Applying to a Boulder hospital for admitting privileges, I quickly discovered that my antiwar views and unorthodox style of practice had alienated many of the doctors in town. On the advice of a friendly internist, I introduced myself to as many of them as were willing, and was narrowly approved for membership by one vote; but the Board of Trustees simply overruled them the next day, evidently alarmed by the fact that what they feared or imagined I stood for had split the Medical Staff right down the middle.
Then in April of 1969, with my confidence and self‐esteem close to rock‐bottom, an oddball request changed my life in a big way. Due to give birth in a month, a woman I knew very slightly telephoned to ask if I would come to her house to help with the labor, which none of the obstetricians in town would agree to do. Having never heard of anyone who had done such a thing, or imagined that anyone would even want to, I was also acutely aware of my own feelings of insecurity, with no nurses to hand me instruments and no hospital to back me up. But in almost the same breath I understood that here at last was something I coulddo as a physician without doing harm to people or telling them how to live.
When her time came, I arrived expecting to perform a vaginal examination right away to assess how the labor was progressing. I’m still not sure if it was the candlelight, or the Bach playing softly, or the rapt expression on all their faces, but somehow I got the message that the exam was a routine procedure I’d been trained to do, rather than anything that Dorothy herself really needed or was asking for. After a whole lot of soul‐searching in this vein, I decided that if anything went wrong, I had to trust myself to figure out what needed to be done at the time, and that the best thing to do at the moment was to sit down, be quiet, and pay attention like everyone else. Without a lot of talk, Dorothy taught me pretty much the whole course that day; and I still haven’t a clue about how, where, or from whom she‘d
learned it, since her first child had been born under general anesthesia nine years before.
Her son Adam was born at dawn, when both mother and child were bathed in a soft halo of light that extended for a short distance all around them, like a Madonna of Raphael or Filippo Lippi, and we all saw it and gazed at it and her, the baby, and each other, as human beings have surely always done since the beginning of time. In no way uncanny, strange, or outside the realm of natural law, Adam’s birth was a miracle in precisely the opposite sense, of something happening in full awareness, which only our customary inattention would need to single out and only our remembering what all other animals have never forgotten bespoke a real deliverance.
Her daughter Erica announced that she was taking the placenta to school; but when her friends came by and tried to veto the idea, she wrapped it in a plastic bag and stuffed it under her coat, like a reluctant conspirator carrying an oversized bomb. Less than an hour later, the school nurse telephoned in a panic, so I stopped off to fetch it on my way home. Assuring me that she wasn’t really against “this sort of thing,” she explained with some embarrassment that they didn’t have refrigeration for it; that she’d have had to ask the principal, who happened to be out of town; and that she could lose her job if she acted on her own. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask her what she thought of a state of affairs in which she could lose her job for talking to a bunch of schoolchildren about giving birth to a baby, or indeed what her job was if not that. But I didn’t. The holy relic lay in state on my coffee table for a week without the slightest odor or trace of putrefaction, like the dead bodies of certain saints and gurus of popular legend.
Adam’s birth first showed me the path that I could follow as a physician, one that still works for and makes sense to me. Even the most enlightened hospital has to make rules for people, to act as if it knew what’s best for them, better than they do themselves, while as a guest in Phil and Dorothy’s home it was no longer appropriate for me to tell them what to do or how to live. Indeed, my role was no longer to doanything in particular, but simply to be there for them in whatever way seemed useful at the time, to help them make whatever decisions they needed to make, and to complete the natural process that was already under way.
For a long time, I treasured and guarded the memory of that experience like a precious jewel in a secret box: it never occurred to me that anybody else would try to duplicate such a crazy idea. Moving back to New York in search of new directions, I took a full‐time position on the Medical Staff of a Neighborhood Health Clinic in Brooklyn that was created as a subunit of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” With a clientele that was mainly poor and black, and lived in the slums of Red Hook, our spanking‐new facility was incongruously located in upscale Brooklyn Heights and included a fleet of reconditioned taxis to ferry our
patients from the bottom of the socio‐economic ladder to the top and back again.
