The year I chucked conventional medicine

June 21, 2002

Looking for his personal Shangri-la, the author built himself a cabin in the woods and set up shop practicing energy medicine. Welcome to hell on earth.

The year I chucked conventional medicine

Looking for his personal Shangri-la, the author built himself a cabin in the woods and set up shop practicing energy medicine. Welcome to hell on earth.

By Kevin Patrick Baiko, MD
Family Physician/Woodstock, VA

By the end of my family medicine residency, I was fed up with my metropolitan consumer lifestyle and the whole "time is money, and money is God" robotic approach to life. I wanted to live in a peace-loving community that respected the earth and sprouted its own alfalfa—even at the risk of losing the perks of visits from the pharmaceutical industry's finest, with their neato pens and stress-relieving squeeze toys. It being 1999, I was also in the final stretch of my race of preparedness for whatever Y2K had in store for humanity.

So the day after completing my residency, I loaded up my SUV and left my home in Virginia. My journey took me just south of Pagosa Springs, CO, where a community was forming with the intention of self-sufficiency on 71 acres of wilderness near the Continental Divide.

The town already had a holistic healing arts center, where I could both practice my art—I'm trained in acupuncture and energy medicine—and wash my hair until I built my own place. I felt as if I had finally come home. (For the unenlightened, energy medicine is based upon the belief that changes in the "life force" of the body, including the electric, magnetic, and electromagnetic fields, affect health and promote healing.)

My practice did well initially, but it nose-dived when the tourist season ended. Apparently, the locals didn't share my purist approach to healing. They informed me that they'd come back only if I prescribed standard pharmaceuticals. In mid-November, we decided to close the healing arts center. Still, I continued to live my dream. Ever the optimist, I didn't mind not having money, not even when my nifty SUV was repossessed. What value would green paper have in the wake of the Y2K apocalypse anyway?

Of course, money helps when you're trying to build a home, so my stepfather eventually came out to help me finance and build a humble cabin. (Apparently Mom had been uncomfortable with my plan to create winter lodging by pick-axing my way into the side of a ridge.)

After months of digging dirt, moving trees, cutting wood, and hammering my fingertips, I had something else to add to my resume: unskilled laborer. In December, with the new millennium just weeks away, I put the finishing touches on my 10-by-12-foot cabin, equipped with generator, wood-burning stove, running water, composting toilet, and acupuncture needles. I had a new massage-therapist girlfriend and six months' supply of rice, beans, dried fruit, canned foods, and rolled oats.

I felt as ready as any prophecy junkie could be for whatever earth changes, police states, or space vixens might come my way.

With all the work I'd been doing, however, my back began to bother me. A veteran of self-acupuncture, I finally decided enough was enough and unpacked my needles. Now, of all places to do acupuncture on oneself, the mid-back is perhaps the most challenging. But having an increasingly skinny frame, I managed to locate and deeply pique my "Ashi," or tender points. Lying on my belly with four needles sticking out of my back, I pulled a comforter over me to keep the crisp air away from whatever healing would happen underneath.

Unlike analgesics, which suppress the perception of pain, acupuncture is directed at removing the obstructions of energy flow. These obstructions are believed to cause the pain in the first place. But sometimes symptoms get worse before they get better.

That's what happened to me. Not only was my back pain still there, I was also beginning to feel a little chest pain and was becoming a wee bit irritable. Removing the needles, I roused my sugarplum from her slumber and described my symptoms to her. Being a massage therapist with extensive training in body-mind therapeutics, she reasoned that I must have some emotional backlog in my chest. She straddled me and pushed her hands firmly into my chest to open up my heart chakra.

Unfortunately, this only made things worse. When all attempts at trauma resolution had failed, we resigned to face the day—discomfort, grumpiness, and all.

We'd planned to forage for firewood. The winter had graciously held itself back, but once snow starts to fall in Colorado, it can stay for the rest of the season. So we started down the ridge, throwing into my girlfriend's pick-up truck any oak branches that had been downed in the process of creating my half-mile driveway. I was feeling rather short of breath and had great discomfort in my chest. My diagnosis was confirmed when I auscultated over my right lower lobe and heard nothing.

Perhaps it was some combination of blindly needling too deeply into an area where caution is indicated, the weight of the comforter on the needles, and having my lung lovingly deflated by my mountain mama, but I had given myself a pneumothorax.

Now, most people—and certainly most physicians—would seek the best that modern medical technology can provide in such a circumstance. But not me. No, that would amount to relying on a technocracy of chest tubes and hospital bills. I figured that as long as it didn't get any worse, I'd be better off on my own.

Taking care to auscultate my lungs each day, I carried on my apocalypse preparedness, as planned. Of course, chopping wood at an elevation of 7,800 feet in a heavy snowsuit is challenging enough. But try it with a pneumothorax! As fate would have it, over the ensuing several weeks, my lung sounds gradually crept back down to my diaphragm.

Still, despite the virtues of hermitage, I was beginning to feel that somehow I was falling short of my calling, my potential, my destiny. In preparing for the apocalypse, I had created my own personal version, complete with poverty; stinky compost pile; lack of medical technology; and a whole lot of work, snow, and mud. I began to question whether it was time to return to my position in society.

After a few more months of trying to apply the strict alternative approach to life, I said goodbye to my girlfriend and returned to Virginia to pursue a more balanced integration of holistic healing into conventional medicine. I guess nine months roughing it with nature was enough for me to realize that I didn't need to do that anymore.

I can't say that I'm proud of my misadventures in Colorado, but I sure am grateful for them. In addition to teaching me about the virtues of refrigeration and the real risks inherent in certain forms of holistic healing, these experiences demonstrated to me that I'm the greatest fool I've ever met—one who certainly has ventured beyond the boundaries of common sense. But I feel that my mistakes have made me a better physician, and I wish that physicians were given a little more room to make mistakes.

Having passed through my own version of hell on earth, I no longer fear whatever destiny awaits me or humanity. Whether we greet the future in medical staff meeting rooms or in geodesic growing domes, our destiny rests in our hearts. I'm amazed by the grace I've found therein.

 

Kevin Baiko. The year I chucked conventional medicine. Medical Economics 2002;12:31.