Vital Mind Stories: A Physician's Personal Health Transformation

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May 1998 – My personal health transformation had very innocent roots. I remember standing with my medical school graduating class at what was then Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, reciting the Hippocratic Oath. I was excited about my future career in Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine and was ready to dive head first into the rigors of Internship, Residency and eventually Fellowship training. The oath stated in part:

“I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.

I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.”

And so it began.  Completing medical school was just the beginning of the journey that would lead me down many twists and turns to the eventual path that I find myself on today.

My first few years of training were spent much like any other intern or resident – early mornings, late nights, innumerable 30 hour shifts caring for the patients who were counting on me to provide them relief in the most vulnerable times in their lives. While I was diligently caring for my patients, however, I slowly began losing myself. Once a vibrant 20-something, I began dealing with anxiety and extreme fatigue. I was getting to the point where I felt that it was physically difficult to get through my demanding days and knew that it was time to seek some answers and some help for my condition.

Physician Heal Thyself: But How?

For the better part of 15 years I sought these answers. With each consultation that I had with physicians across different disciplines, I was given much the same answer. “You have a demanding career – that is why you feel as you do” or “Your labs look fine” or eventually “You are a mother and a physician – that is why you are so fatigued”.  The only consistent advice I was given was that the solution to whatever ailed me was found at the bottom of a prescription bottle.  These were sought after physicians; experts in their fields. Colleagues. Of course they knew best. After all, how could I change my work life, my home life, my daily routines…?  I was a good patient and followed the recommendations made to me.

I did intuitively know that there was something that I could change. Something I needed to change: my diet. I was always on the go at work, so I was grabbing what I could here and there at the hospital cafeteria or in the gift shop. I knew that I was not getting enough of what I needed- whole grains, low fat dairy. After all, this is what I tell my patients to do, so why am I not doing it for myself? So I began to make sure that I had whole grain cereal for breakfast with skim milk, a sandwich for lunch that I would prepare at home on whole wheat bread, meatless dinners  that were low in fat and chock full of whole grains.  I told my patients that if you fail to plan then you plan to fail when it came to dietary choices so I decided to heed my own advice and make sure that I had what I believed was nutritious food always available, so that I did not have to resort to the hospital cafeteria.

I followed my new plan diligently but somehow I was not seeing the results that I had hoped. I still felt anxious. Driving home from work I felt crushing fatigue. I really was unsure where to turn at that point, since as I was told my labs were normal, I was following my physician’s advice, and I thought that I was making huge strides in nutrition for myself.

Holistic Psychiatry: What the Doctor Ordered

In 2013, I happened upon the work of Dr. Kelly Brogan. She described herself as a Holistic Women’s Health Psychiatrist. The concept was definitely intriguing. It was clear that the conventional medical model that I had been clinging to for advice and support was failing me and as I looked around at friends, family and patients, it was failing them as well. By August 2013, I decided to schedule a consult with Dr. Brogan. Little did I know that that first consultation would completely change the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally. I quickly learned that the dietary tenets that I had been adhering to did not serve me well at all. Gluten was an issue for me?  Traditional fats were what would serve me best? Meditation could help heal my taxed adrenals?  Yes, yes and yes! I transitioned to an ancestral diet, began practicing yoga and meditated daily. Within days, the fog lifted. Something had shifted.

In the first month, I felt like a different person. I was alive and vital. Anxiety faded away, I had boundless energy, my skin was flawless and my joint pains were gone. Not one of these issues was treated with a prescription. It could not be found in a pharmacy. This was something that I had complete control over and the results were nothing short of astounding!

The Journey Home to Myself

There are times in our lives when we know intuitively that we have gone down the wrong path, whether it be in our professional lives, personal lives or in the realm of our health. For some, that realization comes early on, but for others it may take years or even decades.  We sometimes need for someone to light the way. To let us know that the skeptical voice that we hear within us is valid. We awaken to possibilities that we never thought possible. For me, I was fortunate enough to listen to my inner voice and embrace the work of Dr. Brogan. I am now unencumbered by what has ailed me in the past.  I am able to look back and see that there were so many things along the way that brought me to where I was 15 years ago. From a nutrient depleted diet, to the endless months of antibiotic treatment for acne in my teens, early twenties and into my thirties, to the inability to take time for myself to recharge and reconnect with my inner being. All of these things and more intersected to bring a once vital woman embarking on a career in medicine to someone struggling to find answers for her own issues.

The answers came when I began to take a deep dive into the science and find that what we have been spoon-fed is not the whole picture. That some of the concepts that I learned in medical school that were just touched upon as an aside, actually played a more central role in health.  That the answers to chronic health issues, whether they be medical or psychiatric, do not have a quick fix found in a pill. The prescriptions which beget more prescriptions keep us tethered. Movement, mindfulness and nutrition are powerful healing tools and things that we have ultimate control over. Yes, this approach takes work, but for those who are willing to walk this path, the rewards are bountiful.

Paying It Forward: Holistic Pediatrics, Adolescent, and Young Adult Medicine

In 2015, I decided to take the leap from academia and open my private practice. I knew wholeheartedly that the road that I had been on was for a greater good. That the journey I have made over the past three years would enable me to perhaps light the way for others. From the 16 year old with a list of psychiatric diagnoses and medications to match, who actually had undetected and untreated Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. To the 25 year old with panic disorder, on multiple medications for years without relief and a host of gastrointestinal complaints, who had non-celiac gluten sensitivity driving her symptoms.

I have come to realize that we need to dig deep and untangle the web to find our individual answers.  We cannot accept the 10 minute physician visit and a prescription as you walk out the door as true healthcare.

As an adolescent medicine physician, I am humbly aware of the impact that I can make on my patients and the role that I may play in their formative health years. Now more than ever, I hold that space sacred.  I am able to talk the talk because I have walked the walk. I have been in the shoes of many of my patients and I hope to be able to inspire them to journey with me to bring them to their optimal health. As I look back on that day when I stood and recited the Hippocratic Oath, I can honestly say that those words resonate with me now more than ever.

I hope to be able to continue to illuminate the path for others through my own experience and work so that others may find the light burning within themselves.

• • •

Stephanie Strozuk, MD is the founder of Evolved Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine in Ridgewood, New Jersey. You can find her on her at evolvedmedicinenj.com and on Facebook.

After graduating from New York University and St. George's University School of Medicine, Dr. Strozuk completed her Pediatric Residency at Maimonides Medical Center, and then her Adolescent Medicine Fellowship at Schneider Children's Hospital in the North Shore-LIJ Health System. She is board certified in both Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, and has obtained additional training through the Institute for Functional Medicine. She has held academic positions at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and at Rutger's-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. In her 15 years of practice, she has trained numerous medical students, pediatric residents and adolescent medicine fellows. Most recently she practiced College Health at Rutger's University before starting her private practice.

In her spare time, Dr. Strozuk enjoys spending time with her family. She enjoys practicing yoga, and has a passion for clean living, environmental consciousness, and creating a healthier world for her patients, family and friends.

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KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More