I began my search for the perfect diet at an early age. My family’s deification of doctors made health a natural focus for me. Perhaps it all started as a rebellious thought, a way to avoid the conventional route laid out by family, my believing “Food is medicine.” I read everything I could get my hands on. In the 1960’s, that was mostly Paavo Airola and other Naturopaths, books like How to Get Well and Are You Confused? I found a magnitude of conflicting theories, so many I couldn’t find my way through the confusion. Eventually this lead to my decision to go to medical school, the hallowed center of scientific knowledge. Maybe they did have the answers after all?
There, however, I quickly learned that conventional medicine knew nothing about optimal diets, and very little about health. The nutrition I was taught was strongly colored by the schools of diet funded by General Mills and the like. An Ensure liquid diet is still the standard medical answer for those who need easily absorbed nutrition.
In school we learned amazing tools to save lives after accidents, bullet wounds, heart attacks or pneumonia. There was not much about staying healthy, or even what facilitates a full return to health once the medical crisis was over. Just because we patched up your heart after a heart attack doesn’t mean everything is in good shape. That patient is very likely to be back again before you know it if other changes aren’t made in the life choices that got them there in the first place.
In my third year of medical school, when I began seeing real patients, it became increasingly clear that once we got you past your near death experience, we had very little to offer patients. Post surgical care was the most glaring example of basic survival protocols which paid little attention to the individual needs of the patient. There was no attention to dietary needs to help rebuild damaged tissue, much less any thoughts on how to address the emotional impact of the illness or the surgery itself. Patients were just expected to get out there and start living again. Of course some did, but many never really recovered, starting a downhill slide that would continue for the rest of their life.
I initially struggled within medical school to raise awareness about nutrition and the need for micronutrients. We had a nutrition department, but its focus was on bariatric surgery. They did understand that when you bypassed part of the small intestine you disrupt nutrient absorption, however the idea that people with anatomically normal guts would have significant variation in nutrient needs was not on their radar. My interest in live foods and fasting prompted me to invite Ann Wigmore, the founder of Hippocrates Institute in Boston, to address my class. At that time I thought exposure to different ideas would at least provoke discussion, and perhaps exploration. As I quickly learned, medicine wraps itself in the jargon and language of science, but like most hierarchical systems, new ideas are seldom welcomed without a proper pedigree. Little old ladies eating raw foods and fasting did not have the right pedigree.
I was in medical school during the 1970’s. Since that time, medicine has continued to make amazing scientific and technological advances in saving lives, yet doctors still think they can understand the amazing interactive thing that is life as though it rolled off an assembly line. I left school determined to combine the wondrous skills I was learning there, and later during my Family Practice residency, with the intuitive knowledge that there was much more to help people recover fully from illness, and to help them strive for health and balance.
Unfortunately I was unable to immediately integrate these knowledge bases as I had hoped. I wanted to believe what I was reading, and what I would hear at alternative medicine meetings, but I was also skeptical of some of the claims. Plus, my everyday experience was working in a hospital based internal medicine practice. There we treated a predominantly older rural population. The medicine I had been taught did save people’s lives, and conversations about diet changes didn’t go far. I wasn’t getting much chance to even try some of the ideas I had, beyond crisis medicine. A story I like to tell my Sonoma County patients, is that in rural New York it could take me a year to cajole someone to see there may be an emotional or spiritual component to their illness. In Sonoma County, it may take a year to cajole them into accepting a physical cause.
Still, I continued to attend small meetings of the alternative MDs in the Northeast. At one of these meetings in 1985, Dr. Sid Baker , a gifted pediatrician, spoke about stress. He pointed out that while most of us respond similarly to extreme stress, the individuality of our responses are revealed when mild to moderate stress is applied. This concept clarified for me what I had been seeing in my work in the hospital, and even more at my office.
The focus of medicine is primarily to prevent death, the most extreme stress to the system. The medical system breaks down when those same tools are applied to stressors that are chronic, but not immediately life threatening. Essentially, if you have an overwhelming infection, our standard treatment protocols tend to work, but two months later when you are still exhausted, medicine ignores you, or prescribes physical therapy or antidepressants. There is no focus on the fundamental cause of what is happening.
As the majority of patients fall into the category conventional medicine ignores, I continued to seek my answers in the world of what we then called Alternative Medicine. By 1990 I realized that I couldn’t deliver the type of care I wanted while working in a standard medical office. I made plans to devote myself to focusing on learning to treat the individual. I would let tests be a guide and warning system, but only the patient has the direct experience of their state of being. That is what I would use to direct my care.
In 1992 I opened my own office, sharing the space with 2 therapists and massage therapists. I took a nine month condensed course at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine to begin to learn how to listen to the body. It was here that I began to realize the importance of the connective tissue to the flow of the body fluids and acupuncture meridians. Touching people could heal them!
In 1996, I still felt that the experts must be doing better than me, and accepted an offer to work at The Shealy Institute. Norm Shealy was a brilliant neurosurgeon and medical visionary. Shortly after graduating from Duke Medical School, and beginning his career as an accomplished neurosurgeon, Dr. Shealy noted: ”The most common symptom in the world is pain, and yet nobody specializes in it.” He developed the first implantable spinal cord stimulator for chronic pain. When he saw the dangers of such invasive technology, he looked elsewhere for answers to the problems of intractable pain. He helped introduce acupuncture to the medical world in America in the 1970s and founded the first comprehensive pain treatment center in the US in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Dr. Shealy worked from the premise that ”It is the interaction of the four main fields of stress; the chemical, physical, electromagnetic, and emotional; that is the cause of all illness..not some, all.”
