My hippie mother
I grew up in a small mountain town with a city population of 3,500 people. My mother and father were drawn to this location because of its connection to a “sacred mountain”, and its rich Native American culture. Although my heritage doesn’t include any Native American ancestry, my mother had a lot of appreciation for their beliefs and practices. It was common occurrence for her to use cornmeal with gratitude prayers, crystals and medicine wheels for energy balancing, and sage to cleanse the space. In addition to these practices, she also believed in the importance of maintaining harmony and balance with Mother Earth. As a result, I was raised to love and respect all living things, and to spend as much time outdoors barefoot as possible.
My birth, and the start of my battle with digestive problems
Although my mother was very health conscious and raised me on good food, lots of supplements, minimal sugar, and endless love, I still struggled with many digestive problems. I believe it all started during my time in my mother’s womb. She had spent much of her life battling Candida, and was still dealing with it during her pregnancy with me. Following that, despite all attempts to have a natural home birth, after 48 hours of labor there was no choice but to have a caesarean section. What doctors and my mother were unaware of back then, was the importance of a vaginal birth for proper transfer and colonization of healthy bacteria into the baby. We know now that these bacteria play a vital role in the development of a healthy immune system. So this means that the first bacterial exposure I got was that of a hospital setting.
I would love to say that heading home to the comfort of my mother was all I needed to turn this rough start around, but that would be a lie. My parents were left with a screaming, crying baby who refused to sleep. I was a poor eater, and every time I did breastfeed, I was more upset. You may have started guessing what was going on here, and if you guessed that I was colicky, you would be right. And from what I have been told, it was bad. My poor parents tried everything they could think of to soothe me, but nothing seemed to help. After 6 solid months of no sleep, and feeling like they were going crazy, my mother decided she was going to try feeding me cow’s milk. It’s insane to think about this with everything that I know today, because feeding a baby cow’s milk would probably be one of the last things I would suggest to a mother. Don’t get me wrong, milk is a healthy natural source of nutrition when it’s in its purest form. However, the way we raise and treat livestock today is horrendous. And if that isn’t bad enough, they are often subjected to hormone and antibiotic injections, no ability to graze on grass, and provided a diet full of GMO corn, soy, and grain. To then add insult to injury, the milk is then heated (pasteurized) and homogenized (emulsification), making the final product unrecognizable to what originally came out of the animal.
In spite of all of this, and my weakened immune system, that milk did my little body good. I remember my dad telling me that they thought I had died, because it was the first time I slept peacefully through an entire night. I wish I could say that I have a full understanding for why the cow’s milk worked so well for me, but for now, this is still a mystery that I am on a journey to find the answer to.
My war with thrush and the standard healthcare system
I was a happy playful child in a stable supportive home, but I can remember from a very young age feeling more fatigued than my friends and other kids around me. In addition to this, I would experience a thrush (Candida of the mouth) outbreak once or twice per year. These outbreaks were very intense for me and consisted of a high fever, body aches, severe headache, and sore throat that felt like I was swallowing razor blades. It was common for this to last for 5-7 days. Because this occurred so regularly, my pediatrician stopped requiring an office visit, and would simply call in a refill for Nystatin (antifungal medication) any time I needed it.
I didn’t realize until going through medical school, that my chronic recurrence of thrush was very unusual. They teach us that thrush is typically only seen in severely immunocompromised patients, and that most people don’t experience other symptoms or illness along with it. However, I continued to get these chronic outbreaks all the way through my mid 20’s. I can’t tell you how many times I had to argue with doctors about whether or not I was experiencing strep throat or thrush. I even made a bet with one physician that if they did a throat culture and it came back negative for step throat that they had to waive my visit fee. Guess who didn’t have to pay for their doctor’s visit that day? So needless to say, I have taken more doses of Nystatin in my life than I can count, all while having no idea why this has been the pattern of my life. My mother always told me that she believed that her chronic systemic Candida was passed onto me, and that was the reason for all of my yeast associated symptoms. Not a bad theory.
As if that wasn’t enough
As if chronic fatigue and recurrent thrush weren’t enough, I was also plagued with frequent abdominal bloating, easy weight gain, chemical and drug sensitivities, and an unbelievable addiction to carbohydrates. While all of my girlfriends were eating whatever they wanted and staying perfectly thin, I would look at a baked potato and gain 5 pounds. Not fair! My mom used to comfort me by saying that it was a blessing how sensitive my body was, because it was letting me know when my system was out of balance. She said it’s not likely that other people will try and fix something they don’t realize is broken. I still try and remind myself of this when I get discouraged today.
