Ditching the Doctor’s White Coat, June 2, 2016

“After last week’s workshop, I took my family on a mindfulness nature walk!  They loved it.” 

“Instead of eating lunch indoors during an all-day seminar last week, I decided to walk around the pond behind the conference center during my break.  It was so therapeutic!” 

“I did my own little Shinrin-yoku one day this week.  I definitely need to remember to do this more often!” 

THREE people who attended my recent workshop series, “Invitations to Wholeness: Nature and Wellness,” made these statements to me after participating in a one-hour Shinrin-yoku forest bathing activity.  I was astounded.  After all, how often do people follow through with assigned homework or prescribed treatment?  This was spontaneous.

I’m technically a physician.  But I happen to be a physician who is drawn to the out-of-doors.  My heart physically aches to be outdoors.  I have actually become tearful on several occasions describing the degree of challenge it is for me to work in an indoor setting, seeing patients in an exam room.  I have often said that healing would be more profound and permanent if we could leave the exam room and see patients outdoors.  My goal and, I will dare say, my dharma–my truth, my life’s purpose–is to combine nature and healing.

It can’t possibly come as a surprise to us that nature is healing.  But science is now even proving it.  The results of a Japanese study on Shinrin-yoku in 2010 showed that spending time in a forest environment lowers our cortisol levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic (fight or flight) nerve activity (Park, et al., 2010).  Another study showed improvements in depression, tension, anger and vigor after participants experienced walks in nature (Park, et al., 2011).  At the microbiological level, researchers have found that substances released from plants called “phytoncides” actually boost the immune system, protect against bacteria and viruses, possess tumor-fighting properties, and improve mental health in terms of depression, anxiety, ADD and self-esteem.

So this spring I decided to try my hand at a little Shinrin-yoku.  I had read about it a few years ago, requested a booklet on the practice, and then decided I would just give it a try with a group of twenty-five lovely, engaged participants at my workshop at Prairiewoods.

Prairiewoods Retreat Center in Hiawatha, Iowa, is a beautifully serene place founded and operated by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA).  Among the 80+ acres of property lie a retreat center, a labyrinth, a sweat lodge, a meditation room, an art room, and two and a half miles of nature trails along a babbling stream.

In the end of April, we gathered at the lodge on a beautiful sunny evening for the nature and wellness workshop.  I explained the mindful forest therapy practice upon which we were about to embark and we silently walked down the trail, passed through a small arch, and formed a circle.  We took a moment to center, express gratitude, and breathe in our surroundings.  I then explained the first exercise.  We explored the Shinrin-yoku activities using the visual sense: focusing on the dark, owl eyes, and noticing motion.  Between each, we rejoined in council to share our experiences.  I couldn’t help falling into the meditative space, myself, as I led the participants through these exercises.  Using “Owl Eyes” broadened my focus with a softened gaze, allowing much more to be taken in than during a typical walk in the woods.  The “motion” exercise brought a host of revelations, and participants shared of seeing snakes, birds, movements of plants, and various patterns of current and eddies in the stream that they had never noticed before.

*****

My back story is that I studied and trained for a career in Obstetrics and Gynecology.  I forged my way through many years of solo practice in a small rural hospital–along the way having two children (one diagnosed with autism), divorcing, remarrying, and losing my second husband to cancer—straight through to a serious, off-the-charts case of physician burnout.  Somehow, six years ago the world of integrative medicine made its way to my consciousness, and I completed Dr. Andrew Weil’s two-year fellowship in integrative medicine through the University of Arizona, left the frenetic world of OB-Gyn as I had known it, and began treating patients in ways I never dreamed possible. Whereas I previously wrote up to 150 prescriptions per week, I now prescribe lifestyle changes that include such far-fetched ideas as NATURE THERAPY!  Interestingly enough, my patients are doing. better.

I did have some premonitions toward this work.  I will never forget the open air well baby clinics I worked in during my medical school clerkship in the developing country of Vanuatu.  We set up shop on a picnic table and babies were weighed in a scale hung from a tree branch!  I remember thinking “this is how all clinics should be!”

But it was not until many years later when a very special patient encounter drove the point home for me.  A couple I had known for years brought their daughter who has autism to see me.  It was not that Betsy had a gynecologic problem; her parents were simply desperate for someone in the medical community to listen to them and to help them negotiate the mystery of the healthcare system.  They trusted in my experience with autism.

When I walked in the room, I knew it was not going to go well.  Betsy is close to my age, and is nonverbal.  She was very agitated to be in an exam room, having seen many different doctors in recent months.  It did not take long for me to punt.

I took off my white coat and we went outside.

Betsy, her parents, the nurse from her group home, and I walked around the walking path surrounding the hospital.  I spoke and asked questions to Betsy as the entourage behind us answered for her.  Halfway around the trail, a priceless thing happened: Betsy took my hand.  Her mother gasped as this happened.  “This is very unusual for Betsy.  She really trusts you,” she said.

“I took off my white coat and we went outside.”  A defining moment of my career, a permanent shedding of that white coat, and a commitment to re-explore nature.

*****

I collected a brief survey following our recent Shinrin-yoku exercise.  Sixty-one percent of my participants reported feeling improvements in both depression and tension after our forest bathing activity.  Sixty-five percent reported reduced feelings of anger, and 70% reported feeling more vigorous; findings consistent with the 2011 study above.  But the proof is in the pudding.  There was unanimous enthusiasm for a full three-hour Shinrin-yoku program we have now scheduled for later this summer at Prairiewoods.  And, even better, my patients are already living it.  My patients are healing in nature.