Today I successfully defended my PhD.
I am a doctor.
I have been waiting nine years to write that and it may matter more to others than to me. I leave bits and pieces of how I came into this field in my writing, but I wanted to take this time to tell the story.
I grew up in a really violent, impoverished, and beautiful place. My family had been very, very poor before I was born and when I was little, but my mother and father worked two to three jobs to make enough money, so I never saw or remember any of this. We always had food and Christmas presents and I was a happy and spoiled only child. The summers were spent at the cottages that have been in my family for five generations now. I would run around on the sand and in the water barefooted and shirtless from sun up to sun down and I think this is one of the main reasons I can do what I can from a movement standpoint in the weight room.
Then came Middle and High School. Middle School was horrible for me. I was a little chubby because bread, fried chicken, and frozen pizzas were a staple of our Midwestern diet. I took Pepcid AC all the time and had tons of GI distress. I played baseball and that was my identity. I was decent at it, and who knows how good a lot of us from my hometown could have been with any kind of guidance in the weight room or with nutrition. I got through Middle School and entered High School. I was starting to act out for attention, and my parents could see this so they put me in the Catholic High School, which was likely a good choice.
Zach and I met the first day of orientation. I won’t tell the story of that first encounter because it is not mine to tell. Simply, Zach began spending more and more time at our house and eventually moved in. It was the first time I really had to share or care about someone other than myself or my parents. It was the best thing that ever happened. I got to pick my brother. He was the best athlete, you may have never seen. He was an All-State defensive end his Junior and Senior year and ran a 4.5 second forty at 245 pounds in college. More importantly, he is good man. I was always trying to be as cool or as big as Zach, even though that was never going to happen. This meant that I was going to further act out.
We got into plenty of trouble in high school and I rarely went to class. I set the freshmen record for detentions and my dad had to pay over $500 dollars in fines just to keep me in private school. God knows they didn’t want to deal with us so a bunch of us transferred over to public school. I acted out because I wanted attention and because High School was incredibly easy for me to just get by. I got an A- in Pre-Calc even though I skipped the class more than 70 times in one semester. The teacher was fed up, so he failed me. He had that right given my delinquency and I liked this because it made me ineligible for football my senior year and potentiated my view of myself as a badass.
Then came college, and everything came crashing down. Not many of us took looking for schools seriously and the only reason I went to college was to play baseball. I ended getting recruited by a rural D3 school on the border of Illinois and Iowa. I played the best baseball of my life that fall. Just crushed it. Doubles after triples. But I had tattoos and didn’t really talk to any of the North Chicago suburban very white kids, and I got cut. Again, one of the best things that ever happened to me. I left that school with my identity in tatters. I came home and started dealing drugs for some reason, just marijuana. I didn’t even smoke weed, but it seemed like an easy way to make money, and there was a lot of real world problem solving and math involved, both of which I liked.
One day I saw a bunch of fire trucks and cops on my street and started freaking out. I was terrified my father would take the rap for it. There were literally a few pounds of marijuana in our basement and my mother and father had no idea it was there. I wouldn’t even have been mad if he got angry with me, but I knew I couldn’t take seeing anymore disappointment in his eyes. The cops and fire trucks weren’t for me yet and I never bought drugs again.
I transferred to another D3 school in Minneapolis and made the baseball team but little did I know Augsburg was also one of the best academic schools in the Midwest. All of a sudden everything was hard. It was also in the middle of bigger metropolitan area so I wasn’t that weird and I met friends quickly. I still shake my head at how much I was tied to my identity of being from Racine. My friends called me hood. It was ridiculous, but for one of the first times in my life, I started to care about school. Granted most of my time went to playing baseball, but a fraction of my time did go to studying. Then my junior year, my vision started to get bad, but I wouldn’t get contacts or wear glasses regularly. I don’t even know why, I was so stubborn. Baseball started to become of secondary importance and again it was one of the best things that ever happened. A lot of us had finally come to the resolution that we never going to make it to the league, and eventually that identity was going to come crumbling down. Meanwhile, I became enthralled with the idea of pissing off everyone off from my past and becoming a doctor.