Gratified that our budget at least provided for home visits, one day I was sent to the projects to see an old man in his nineties who was too ill to travel. As I entered the bedroom, he spotted my silvery moustache and rose smartly to attention, saluting me as if he were still a doughboy in the First World War, and I was General Pershing, his commanding officer. But before I could play along, he doubled over in pain; and while easing him back into bed I could feel the vast bulk of his liver, studded with hard, metastatic nodules in an obviously terminal state. Confiding to his wife that he had cancer and would undoubtedly die soon, I offered to find her a housekeeper to make them both more comfortable in the brief time remaining; but she was over eighty herself, with major health problems of her own, and wouldn’t hear of him dying in that wretched little apartment, insisting that we admit him to the hospital and care for him there as best we could.
As a satellite of the vast Kings County Medical Center, our Clinic was required to admit all inpatients to Long Island College Hospital, its local affiliate, and to surrender all authority over their care to the interns and residents in training there. Determined at least to meet and talk with them first, I argued that since both the diagnosis and the outcome were already certain, the most humane and sensible alternative was to give him plenty of morphine, make him as comfortable as possible, and let him die in peace. But the House Staff ridiculed my suggestion and looked at me as if I were fresh from the Stone Age. Just as I had feared, they were determined to perform a liver biopsy and begin chemotherapy purely as a training exercise, well aware that the drugs were highly toxic, debilitating, and of no lasting benefit, and that the procedure itself would very likely result in pneumonia and a miserable death, as in fact it did.
By the summer of 1970, I’d had enough, and once again sought refuge out West, renting a cabin high in the Colorado mountains. But almost as soon as I arrived, women began calling me to help with their home births; and before long I was as busy as I could be, attending maybe 40 births by spring, and about 150 in the three years I lived there, long enough to watch Dorothy’s wacky idea catch on and spread like a prairie fire through the subculture. Without an office, nurse, appointments, or even a telephone at first, I was totally available to my patients if they could find me, an arrangement that, while clearly unsuitable for some, fit in quite well with the flourishing grapevine and frontier ethos of that era. The way it worked was that patients made it their business to know or find out where I was at all times, while I taught them the basics of emergency childbirth in case I didn’t make it, and dropped in on anyone close to term whenever I came to town, a journey of twenty miles over rough mountain roads that in winter became an arduous and sometimes thrilling adventure. But the best part was what happened when I got there, whether finding the labor already in progress, or being treated like an honorary member of the family for a while, or at least being rewarded with a hot meal, good company, and a warm bed for the night.
In any case, I never missed a birth, lost a baby, or needed to take anyone to the hospital in those days, a record that I can’t explain and certainly never equaled or even came close to in later years, when I opened an office, hired nurses and receptionists, hospitalized people when I had to, and witnessed my full share of complications like everyone else. Only in retrospect can I fully appreciate how fortunate and indeed in a state of grace I must have been, as if blessed by the vision that Dorothy had bestowed on me, and determined to do everything in my power to be worthy of it. Whatever the reason, it cannot have been any particular skill or affinity on my part, since I had only a rudimentary knowledge of pregnancy and childbirth, felt even more keenly than my patients my unworthiness to supervise this most womanly activity, and could only justify it as an anomaly of medical history, which the home birth movement itself would and did eventually rectify.
Several of those births still remind me of the wide‐open, experimental atmosphere and flair for self‐discovery that seemed so characteristic of those years. Bored with successful careers in the New York theater and art scene, one newly‐married couple set out on their honeymoon in an old school bus that they had transformed into a romantic bower of velvet hangings, silk brocades, and other offerings of beauty and magic to the new life they dreamed of. Aiming for California like so many others, they never made it past the mountains, where they ran out of cash, discovered they were pregnant, and fell under the sway of ChögyamTrungpaRimpoche, the charismatic Tibetan master who lived and taught nearby.
Taking advantage of electric and water hookups at a friend’s house in town, they continued to live and hold court in the bus, where we met to prepare for the birth. As the labor began one raw November morning, dozens of friends and well‐wishers gathered in the house and began carousing and drinking heavily to celebrate the event as if it had already taken place. By nightfall, Maggie was tired and panting rapidly, but her cervix was still only minimally dilated, and all the patience and encouragement I could muster failed to help her over this seemingly huge and insurmountable obstacle. With her labor at a standstill, I went back into the house, and solemnly announced that she needed the collective energy and moral support of everyone there, without any clear idea of what I really had in mind. As if on cue, they filed out into what had become an icy drizzle, lined up alongside the bus, and began chanting the sacred syllable in a loud, insistent drone that sounded as if it would continue until something pretty impressive happened.
