Mitzi Johnson M.D, M.P.H., M.Ed.
My journey toward being an integrative physician began in childhood. My childhood is a story of blending. Basically, I grew up and was educated in a Northern Urban environment. I also grew up deeply and spiritually connected with my family’s Southern Rural culture. In the north I received vaccinations and antibiotics for my many ear infections. In the south I received foods, herbs and tonics when I became ill or hurt. The differences in the clinics and how each of the doctors treated me and my condition sparked my interest. In my “child’s” eye neither was better that the other. They were just different. Somewhere in here I declared that I was going to be a Pediatrician. And so it began.
Throughout high school I struggled on and off with headaches and abdominal pains. After the requisite technological evaluation my mother was told my pain was “all in my head.” So their pursuit for the cause was over. However, my pain was not. So my family and I explored and experimented and gradually discovered how to quiet the pains through more natural approaches. Cool to the head, warm to the belly. We would darken the room to decrease stimulation to my head. I would drink herbal teas to quiet the stomach. These worked and I got relief.
College brought on a new set of challenges. Living away from home and high stress course work just aggravated my symptoms. Dorm life didn’t make it any easier to “treat” my symptoms the way I had at home. Going to the student clinic yielded prescriptions for medications that didn’t make my pain go away but did make me very sleepy. Dozing off during some of my classes was not helpful either.
My university was a very diverse place. There where students from all over the country and the world in my classes. This was yet another blended experience for me. Here I met people with different ideas and approaches to health. Again since conventional medicine left me wanting I explored some of these other suggestions. One idea was to change my diet. One of my friends was successfully living as a vegetarian. So I became a vegetarian. He taught me how to choose the right foods for balanced nutrition. I realized that this was more than a “diet”. It was a way of being. It was also a bit of a culture shock to my family when I went home for the holidays. Meat is a core component of my family meals. Eating as a vegetarian helped me feel better and be pain free for a time. But it didn’t last long.
My medical training is where I started to suffer from my blended ideas of health and healing. I made the mistake of finding an article that described the biopsychosocial model of health care. This model spoke about including multiple aspects of a person (the patient) into the process of care delivery. My mistake was to assume that this approach was what I would be learning in medical school. Such was not the case. Medical school taught the conventional biomedical approach with the emphasis on organ based diseases. I kept looking for the expanded version of the curriculum but couldn’t find it. Ok, so basic science (anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, etc.) is the foundation of conventional medical practice.
With many of my basic science classes I would ask the professors “How do I apply this to a patient?” The standard reply was “You’ll get that in the clinical years.” In the clinical years I discovered that the main basic science courses used to address patient concerns were pathology, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. It was starting to dawn on me that the emphasis of conventional medical care was to identify and treat the disease. The disease was the focus. The psychosocial aspects of the person with the disease were not on people’s radar then. Therefore most of my teachers couldn’t teach me how to help patients in these things. I also began to notice how leaving these aspects of the patient out of care negatively impacted the results despite delivering the best medical care possible.
During residency these issues haunted me more and more. And working in the disease focused hospital setting – two-thirds of my waking life – started to vex my spirit. Despite my love and affinity for the science of medicine I began to question my career choice and direction. I began reading about meditation and started using it to calm myself down.
I stumbled and staggered and finally spoke with my department chairman about my concerns. He said that since you are also interested in the people side of things why don’t you go to public health school. So I did. This was the beginning of my career shift.
Post Graduate Experience
In the years following my medical and public health training I did a Research Fellowships and worked as an academic and practicing pediatrician in major teaching hospitals. I also took various continuing education courses that related to my more holistic nature. I studied hypnotherapy through the Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. I learned biofeedback techniques with one of those teachers. I was introduced to Reiki by my friend Dr. Liza Molina and learning it changed my life. I also have a Functional Medicine doctor as my primary care doctor and he has been the one who diagnosed the underlying causes of my various symptoms. All of these treatment options helped me experience and develop my own innate healing power. Now, I want to teach, coach, and support my patients to do the same thing.
Leap of Faith
Wanting to integrate these two worlds of health and healing in my practice of medicine has never left me. A few years ago it became clear to me that I had to make a change. I realized that my approach to caring for patients was at odds with the needs of the hospital. I wanted to help patients stay out of the hospital. An opportunity to buy a wellness focused practice presented itself to me and I took it. This was indeed a leap of faith. I have increased the pace and depth of my study of integrative medicine to pursue and fulfill my dream of a successful integrative holistic medical practice with a particular emphasis on children, teenagers, young adults. I feel we as a society are entering a time when this approach will be needed and applied to all aspects of health care delivery in our country. I want to do my part in that chapter.