So I just flip flopped what I spent my time on. I knew I was way behind even though my GPA was close to 4.0, so I enrolled in the MCAT prep course super early and spent 6 months of my life entrenched in books and flash cards. To this day, I think it is the craziest thing I have ever done. I shut everyone and everything out, other than my parents, and just read and played inside my head with facts and mnemonics. I took the MCAT and did well, so well, in fact that the MCAT prep course offered to give me a job. The idea of going to medical school became very real at that point.
Then I went on a medical mission to Nicaragua with Carthage College the school where my mother was a professor of music. Again, I was possibly even cockier now, but less of an asshole so the Northern Chicago suburb kids were still rightfully standoffish. Yet, on this trip we were forced to help people. It was the first time I can remember seeing people that were poor beyond poor yet happy. They made my hometown look like a winter wonderland. We helped in medical clinics and in this type of situation human beings are going to bond. My guard fell down and it was likely the happiest time of my life to that point. I was helping others, speaking Spanish, and I met a girl. The first one I really liked. And it wasn’t my wife.
Interestingly, my wife was on this trip as well, but wanted nothing to do with me as I was still quite meat heady at the time – pushups with girls on my back and backflips off the dock. She wasn’t buying what I was selling, yet. With nothing keeping me in Minnesota and medical school likely in the bag, I transferred to Carthage and lived very respectfully at home. The relationship with my parents healed and got very strong. Back when I was still at Augsburg I would come back during weekends to go with my father to the Zen center he would walk to through iced snow or under the forever gray clouds above Lake Michigan. At first, while sitting I would just run through medical mnemonics and facts in my mind. After sometime I began to see the wildness of my thoughts. I began to feel horrible for all the things I had done, people and especially women I had hurt or disrespected. As some kind of odd retribution I went completely celibate for close to a year and half. Nothing. It was the first time I stopped thinking about women as objects and instead thought of them as actual people with feelings and stuff.
With all of this time on my hands, I started researching medical colleges that I didn’t need a degree to enter. There were five in the country and one was right in Wisconsin, so I applied, thinking, what the hell. I got an interview, talked about Nicaragua, and got in. Meanwhile, my dad had arranged for me to work for an orthopedic surgeon north of Chicago who was one of his clients. It was the first time I experienced conventional medicine as anything other than an academic challenge and I was horrified.
I was in charge of entering patient records and these people coming into the office had gout, diabetes, and were on cocktails of medications. They were fat, never exercised, and needed a new knee or hip. Even in my very inexperienced and unworldly mind I knew there had to be another way. I knew that I wanted to be involved in prevention, not giving people costly medications or new joints. The doubt of whether I wanted to accrue 250,000 dollars in debt to be married to conventional medicine began to creep into all of our minds and under the guidance of my family and god father, I deferred a year and elected to finish my undergraduate degree.
During this year I relaxed a bit. I took Anatomy and Physiology and the only reason I took it so seriously was because Steph sat next to me every day. She would draw these intricate pictures of the all the muscles and bones and never study. We got the two best grades in the class and I ended up beating her by a point in the class through sheer will. She smiled much more and didn’t really care about her grade and we became friends. I also took a creative writing course and read books by Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lamott igniting my passion for writing. I spent 6 weeks in Buenos Aires and began to question this whole celibate business. I came back to that states and started partying a bit more. Steph started buying what I was selling and everything turned upside down. In reality, Steph and I became closer and closer and eventually at the end of that summer she made the first move. I liked her a lot and those first few months I was living in a tunnel of her smile, her laugh, and her body in that tight black dress. We graduated, college ended, and Steph and I split for a time. Our relationship in the beginning was far from perfect, but the more time I spend on this planet the more I realize that those perfect relationships scare me. The clean-ness of them makes me want to scream and break dishes, and that is probably how they feel as well.
At this point, there was nothing keeping me in the Midwest anymore so I went to live with one of my friends on the Navajo reservation who was involved in Teach For America. Steph just happened to be visiting her brother at CSU in Fort Collins and she decided to come along with me. We got back together. Broken but mended with time. Then at the same time my father got really sick.