The year prior, I met Dr. Shealy’s Medical Director, Neil Nathan, at a prolotherapy course. This contact brought me an invitation to work in the Shealy clinic. I was excited to learn and practice medicine at his clinic. Neil had been practicing and teaching conventional and alternative medicine since the mid 1970s. The time I spent with him established a friendship that continues to grow to this day. A year later I moved to Sonoma County to be near my then very young grandsons. In 2009 Dr Nathan joined me in California, as a friend and a colleague. We have never stopped learning from each other.
I have been fortunate to work with many bright and caring doctors and researchers. I borrow freely from whomever seems to have the best solution for the patient in front of me. I find that many times a physician or researcher has an intricate piece to the puzzle, but may leave out teaching others a small element in their protocol that may seem obvious to them, and is overlooked by others. This can make it difficult to effectively use other practitioner’s protocols, which is why I am so persistent in talking with, meeting with, and working with others. I find that weaving pieces of varying protocols together can assist the individual at hand to tolerate a treatment and ultimately potentiate their healing.
I have always thought that somewhere, someone had the answer for the patients in front of me. It is like having a word on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember what it is. You can see the puzzle, but you are missing some piece. I spend a lot of time reading and talking with gifted researchers and practitioners to help find these missing pieces.
I always had this fantasy of getting these experts together to talk, to really share the secrets of what they do. I have seen many of them at medical meetings, but there was little time for in depth conversation. This is even more true if several are espousing opposing theories. Presenting new ways of looking at medical problems is not for the faint of heart, or the thin skinned. These are all men and woman who have a lot of skin in the game. In other words, they often don’t hear the other as well as we would like in a perfect search for truth. Sometimes things can get pretty brutal.
Still, it was my dream to be able to get these creative thinkers into one room and hash things out, find out what really works, when, and for which patients. Because by now, it was clear to me that many of the protocols worked sometimes, for some patients. Unfortunately, the only way I was able to tell which patient a treatment works for is trial and error. While this is better than not treating at all, as some patients get better, it can also be hard on the patients and their pocketbooks when things don’t work well.
In 2005 a very generous philanthropist offered me the opportunity to arrange such a meeting, one where we could get all the people on the cutting edge in one room and really talk. We had 5 meetings over 3 years, with 25-30 attendees at each. Researchers would come and spend a secluded weekend in a beautiful natural, but relatively isolated spot in northern Sonoma County, one that epitomized a healing environment. Two meetings were on the topic of CFIDS/ME, one each was on Lyme, Autoimmune diseases, and Autism. There was a core of 8-10 physicians and researchers who came to most of these meetings.
The retreats (which is what they really were) started on a Wednesday night and ended Sunday at noon. We ate all our meals together. People argued, talked and laughed together. They took the time to really understand each other’s ideas. They still disagreed, but now they were talking. In academic parlance this is called translocational research. I call it good sense. Nature is too complex for any one person to understand it all. In order to become an expert in any area, the focus has to become very narrow. Science allows us to break things up into too many pieces for any one person to see the whole picture once they begin the necessary path of becoming an expert. We need a group to hold the picture of the whole, but it must be a group that can integrate what other experts see, and find a way to put it into a cohesive whole. Until then, we remain the blind men describing the elephant, each espousing his own limited version of reality.
The core group established on those retreats continues to interact by email, phone, and occasional visits. The relationships started there created a ground by which we can get past some of the difficulties in considering how opposing research might fit into one whole. For those of us at GMA, it lead to some shared research projects, including the XMRV retroviral research that looked, for a while, as though it could be an answer. XMRV itself has not panned out, but it put the spot light on the needs of a large group of patients that are not getting the care they need. There is new research that is continuing, including a study at The Whittemore Peterson Institute, under Vince Lombardi, that has the potential to open new avenues for chronic illness. Gordon Medical will be participating in this study, in the hopes that something useful will be developed.
Gordon Medical has grown from a small office with only a few practitioners, to one with eight primary care practitioners, and a fleet of other practitioners who provide supportive services, such as IV nutrients and medications, microcurrent therapy, physical medicine, biofeedback, thermography, and an ever growing list of new therapies. I am fortunate to be able to work with people I respect, and can learn from. Together, we complement each other’s skills, and provide a sound basis for treating a wide range of issues. The more I learn, the more I understand that no one practitioner could ever take care of all of any one patient’s needs. As a group, we can share ideas, refer to another provider that has more skills in a certain area, and still make it an intimate experience for the patient.
Because each patient has an individual history of how and why they became ill, we do our best to provide the means to unravel that illness in the way that patients needs, at the time they need it. It is not an easy process. Sometimes you think you have the end of the string, and can start winding off the problems, and sometimes you get caught up in a tangled, knotted mess, where it is hard to see which string to pull to get to the end.
What I can do, is listen. Because, ultimately, the answer is within the patient. Some of you will respond to protocols developed by Dr Cheney, others by Dr Shoemaker, others by some protocol yet to be discovered. Medicine, being the quasi-magical field that it is, I find patients often are attracted to practitioners whose treatment plans tend to work for them.
I am delighted to see the results manifest in the lives and health of our patients.
Eric Gordon MD is the founder and Medical Director of Gordon Medical Associates. While Dr. Gordon finds research essential, however, he finds knowledge and understanding do not come primarily from research, but from interaction and direct experience with his patients. He is first and foremost a private practice physician. His deep respect for the biochemical individuality of his patients is at the heart of his approach.