If Santa Fe is the unofficial capitol of alternate approaches to health care (and doesn’t it look that way?) the guru of the movement has got to be Dr. Larry Dossey, New York Times best-selling author, world traveling lecturer, and consultant on the subject of seeing health care as more than knives and drugs. A Santa Fe resident for 19 years, Dossey tells how he discovered a wider truth about healing and why that approach is most comfortable for him in The City Different.
SantaFe.com: How did you morph from a traditionally trained, practicing surgeon—who was chief of staff of a major hospital—into the person you are today?
Larry Dossey: I actually don’t think I changed that much. I can’t remember ever not being interested in mind-body issues and spirituality. Like most young doctors, I did rely heavily on the use of drugs and surgical procedures in my career. But a few events, including a personal illness, really shifted my thinking in another direction.
SF: Was the illness something traditional medicine couldn’t handle?
LD: Yes. From grade school on, I had profound, classical migraine headaches, complete with nausea, vomiting and even partial blindness. No conventional therapy helped. But in the early 70s, when bio feedback came out, I chased all over the country learning how to use that. It was a life saver for me and opened me up to the use of emotions, attitudes and stress management for my own personal problem.
SF: Are the migraines gone?
LD: They were gone in a matter of weeks. I’m satisfied it saved my career and it taught me that there was more than drugs and surgery in the healing equation.
SF: What is the basic difference, in words even I can understand, between the traditional medical and mind-body approach to health care?
LD: Quite simply, mind-body covers more of the bases and makes possible a broader understanding of what's going on with our health. For example, with heart disease, which is our biggest killer, a strict "body" approach focuses on the physical: cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, etc. This is all wise, but doesn't go far enough. A mind-body approach brings more facts to the table such as the knowledge that more heart attacks occur on Monday morning around 9 a.m. and that job dissatisfaction has been shown to be a huge predictor of first heart attacks. So, we see meaning entering the picture. A pure body approach has no place for meaning and other psychological issues. The mind-body approach does.
SF: Why do you think Santa Fe is such fertile ground for thinking like this?
LD: Ever since the Santa Fe Trail opened, this city has been a meeting place, not just for commerce, but for the arts, culture and ideas. There is something integral to the Santa Fe culture which for centuries has made it cordial to people like myself who do things a bit differently, who are unconventional so to speak. I felt that from my first visit here many years ago, and even today, when I return from engagements across the country or the world and drive up from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, it just seems like a door is opening.
SF: Why is that?
LD: I’ve often wondered but I think it has much to do with the mixture of cultures here which creates a weird alchemy resulting in a kind of magic. And I use the word magic advisedly. This city has magical properties I can’t find anywhere else.
SF: Wait. Do you work for the Chamber of Commerce?
LD: No, and the magic doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve had friends relocate here and the atmosphere just doesn’t take for them. They flee back to where they came from. It’s not just what you can get from Santa Fe, but what you can bring to Santa Fe that makes the life here so special.
SF: In this presidential election, health care reform is a much more urgent topic than ever before. Which candidate has the best plan?
LD: I think all the candidates positions are compromised by pragmatism. The candidates are not offering what is in their hearts but what they think can pass. My own view would favor a single payer universal health care system like most industrialized countries in the western world have. It’s a national disgrace that we have not moved in that direction.
SF: Speaking of disgraces, you say in some of your writings that hospitals are the third leading cause of death to patients in the United States, behind heart disease and cancer.
LD: This is based on a well-researched study published by the American Medical Association. If you add up all the deaths in hospitals due to shoddy effects of medications, errors in medical diagnosis and just flat out mistakes, it comes to around 220,000 hospital deaths a year. That doesn’t even count what happens when people go home, or outpatient mistakes.
SF: You also say that 90 percent of people who go to front line physicians have nothing physically wrong with them.
LD: They go with anxiety related issues, concerns over misinterpretations and stress-related problems. And doctors, wanting to please, will nearly always give them some kind of medication when they should be looking inside themselves rather than to someone with a white coat and a stethoscope around their neck.
SF: The doctors and hospitals must really love you.
LD: Actually, they invite me to talk to them because they know my credentials as a doctor are as good as theirs. When I jumped into this field in the early 90s, only three of the 125 medical schools in the country even talked about such things as mind-body health and the role of spirituality in healing. Today more than 90 of these schools freely explore these approaches and make it part of their curriculum.
SF: Okay, putting drugs and operating rooms aside in thinking about health, you list 14 things in your latest book, The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things which we should all be aware of in considering our own health. My personal favorite was on the benefits of dirt. Huh?
LD: The basic idea is something called the hygiene hypothesis which came out of Great Britain a few years ago. The bottom line is that children, in developing their immune capacity, need exposure to all the bacteria, moles and fungi that are in dirt. We know that kids who grow up on farms have a lower instance of infection, asthma, and allergies. Parents can overdo it in keeping their kids squeaky clean.
SF: Well, if playing in dirt is good for you, every child in Santa Fe must be a paragon of health.
LD: That’s for sure. My favorite suggestion for exposing city kids to dirt is to get them involved in growing a vegetable garden.
SF: You have a lot to say about the role of the spirit in the healing process. Do you ever wonder if you are a reincarnation of some Native American and should have lived here about 200 years ago?
LD: When I go around the country giving talks there is nearly always someone who comes up and says, “What’s your heritage? Do you have Native American blood?” Since I don’t know my complete heritage I’m always glad to be able to say, “Could be”.
SF: Whether or not you are part Native American, is Santa Fe the best place to foster the kind of health ideas you believe in and teach today?
LD: No question about it. It has been a wonderful, welcoming environment for both my wife and me. Barbara is involved in holistic healing and has authored more than 20 books in the field. Every time we come back here between engagements it is a wonderful source of strength for us.
SF: What turns you on most about Santa Fe?
LD: The land. There is something about the majesty of this site that inspires as nothing else does.
SF: What turns you off most about Santa Fe?
LD: Political behavior that is not accepting of other views. I had a John Kerry sign stolen from in front of our house and thought, “This is not Santa Fe”.
SF: If the fates frowned on you and said you couldn’t live here, where would you go?
LD: San Francisco.
SF: But if those fates smiled and granted you any one wish for Santa Fe, what would it be?
LD: Better opportunities and pay for minorities who struggle to subsist here when in fact this was their land in the first place.