The road to integrative healing

Why a renowned veterinarian changed his definition of healing and began incorporating integrative therapies into his practice.

When I graduated from Colorado State University School of Veterinary Medicine in 1983, I was well prepared for the challenges of small animal veterinary practice. After doing a preceptorship in an exclusive feline specialty practice, I went to work as a small animal clinician in a busy, high quality AAHA-accredited, multi-doctor practice in Sherman Oaks, California.

At the time, my primary concern was in making a correct diagnosis and then initiating the most current treatment plan for my patients. I thought all useful information about our profession came from our continuing education meetings and in the publications of our profession. As a clinician, I felt it was someone else’s responsibility to discover new things. I just wanted to know what to give for what condition. As a new young professional, I did not spend much time considering what healing is, or how we should best pursue health. There was plenty to do just seeing the next patient and taking emergency pages 300 out of 365 days a year.

About a year after graduation, I had my first encounter with “alternative medicine”. A Schnauzer suffering with chronic active hepatitis failed to respond to correctly delivered and administered medical therapies, but rapidly improved and resolved his hepatitis after seeing a “quack” alternative veterinarian. In my mind, I firmly believed we had done everything possible and followed the best practices of the time. While I was happy the dog improved, I was certain the antiquated herbal medicines given by this practitioner were not a part of the dog’s healing. Coincidence seemed the best justification of the events I observed. Explanations about “drainage” and “Liver Chi” were not well received, and I frankly told my client I was the proud purveyor of “scientific medicine” and had no interest in ancient beliefs or practices.

Many years later, basic scientific research led to improved understanding and evidence for the use of milk thistle and its biochemical constituents in the management of hepatic disease. Once there was a credible way of explaining its traditional uses, it became more acceptable. A major company began producing the active agents and marketed an ethical product line, which veterinarians embraced and found helpful. That company also supported more research which it could use to further improve its products. At most major conferences, we will find these agents listed as useful entities, and each time I read a new piece of literature, I am struck by the unprofessional and biased way I addressed the first practitioner I encountered who was using unconventional medications.

In thinking I already knew it all, I broke one of the first tenets of good science. I also failed to successfully address my patient’s healthcare needs. My bias and ego blocked my ability to perceive, pursue and use data objectively. I wish I learned that lesson quickly, but the fact is, it took a few years and several more lessons before I set out on a journey to “disprove” complementary and alternative medicine. Interested individuals can read that story in my text book or in my Huffington Post blog on integrative healthcare, but fortunately in the end my scientific training forced me back on the path of seeking truth and finding healing.

Now I spend a lot more time reading uncommon journals and discussing the nature of true healing and health with a wide variety of people. I listen respectfully to traditional herbalists and healers, as well as the top board-certified clinicians and researchers in our profession, hoping for a pearl that will open understanding and preserve life for a future patient. Just how far I have come hit me recently while I was lecturing in Germany; I laughed as I sat with the associate dean of a major US medical school along with his wife, a former US government supplement regulator, and a couple of instructors from alternative medical colleges. We spent our time in very constructive discussion of how to better research and advance the science of healing for the benefit of our clients and patients.

The path to better healing begins with individual pioneers who really look at things and make useful observations. They take calculated steps to learn more. In all cases, discovery is the beginning and validation follows, sometimes centuries later. Most of these pioneers care deeply for someone or something, and their drive to help others pushes them along in their pursuits. The process progresses towards hypotheses about the observed phenomena and uses scientific methods to test them in various ways, from basic in vitro testing to in vivo environments. Uses can be tested in many ways. In transitional medicine — the branch of medicine concerned with moving from basic sciences to clinical applications — we know that cooperative efforts between basic and clinical sciences of various disciplines, as well as creative efforts by those interested in producing ethical and useful products and patents, can speed this process greatly. As we learn more about integrative medicine, we can expand our veterinary tool boxes. As we integrate real truth, the entire field of healing improves its lot.

There is a path to better survival and better healing, and science and intuition both play a part. They do not fight each other. They work cooperatively to seek better understanding. In integrative medicine, we are concerned with what works, how it works, how best to use it and when not to use it. The data we evaluate and apply can be thousands of years old or it may be from the latest high-tech medical journal. It’s good to see more and more efforts going to understanding our natural world. The knowledge we glean today may well be used to save an beloved family companion as well as generate income for our practices. This is good economics. It is also good medicine.

Further reading

Center SA. Metabolic, antioxidant, nutraceutical, probiotic, and herbal therapies relating to the management of hepatobiliary disorders. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract. 2004 Jan;34(1):67-172, vi.

Goldstein R, editor. 2008. Integrating Complementary Medicine into Veterinary Practice, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Webb CB, McCord KW, Twedt DC. Assessment of oxidative stress in leukocytes and granulocyte function following oral administration of a silibinin-phosphatidylcholine complex in cats. Am J Vet Res. 2009 Jan;70(1):57-62.