Thus summoned to what would become perhaps the greatest performance of her career, the former actress quickly revived in the presence of her audience, inviting everyone inside the bus, passing out candles, and no longer in any doubt about what to do next. Opening the I Ching at random, I read aloud from the first hexagram I turned to; and although I have no memory of the actual passage, it elicited a chorus of nods and murmurs as if cosmically appropriate to the occasion. Taking hold of two ropes that her husband Don had hung from the ceiling for just this purpose, Maggie pulled herself up to a squatting position on the bed and began bellowing like a heifer with each contraction, although she was still by no means fully dilated, felt no definite urge to push, and taught herself as if by sheer force of will how to recognize and direct an instinct that still lay hidden deep inside her. When her daughter finally emerged, weighing almost eleven pounds, her prodigious size made the physical and moral difficulties of her birth seem almost legendary in Maggie’s heroic mastery of them.
These early experiences also taught me to respect my patients’ life choices even when I disagreed with them, questioning and at times arguing when I felt strongly, but in the end giving them the say about the kind of health care they wanted. With no past experience to guide me, I fretted a lot about the nutritional state of a macrobiotic couple who held forth as if they exemplified the highest moral virtue through their spiritual understanding of food; but I did enjoy the dinner they set before me well enough to persuade me to work with them. As it happened, the labor and the birth went off perfectly; and although the baby was smaller than average, as I’ve since come to expect, she grew to be as strong and healthy as anyone could wish.
Over the next twelve years, I attended somewhat more than six hundred home births; and the model of doctor‐patient relationships that emerged from them is as relevant today in my office practice as it was then in the field. I feel as proud as of anything else I have ever done to have helped these families come together and bear their children in a manner and setting of their own choosing, and in spite of the generally lackluster support and at times active opposition of the medical community.
Through its gentle, family‐centered atmosphere, home birth also promoted and left ample room for self‐healing in other ways, and encouraged me to explore subtler and less aggressive modes of treatment in my medical practice as well. With my background and interest in biochemistry, I naturally gravitated to the study of plant and folk remedies, and soon began combing through old herbals, learned to identify various local species, made infusions, poultices, ointments, and suppositories, and tried them on myself and my patients. In these investigations a principal mentor was Hanna Kroger, an old German woman who had emigrated to the States after the War, owned a health food store in town, and had a large, devoted following that included young and old alike. Bothered by a broad range of ailments, the customers she knew and trusted would follow her into a small back room, where she often dowsed with a pendulum for a variety of energy disturbances, and for a variety of naturopathic treatments that she regarded as specifically tailored to fit them, consisting of vitamins, herbs, supplements, and even homeopathic remedies, which I first heard of in her shop. At times she would also send saliva and hair samples to an even more aged colleague in Albuquerque, who claimed that she could detect trace amounts of toxic wastes, parasites, and other pathological residues by using some kind of radionic or magnetic device known only to herself.
Although most of what Hanna did seemed like hocus‐pocus to me at the time, she also introduced me to the whole realm of esoteric phenomena that intuitively I knew must exist but had never directly witnessed or experienced myself. Whenever I tagged along with her, she would show me things that I couldn’t believe or understand, yet stimulated me to imagine what the world would have to be like if they were true. About two months after giving birth, one of my patients called late at night because of severe abdominal pain that had developed that afternoon, after returning from a long trip to her in‐laws to show off the baby. On pelvic examination, I felt a taut, bulging mass the size of a tennis ball in the area of her right ovary, which clearly needed to be removed surgically without delay; but before agreeing to go to the hospital she begged me to call Hanna, who only agreed to come after some coaxing on my part.
