Why I Practice Medicine Without Medications

This article was originally posted on Medium.com, where I share articles like this and more. 

The month of April reminds me of my paternal grandma (Nin Nin), who passed away 9 years ago, and the beginning of my journey into medicine.

Maybe you are wondering, “How can you practice medicine without medications?”

Let me explain.

My childhood is filled with memories of bus rides with my grandparents on San Francisco’s Muni to Chinatown, walks to Lafayette Park just a few blocks away from their small apartment near Japantown, and plenty of snacks waiting for us after school. There was always food around that probably explains why I was a little bit chubby as a child. It was just my grandmother’s way of telling her grandchildren, “I love you!”

My grandma and parents being goofballs.

I remember how my grandma, standing at a mighty four feet, ten inches tall, would trek to Chinatown by bus and lug home twenty pounds of groceries to cook everyone’s favorite dishes.
It also reminds me of how on one of these shopping trips to Chinatown, an impatient stranger knocked her over and that fall on the street started her steep decline in health.

There were many visits to the hospital during the following years and a lot of close calls. She survived multiple heart attacks and strokes. After each trip to the hospital, the doctors advised us to get her affairs in order because they did not expect her to survive more than a couple months. This went on for almost 3 years.

My grandmother was on a lot of medications during those years and it seemed like the medications made her a zombie — cholesterol medication, blood pressure medication, acid blocking medication, and who knows what else. Now I know this is called polypharmacy — many pharmaceuticals to address many different problems.

“30% of hospital admissions in the elderly are linked to adverse drug effects.” — Carroll Haymon, MD, Director of Geriatrics Fellowship at Swedish Medical Center

I knew something was not right when my grandma would ask me the same questions over and over again. One Thanksgiving, she was sitting there barely able to hold herself up with saliva coming out the side of her mouth.

My parents and aunts and uncles had to all chip in a lot of time and resources to support my grandma since my grandfather had passed away ten years earlier. We had to coordinate our life and work schedules to spend time with my grandma, take her to doctor’s visits, find her a place to live where help would be close by, and to hire suitable caretakers when everyone had to be at work.
I felt helpless. I remember listening to what the doctors had to say and not understanding any of the medical things they were talking about. I had to trust that they meant well and were doing the best they could.

One Sunday evening in April, I was on my way back from a weekend trip to Lake Tahoe and called my mom to let her know I was on the way home. Skipping the small talk, my mom told me, “Son, your Nin Nin passed away last night.” My parents waited to tell me because they did not want me to worry and rush home.

The news shattered my heart. I lost it in the car and cried like I would not want anyone to see me cry.

Before I left for that weekend trip, I made sure to stop by the hospital to visit my grandma. As I was leaving the hospital room, I paused at the door and turned back. My grandma waved at me for what would be the last time.

It almost looked like she had a feeling that it might be the last time we saw each other. That moment often replays itself over and over in my head.

Since then, I started wondering:
“Why do we get sick?”

“How do we stay healthy?”

“Are these medications actually helping her?”

“Is there anything else we can do?”

My experience watching my grandmother and other loved ones go through the medical system motivates me to find ways to be healthy and treat illness without medications as much as possible.

It is not my role to be everything to everyone or to be the right person to address every health concern. That is why healthcare providers collaborate with other healthcare providers.

I saw that there was a gap in the medical system. I wanted to be the type of doctor that helps people before they need a life-saving intervention and to help people from going back to the hospital after getting treated.

That is why I am hungry to know how food can build us up or break us down.

That is why I am driven to understand how movement and exercise can help us play with our children, take hikes with friends, and carry groceries from the car to the kitchen to feed our families.

That is why I am curious why we knowingly pollute our air, water, and food and wonder why we are seeing a rise in chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, digestive issues, depression, and anxiety.

That is why I am on the hunt for understanding why we are so over-stressed and under-rested and what that is doing to our minds, bodies, and souls.

Without doing what it takes to be healthy, everything else just becomes a temporary fix, like shoveling water out of a leaky boat without fixing the gaping hole in the hull.

There were gaping holes in my grandma’s total health care plan that were not being addressed, but I had no clue what to do about it. At the time, I was just a twenty something year old kid figuring out what to do with my online marketing career.

Even now with a doctorate in medicine and a lot of continuing education, there are times I feel helpless, and I have to remind myself to not just shrug.

Medicine is a humbling profession, especially when you begin to realize how much more there is to learn.

I can see why we can feel helpless when it seems like getting sick seems inevitable and the human instinct is to just shrug.

I remind myself that I am a physician, not a magician. I do not have the power to make problems go *POOF* and to make them miraculously go away.

I constantly remind myself how it felt watching my grandma going in and out of the hospital.

Could my grandma have had a few more lucid moments in those last few years?

Maybe we could have had a few more trips to Chinatown together?

Maybe she could have experienced fewer days in the hospital hooked up to IV’s and monitoring devices?

Remembering my grandma and what she meant to my family and me reminds me why I care so much about understanding what makes us sick and what it takes to stay healthy.

Maybe, just maybe, I can help a few more people have a few more lucid moments, experience a few memorable trips with loved ones, or prevent the need for a high-force intervention just to barely stay alive.

This is why I practice medicine without medications.