-well.
Medicine is humbling. Anyone who thinks they know it all needs to get out of the field. If we fail to grow, we decay. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know — humbling yet profoundly liberating. Ultimately we are each our own clinical trial. We can choose the path of passive victim or active warrior and, as physicians, we sell our patients short by disempowering them with a pharmaceutical band-aid. We each have FAR more power over our health than we realize, and, as I prophetically stated in my last speech to graduating residents, real solutions rarely come from a prescription pad.

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