Upon entering the room, she went straight to the bedside, knelt by the left side of my patient, and began to pray, placing the palm of her left hand gently on the abdomen over the cyst, and allowing her right arm to dangle by her side. After a few minutes, Hanna’s body began to shake convulsively, and I fancied I could sense a current of energy passing up her left arm, across her chest, down her right arm, and out her free hand. Proceeding methodically to the other side of the bed, she then placed her right index and middle fingers on the right pubic ramus, a pressure point for the right ovary, as she told us, and pressed down firmly on it, eliciting a scream of pain from my patient that almost catapulted her out of bed, but then gave way to quiet moaning and whimpering for about fifteen seconds, after which she fell silent. Similar pressure on various other points elicited no more than a brief wince or two, after which Hanna rose and left, prescribing nothing more complicated than a molasses douche and a day in bed.
Re‐examining her immediately afterward, I was amazed to discover that both the pain and the cyst had completely disappeared, and I can vouch for the fact that they never came back in the two years I kept track of this woman and her baby before I left the area. Since then, I’ve seen ovarian cysts dissolve in a few days with remedies, but never an instantaneous cure of a surgical emergency to rival this one, which taught me that healing is possible even when we least expect it, have no idea what form it will take, and can never adequately explain it by any doctrine, concept, or method, however scientific it may be.
In 1973, I moved to New Mexico to study acupuncture with MasahiloNakazono, a Japanese master who also taught aikido and practiced Shinto, the ancient religion of his country, by chanting “the sacred sounds,” whereby our earliest proto‐human ancestors were said to have expressed and communicated their feelings directly, without the mediation of spoken or written language. While beginning to train a few Western students, he had been chosen to preside over the newly‐created State Board of Acupuncture after curing a number of legislators of serious ailments. Although his religious practice and authoritarian style always remained foreign to me, and I never got used to seeing patients one, two, or even three times a week for months at a time, I came to revere him as a teacher and healer, and was often in awe of his skill and charismatic power to heal patients who were seriously or gravely ill.
I deeply respect and admire Oriental medicine for its systematic philosophy of the organism as a unitary life energy principle, operating prior to any subdivision of it into thoughts and emotions, on the one hand, and organs, cells, and molecules on the other. By learning to palpate subtle variations in the radial pulses, using nine positions on each side, a skilled practitioner can assess the energy state of the internal organs based on the condition of the “meridians” or longitudinal energy currents on the body surface that are thought to correspond to them. Thereby avoiding the Western “mind‐body problem” entirely, acupuncture diagnoses and treats illness uniquely and globally in each patient as a unified energy system, and can relieve pain and suffering, cure illness, and restore and promote health on a deeper level and with subtler methods than Western medicine, with all of its heavy artillery, seems capable of or even very interested in. As my introduction to energy medicine, acupuncture continues to open up new paths in my thought and practice, and I will always be grateful to the Sensei and honor his memory for sharing his truths so generously with me.
Not long afterward, I stumbled into homeopathy. After poring over an old text I found in a used bookstore, I got no further than wanting to try Apismellifica, the honeybee, for a patient who was highly sensitive to bee stings, and telephoned an aged homeopath I’d heard of back East to ask if that would be an appropriate prescription. “Well, sonny boy,” he replied in his economical Vermontese, “I think you’d better come to our summer school!” I decided to give it a try, but neither the backwoods state college where the course was held nor the advanced age and semi‐retired status of the doctors who taught it augured well for the future of the method. Few of them were still earning a living from practicing what they were telling us, as if the whole generation of active, full‐time practitioners that should have preceded us had never materialized. The course itself lasted only two weeks, after which they turned us loose to practice what we had learned. With no full‐time schools, clinics, or teaching hospitals to its name, and very few retail pharmacies to send patients to, it was a stretch to imagine that American homeopathy could survive much longer.
Yet from the moment I entered that class, I knew that it was exactly the kind of thing I’d been hoping and looking for, and that I could happily devote the rest of my professional life to studying and practicing it. Long before I’d taken remedies myself or seen them work in a patient, it made sense to me as both a philosophy, a coherent body of thought with basic assumptions that rang true, and a detailed, systematic methodology that followed from them. It even showed me a better way of doing what I was already trying to do: making the diagnosis, and then putting it aside, allowing the distinctive patterns of my patients’ illnessesto suggest proper treatments for them. Reframing illness as the attempt of the organism to overcome whatever is keeping it off balance, homeopaths identify the individualizing features of each patient’s symptom‐picture, and administer ultradilute doses of the medicine that best matches it to strengthen and resonate with the process of self‐healing that is already under way.
