WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE DOCTOR IS SICK?
HER AUTOIMMUNE ILLNESS JOURNEY, INVESTIGATING THE ROOT CAUSES OF DISEASE, AND HOW TO HEAL THE MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT
The storm began as an innocent flutter beneath Dr. Cynthia Li’s breastbone. A new mother and a young doctor, she shrugged it off. Soon, insomnia, irritability, and rapid weight loss followed. She sought out a top-notch specialist who diagnosed her with postpartum thyroiditis, and took her medicines as prescribed. In a year’s time, her lab tests were normal. Though her symptoms persisted, she assumed she was cured. Her life continued as it always had: a world traveler, a wife to an active husband, a devoted doctor to the underserved.
Then during a pivotal family trip to Beijing, her life would change forever. While eating a twenty-mushroom special during lunch at a dumpling house, an intense pressure shot up her spine and gripped her head. Her heart rhythm snapped and thundered across her chest, and an extreme dizziness overtook her body. She felt like she was drowning into herself. Dr. Li lost consciousness and woke in an emergency room, to a body that wasn’t her own. She was overcome with constant vertigo, flu-like malaise, and a fatigue so deep she worried she couldn’t catch her next breath. As it turned out, this was the dramatic onset of chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia (a mis-wiring of the autonomic nervous system that regulates everything from blood pressure to digestion to body temperature). Yet, test after test was normal.
“As an internist, I’d been trained that there is a distinct line between health and disease,” says Dr. Li. “This could be a lab result or a set of criteria. But being on the other side of the bedside, I saw how nothing was black-and-white. It was gray, gray, and more shades of gray. After seeking specialist after specialist and having all my tests fall ‘within the reference range,’ I felt betrayed by the objective numbers and methods I had once sworn by.”
Dr. Li found herself housebound for years following. Finding no real answers, she saw her illness strip her of her identity and voice, and strain her marriage down to the last threads. She vowed to get through this, for her two daughters, husband, and her life. Dr. Li asked herself one primary question to begin this new, transparent journey: How to get off the couch?
Thus, Dr. Li launched her solo odyssey from her living room. She began digging into the root causes of chronic disease, asking, “What makes someone sick?,” “How do we reconcile uncertainty in medicine?,” and “What’s the difference between treating and healing?” She would rise off the couch, return to a fuller life, and practice medicine in a broader paradigm—drawing on cutting-edge science, ancient healing arts, and the power of intuition—what she had learned on her own journey.
In addition to her revelatory memoir, she compiles a how-to section to guide others on their path to wellness in her book, Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness.
Dr. Li is available for interviews to discuss the art and science of medicine, including such topics as:
- What a brave new medicine looks like
- Signs you might have an autoimmune disease, including thyroid, chronic fatigue, celiac disease, dysautonomia, insomnia
- How having an autoimmune condition changed her way of relating to patients
- 15 steps to healing: including detoxifying your house, healing your gut, resetting your inner clock, and finding your real story
- Cutting-edge science: Epigenetics, neuroplasticity, and the microbiome
- Addressing the root causes of illness—mind, body and spirit
- Toughness vs. resilience as they relate to health and illness
- Reframing the notion of “difficult patients” who can’t easily be diagnosed
- The distinction between treating and healing
- Factors contributing to doctor burnout (beyond mounting administrative duties, assembly-line medicine, insurance schemes)
- The role of intuition in the gray areas of clinical medicine
- Ancestral food and health
- Spirituality and existential stress as a root cause of disease
- Intimacy and sexuality in chronic illness
- Qigong and why mind-body-spirit practices are an essential part of deeper healing
- Narrative medicine: how writing heals
- The controversy over the gluten-free diet (fad vs. science)
- How childhood trauma can impact health later in life
- Illness and identity: not to be confused!
- Managing chronic illness and motherhood, particularly the postpartum period
- Marriage and relationships with a chronic illness
- When to consider using supplements versus medicines
CYNTHIA LI, MD graduated from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and has practiced internal medicine in settings as diverse as Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, San Francisco General Hospital, St. Anthony Medical Clinic for the homeless, and Doctors Without Borders in rural China. Her own health challenges led her to functional medicine, a paradigm that addresses the root causes of chronic conditions. She currently serves on the faculty of the Healer's Art Program at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and has a private practice. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and their two daughters.