“Read the directions again,” my mom pleaded. She navigated our blue Buick around the
twisting, country roads. The heater’s fan hummed beneath her words.
“Turn left up here,” I responded while simultaneously looking at the folded white scrap of
paper and trying to look for landmarks through the windshield. The familiar sensation of wanting
to arrive coupled with resentment for needing to go welled up from my stomach. A forced deep
breath managed to escape my throat. “I feel nervous.”
“I know. We’ve just got to get there. Can you see what that sign says up on the right?”
“Wolfgang Smith, MD.” I knew the doctor’s first name, but it made me chuckle when I
pictured him like Mozart in the movie Amadeus—complete with the silly, high-pitched laugh. I
was in my late teens, but a part of my sense of humor hadn’t matured past age fourteen. The
clock stopped at the moment of impact at the onset of Lyme Disease. Laughter was how I
distracted myself. Moments later I would sit in another waiting room, filling out another long
form, wishing I were somewhere else, wishing I were living someone else’s life. Consulting
doctors went from something routine I did as a child for annual check-ups and immunizations to
something that filled me with dread. By the time I was 19, my collection of negative experiences
with the medical community had grown to a heavy weight. Misdiagnoses, botched tests,
misplaced results, disbelief when I told my symptoms, accusations of malingering when I didn’t
get well, being spoken about instead of to when my parents were in the exam room with me and
being interrupted when answering questions posed by the doctors themselves swirled in my
mind. I began to suspect that this all was normal. I didn’t want this version of normal.
The myriad of drugs I had been prescribed tore my gut to shreds, stole my sleep and caused me to get hives as soon as I went out in the sunlight. I had done everything I was told
like the obedient straight A “good girl” that I had cultivated during childhood. And, it pushed me
so far into illness that it nearly killed me. My teenage rebellion was not a loud, raucous running
away into the world, but a determined, deliberate turning inward. I knew there was something I
needed to hear in the stillness. I had to listen. My life depended on it.
What started as casual observations progressed into a game of connecting the dots. At 15, I
noticed that eating red meat worsened my joint pain and increased my cognitive problems. Huh,
I had a hamburger for dinner last night and now walking up the stairs from the family room to
the living room hurts. That happened last time too. By 16, I had gradually transitioned into
becoming vegetarian. Next, I read that vitamin C helps the immune system and began taking it. I
didn’t catch as many colds that winter. Little by little, my interest in natural medicine, how the
body worked and complementary healing options grew. I began browsing through health
magazines. I took out books about nutrition from the library. I experimented with different over
the counter supplements like vitamin E, Echinacea and Pau D’arco. I started keeping a
symptoms/supplement/food diary. If something could be quantified and analyzed, perhaps it
could be better understood. I had to try. Seeing on paper daily data I gathered about my body
proved to be more useful than blood tests, urine tests and spinal taps. While diagnostic tests
helped me to understand what I was dealing with, the daily minutiae of symptomology and
remedies was teaching me how to deal with it. More muscle aches might mean I needed an
extra dose of magnesium. Fluctuations in my basal body temperature might have meant that my
unpredictable menstrual cycle was entering a different phase. That might explain the twinge in my abdomen and lower energy levels. The more I understood about my body, the less I feared.
In the 1990s, conventionally trained medical doctors received very little training in
natural medicine, nutrition or supplements. Each doctor I saw was made aware of everything I
was taking—I hid nothing. When I asked questions related to how Lyme disease and Chronic
Fatigue Syndrome could be addressed with vitamins and herbs, I usually was met with a blank
Every time my mom picked up a magazine at the health food store that listed local holistic
practitioners, I hoped there would be one added nearby. Living in a semi-rural suburb had its
advantages, but a plethora of complementary health care practitioners was not one of them. It
was nearly impossible to find a local acupuncturist or yoga studio until the late 1990s. When we
heard about Dr. Smith around 1995, I had come close to giving up on doctors, but decided to
give him a try. I had heard his wife was a midwife. I imagined myself years from then having a
baby with a midwife’s assistance. Already, I was projecting a future that didn’t include the
conventional medical system. It would take years—and the evolution of the health care system—
for me to understand that it would be possible to have the best of both worlds. But, at the time, I
barely had even a sliver of one of these worlds at my fingertips.
Dr. Smith’s waiting room was less austere, less sterile than what I was used to. The form the
receptionist asked me to fill out included questions like “Do you ever feel fatigued after you eat?
How many hours per night do you sleep? How often do you exercise? List any supplements you
take.” I had never been asked these questions before on paper. “Write down all of your current
symptoms.” My mind stood still at this question every time I read it at a doctor’s office. Do I list everything? Or, do I pick the most pronounced symptoms? If I tell the truth, are they going to
just think I’m crazy or making something up like other doctors inferred? My brain feels like it is
on fire. How do I explain that? Putting the experience of my body into words to present to
people who would evaluate the information felt like a cry for help, plus a personal failure, plus
an admission of guilt—even though the only thing I truly felt guilty of was getting sick with a
misunderstood illness long before science would catch up and begin to understand.
A slender, tall man with thinning hair and fiercely intelligent eyes, Dr. Smith was quick in
his manner, but kind. He asked questions and wrote down my responses and whatever other
notes he had. I always wondered what doctors actually wrote when they were busily scribbling
away. He answered my questions and those that my mom posed with directness and clarity. If he
didn’t know something, he said so.
“I think you should go on a fast. It will be medically supervised. Your system is clearly
overburdened from having had so many antibiotics. Fasting helps to give the digestive system a
break,” he explained.
“What do you mean? How does it work?” I asked. I wasn’t expecting to be told not to eat.
“You gradually reduce your meals over three days until you get to the point where you don’t
consume food for three days. Instead you will have a liquid protein supplement that aids in the
detoxification of the body. The gut and the skin are linked. The reason you’re having eczema
problems goes back to the gut. Fasting should help.”
"So I only drink a supplement but not eat?” I wasn’t thrilled about this.
“How do I go without eating?”
Dr. Smith smiled and nodded. “It is only for three days.” He seemed confident that I could do this—more confident than I was. Three days seemed like a long time, longer than the years I had already endured.
“Okay. . .” I reluctantly agreed, unsure about what would come next.
“Marcia up front will give you a print out with specific instructions on what to do in case
you forget. You drink the supplement for each of your meals. The goal is to cleanse gently and
heal the body. The supplement will provide the nutrition you need in an easily digestible form.”
He handed me a paper to give to the receptionist with a diagnosis code checked off of a long
list of ailments. As my mom and I walked back into the waiting room and to the reception
window, Dr. Smith followed close behind. My mom turned and jokingly said, “So, there’s hope
yet for her?” I knew she wasn’t completely joking. She too needed reassurance.
Dr. Smith looked nothing like Mozart, but when he smiled there was a twinkle his eye. He
looked directly at me and responded, “There is always hope.”
I walked out of the building and back to the car. My hand touched the cold metal of the car
door handle in anticipation. As my mom unlocked the door, I realized that I had just been given a
new kind of medicine.