A New York internist followed her instincts into a totally new career direction. She's now become a popular author and launched her own line of vitamins and supplements.
Erika Schwartz, MD, is big on movements; big on revolutions. But she’s not big on animal testing. And it all started when she took a genetics course in college.
Students in the class were opening eggs that had been incubating at different stages, and they watched the embryos develop. At one point, they opened the eggs just two or three days before they hatched, and saw that the embryo was now a little baby chick.
“When I saw the baby chick literally die the moment we opened the eggs, I decided that I didn’t want to take that class and I was not going to open one more egg,” Schwartz recalls. “I started an insurrection, and the whole class refused to continue.”
Perplexed, the teacher asked what Schwartz and the other students were going to do with the remaining 10 eggs, “because they’re going to hatch in two days.”
Undaunted, Schwartz said, “We’ll take them home.” And each of the five students in the class took two eggs home.
Now Schwartz wants to start a revolution in healthcare
Following in Footsteps
As a child living in a one-room apartment in Bucharest, Romania, Schwartz dreamed of becoming a doctor and researcher like her uncle in America. At age 5, he introduced her to a new world when he showed her moving cells under a microscope. She was immediately hooked.
“I was amazed,” she says. “And I remember walking out of there and saying, ‘I want to be a doctor.’”
Schwartz’s family fled the country for Rome when she was 16. She came to the US after graduating from the Overseas School of Rome and was accepted to New York University on a full academic scholarship.
At age 28, she accepted the position of director of emergency medicine at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY, that cared for tens of thousands of patients on a weekly basis, but would eventually build and run her own internal medicine practice in Irvington, NY for 17 years. Five years into that 17-year stint, the revolution began.
Schwartz gradually began to integrate preventive medicine into her practice. And since there were no academic training programs in the field, she became self-educated in the value of supplements and nutraceuticals, and learned about the role of exercise in anti-aging and disease prevention. She also extensively researched the scientific data surrounding bioidentical hormones.
“I feel like I’m a vehicle, and I’m here to help improve healthcare and the human condition one person at a time,” Schwartz explains.
But along the way she wrote four books, enabling Schwartz to help more than one person at a time. The most recent of the four, “Don’t Let Your Doctor Kill You” (Post Hill Press, 2015), presents a plan for patients to take the fear out of dealing with doctors and empowers them to demand only exceptional healthcare.
The key turning point, however, was when Schwartz herself went into early menopause and started having hot flashes and night sweats. She found that there’s no better teacher than personal experience.
“I started taking what I was giving my patients, and suddenly realized within a couple months no wonder my patients kept coming back asking for more help,” Schwartz says. “It was ridiculous what I was doing; it wasn’t helping enough.”
Then one of her patients asked her to write a prescription for her, and send it to a compounding pharmacist in California. The prescription was for hormones the body makes, like progesterone and testosterone. Schwartz sent off the prescription, and upon her request, received articles and information on compounding—which is essentially any prescription medication that combines more than one ingredient.
When Schwartz began taking the medication and “feeling like myself again,” she knew she was onto something.
Something Old, Something New
Schwartz sought out and began working with a lab near her home, several hours a week for two-and-one-half years. What came out of those efforts was the first creams of bioidentical hormones, called “natural hormones” at the time.
“They’re chemicals, they’re pharmaceuticals, they’re prescription drugs,” Schwartz says. “But they are the same as the hormones we make.”
Her research found that the compound she’d developed had been ongoing in Europe for nearly 50 years.
“There was a huge difference between how these hormones behaved in the body versus how the hormones that we were given in the form of birth control pills and the menopausal hormones we were given behaved in the human body,” Schwartz says. “They were just more gentle; they behaved better. They were more identical to the human body, so it made more sense.”
Schwartz went on to develop her own protocols for bioidentical hormones; created the hormone-friendly diet; launched her own line of vitamins and supplements; developed individually tailored exercise, stress management, and lifestyle regimens; and created three- and six-month “life-changing” programs.
A Pioneer in Health
Schwartz has been called a pioneer in the health and wellness field, which she admits makes her feel a bit uncomfortable.
“I never looked at hormones as, okay, I’m coming up with something new,” she says. “The use of bioidentical hormones is not in disease, but rather, in the prevention of disease. I was just trying to make people feel better, myself included.”
And Schwartz walks the walk. She says that living the lifestyle she prescribes for her patients is the most important defining part of her work.
“If I practice what I preach and only preach things I practice, then I can be the proof in the pudding,” she explains.
And she is. Schwartz stopped drinking alcohol 25 years ago because she realized it was giving her hot flashes. She stopped drinking coffee 20 years ago because it was giving her heartburn. The result? People thought she was age 30 when she was 50; age 40 when she was 60.
“But it’s not about chronologic age,” she explains. “It’s about who you are as a person and how you put your life together. And I think that if I don't sent the right example, then I’m a jerk and nobody should listen to me.”