Far from repudiating allopathic medicine because of it, I chose homeopathy because it charted a clear path through the hidden risks and self‐imposed obstacles that had kept me from practicing medicine at all for such a long time. As to whether it really works, I offer the whole of my career since then in evidence that it does, having used it more or less exclusively for the past twenty‐three years with never a cause to regret it. My first patient was myself, waking from a concussion after a head‐on collision with a drunk driver, bleeding from a scalp laceration, and in considerable pain from several rib fractures. Sitting erect in the ambulance, I felt dazed but otherwise tolerably OK until the tech deposited me at the ER on a Gurney, flat on my back, helpless, and immobile, the slightest change in position sending stabs of pain through my chest that sapped my strength and will to recover. When my nurse arrived to take me home, I took a powder of Arnica 200 on my tongue, and within a few seconds was able to lift my bloody shirt over my head and take it off by myself, an incredible feat under the circumstances, felt no more pain for days, and recovered without further incident.
That first winter, I saw mostly acute illnesses, i. e., colds, flu, Strep throats, bronchitis, and other incidental complaints of pregnant women and their families, who formed the backbone of my practice at that time. Whenever a patient needed medicine, I rummaged around in my books until I found one that seemed suitable, and both of us were often quite pleasantly surprised at how quickly and effectively it worked both to relieve pain and suffering, and to impart a feeling of strength and well‐being that helped cut short the natural course of the illness. Soon I began trying remedies at births, too, with similar results: at times none, often good, and sometimes miraculous.
One such was the experience of a twenty‐year‐old woman, pregnant for the first time, who gave birth to a girl after a prolonged second stage. Although well‐formed and weighing over eight pounds, the baby was covered with thick meconium, took one gasp, and then breathed no more. When brisk suctioning of the nose and mouth produced only more of the same, I tried and failed to intubate or even visualize the trachea, while the child lay pale, limp, and motionless, with a heartbeat of only 40 per minute, responding feebly to mouth‐to‐mouth resuscitation, but still unable to breathe on her own. I put a tiny powder of Arsenicum album 200 on her tongue, and almost instantaneously she awoke with a jolt, crying and flailing, her heart beating vigorously at 140 per minute, and her skin glowing pink with the flame of new life. Experiences like these are inscribed for life in every practitioner’s mind.
Since 1974, I have practiced homeopathy more or less exclusively, and according to the classical method, prescribing only one medicine at a time for the whole patient. Those I fail to help I refer to another homeopath if possible, and for more drastic treatment when indicated. If practiced conscientiously, the method poses minimal risk of harm, and allows me to develop my skills through experience and to learn and grow at my own pace. Since I can see only as many people as I can see, and learn only as fast as I can learn, most of my patients understand and forgive the fact that expertise is acquired little by little, and at the cost of numerous mistakes and failures. On the other hand, I have also been able to help people in ways and situations that would have been inconceivable to me before.
I’m thinking in particular of a 34‐year‐old woman who came to see me in Boston, long after I’d stopped going to births, with a history of severe and often painful endometriosis since her teens. Already a veteran of four surgeries to remove large, blood‐filled cysts from her bladder and ovaries, and several courses of male hormones to try to correct the hormone imbalance, she hoped mainly to restore her menstrual cycle, having long since abandoned any hope of childbearing. While intensely painful in her teens and twenties, her periods had become scanty, “dead,” and dark‐brown as a result of so many operations and years of hormones and oral contraceptives in the past; but with treatment they became fuller and richer, and within six months she was pregnant. When I next saw her for a different ailment eight years later, she had produced two healthy children after uncomplicated pregnancies and normal, vaginal births and had remained in good health ever since. While no one can ascribe such an outcome to a remedy or any other agency in precise, linear fashion, my patient has never stopped thanking me for it, reason enough to be grateful for a process by its very nature persuasive and catalytic rather than forcible or compulsory.