My world turned upside down
In October of 1999 my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. This was after the medical system had sent her home multiple times previously with no answers for why her health was deteriorating so quickly. A couple of months prior to her diagnosis she started experiencing numbness on the left side of her body, especially in the face. This was affecting her ability to speak, swallow, and make certain facial expressions. She also had severe nerve pain down her left leg that was so debilitating it would frequently put her in tears. Her ability to perform daily tasks was also becoming increasingly difficult. I remember one doctor told her that her symptoms didn’t make sense, so he believed it was all in her head, and prescribed a referral to a psychologist. It wasn’t until things got so bad that my parents went back to the hospital demanding further testing. At this point they finally performed an MRI of the brain, and the results showed 72 small tumors. This led to further screening, which revealed additional tumors in the breasts. Apparently my mother had felt a couple of lumps in her breast for over a year, but didn’t do anything about it because of how much she didn’t trust doctors. You know there is something wrong with our healthcare system when people are afraid to see doctors in times of need. Anyway, this gave the breast cancer time to spread to the brain, and caused the various neurological and cognitive symptoms she was experiencing.
The next month was spent doing chemotherapy and radiation. You could tell that this therapy was killing my mom faster than it was killing the cancer. She became so frail and weak that she was hardly recognizable anymore, and life as I had known it ceased to exist. My younger brother and I were no longer attending school, my father had to quit working, medical bills were pilling up, and most of our time was spent in a hospital.
By November, the doctors no longer had hope for any level of recovery, and instructed us to take her home. My father wasn’t ready to give up, so he found a doctor of oriental medicine who directed him to a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico that was providing alternative therapies for the treatment of cancer. I joined my father and mother at this clinic, and found myself becoming immediately hopeful. The staff was friendly, the food was healthy and made fresh daily, and the other resident patients shared amazing stories of their newfound remission from cancer. Unfortunately, in my mother’s case, the therapies probably worked too well. The tumors in her brain were dying off at a greater rate than the brain could clear them out. This led to too much swelling, and she fell into a coma.
I remember walking back into the clinic, after a quick walk to the grocery store, and seeing nurses and doctors running down the hall towards my mother’s room. My eyes were then drawn to my father standing in the hall with a worried look on his face. As I made my way to the open door, I saw my mother’s bed surrounded by multiple medical staff frantically working to revive her. I remember my heart racing and my legs becoming weak and mushy. I dropped my grocery bags and slid down the wall to the cold linoleum floor. I remained there frozen in a foggy haze for what seemed like an hour, but was likely only a minute or two. I don’t remember hearing any sounds around me, almost like my environment had been placed on mute. The doctor came walking out of the room with a nervous disposition and informed us that they had done everything that they could, but were unable to bring her back. I wish I could tell you what happened next, but many of my memories after this point are too fuzzy. I think my body went into shock and survival mode, and a portion of my consciousness detached itself from my reality in order to minimize how much of the emotion surrounding this trauma could seep in.
My mother passed away on November 14, 1999. She was only 43 years old, and I was only 16 at the time. To say that my world was crushed just doesn’t seem to encompass how lost I felt. My mom was one of those “old souls”. People used to swarm to her like bugs to a light. She had a presence to her that was warm and compassionate, strong and patient, and wise yet humble. I feel blessed that I was lucky enough to have her in my life for 16 years, but I still wonder how different my life would be if she were still here with me today.
The after math
My mom raised me to be strong and independent, so I managed to pick my feet up and move forward with my life. However, the grief of losing a mother, best friend, and my biggest support system took a huge toll on my health. Depression and anxiety kicked in, my diet went downhill, my alcohol consumption increased, and my food cravings skyrocketed. Two years later I had managed to gain 30 pounds, and lose most of my confidence. I spent the next couple of years going up and down in weight, and making a series of poor life decisions. Finally, I decided it was time to make it out of my small hometown and head out to sunny California.
A new start was good for me psychologically, but my health continued to be problematic. Like many people today, I started searching the internet for answers. Over the years I have diagnosed myself with Candida overgrowth, chronic fatigue syndrome, hypothyroidism, autoimmunity, heavy metal toxicity, mold exposure, multiple chemical sensitivity, chemical imbalances, parasites, cancer, immune insufficiency, hormone imbalances, adrenal fatigue, and the list goes on. I tried every diet on the market to lose weight including Atkins, HCG, ketogenic, paleo, juice cleansing, master cleanse, South Beach, diet pills, etc. If I managed to eat really clean, minimize calories, keep my stress in check, avoid alcohol, get good sleep, and workout like crazy, then I could usually keep my weight in check and minimize most of my symptoms. The only thing that never seemed to get any better though was my fatigue. However, indulging at one birthday or holiday party and I was sent right back to square one. It was so discouraging. I couldn’t understand why I had to be so much stricter with myself than everyone else around me.
Time to follow my destiny
Prior to my mother being diagnosed with cancer, she had been considering going back to school to be a naturopathic doctor. This would have been a perfect fit for her because she was very passionate about health and nature, and truly cared about the wellbeing of others. As I continued to battle with my own health problems, I found myself being drawn to an education in holistic health as well. I felt so frustrated with the many doctors that I had been exposed to, and what little help they were with complex chronic conditions. I also felt like I wanted to honor my mother’s memory, and everything great that she stood for. So this is when I decided to embark on the long and tedious journey towards getting my own doctorate in naturopathic medicine.