At this point, you have to understand I cared more about my dad than anyone else on this planet. We are very alike in our demeanor, and he has been my mentor for a long time. I have seen him go through struggles and accomplish things that would have left most other people in the gutter surrounded with their addictions. My dad had a childhood that I couldn’t even fathom. His parents were alcoholics, and his father an ex-marine. He grew up in a rural backasswards town and loved to read and write and think. He had his mentor in graduate school steal his work. He has battled with anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. He has been sober since I was three and very happy, helping others for a long time.
I held my dad’s hand as he screamed. I had never seen someone in so much pain. My hand was left with a tinge of blue and tears welled in my eyes. He was diagnosed with Diverticulitis, and in a few months, had his gallbladder and ten inches of his intestine removed. You could see him wasting away. He was going through the conventional medical treatment, antibiotics and crackers, and was just battling the symptoms through gritted teeth and medications. I talked with Steph and my parents and decided to rescind entrance to medical school.
At this point, Steph and I decided to move to Boulder to get out of the Midwest, as we both had had enough. Boulder didn’t seem to suit us much better as we found the rich “trustafarian” atmosphere condescending and porcelain. But, while at the Boulder Zen Center, I met a man with Diverticulitis, and he gave the name of a book, Breaking the Vicious Cycle. The book was a nutrition manual about healing the gut through diet, basically Paleo, but you made your own yogurt.
I sent it to my dad, and he was symptom free in three days.
In my mind I went, holy F$CK!!
Meanwhile, I was struggling with my own GI symptoms fairly severely, as I remember driving to the grocery store in Boulder at three in the morning to buy Pepto Bismal. Steph and I then moved back to Sand Bay, my family’s cottages on Lake Michigan to help for the summer. In a very real and “woo woo” way, that place heals. It heals bodies and relationships. Steph and my relationship became very strong during that summer and fall. We worked together and I fell in love with her calm demeanor. I realized I never ever wanted to disappoint her. But, we had to do something with our lives, and winter was coming, and Steph does not much like the cold.
Steph had got into a few of the veterinary school in the country, this is harder than med school, and I had told the Medical College of Wisconsin, thanks, but no thanks. Even though they had let me in without a degree. So we did what most overly qualified kids out of college do, we applied for Teach For America. We both got in and were put in the Rio Grande Valley together. We had eight months to kill before our appointments started, so we decided to put everything in the back of my Honda Accord and move to Austin.
When we got here, we needed to make money to eat and do hippie stuff, so I got a job at KIPP:Austin and Steph started working for the Census. I was helping out with High School Biology and teaching study sessions in Physics. KIPP is like Teach for America’s younger sibling and it is intense. I was at work from 6am to 6pm, and when one of the Algebra teachers had to move on, they asked me if I would take his class for the rest of the year. I said yes. To this day, KIPP was the hardest thing I have ever done. Those teachers help kids that don’t believe they have any hope. You give everything you have, and it is addictive. Some people lose track of their dreams in that work, and they are amazing. They offered me a job as a Chemistry and Biology teacher the next year. I would have two subjects, 6 academic classes, and only 2 prep hours as a first year teacher. I talked to some friends at the school and even they said I would get eaten alive. It was the first time I said no to a challenge, and I still have a lingering feeling of regret, but something was pulling me away.
I was 23 and Steph 22. She just got a job for the very eccentric and extremely kind owner of a health food company. You might know it. My Fit Foods. While deciding whether to go back to KIPP the following year, he offered me a job, and I took it. There were two stores in Austin at the time and 90% of the menu was gluten free. I didn’t even know what gluten was, but when I started eating the food there, instead of cereal and bagels, all my GI symptoms went away. If you haven’t guessed, my father and I both have Celiac disease or NCGS, who knows which and who cares. It was at this point that I started reading everything by Mark Hyman and formulated my life goal to create a wellness resort like Canyon Ranch. I wanted to be able to solve problems that no one else could and I wanted to do it by finding the missing links, not by giving medications. Steph also had always dreamt of moving to Central America. Little did we know how intertwined these dreams would become.
At this time I also got very serious about exercise. I got my first personal trainer certification when I was 19 just to learn more about lifting, however, I never thought of it as an actual prospective career. Lifting was just a hobby I really liked and never missed. I trained some people, but never dove in. But, now that I was on Lake Travis with people that looked like they were chiseled out of rock (little did I know they were chiseled out of hormones, Adderall, and eating disorders, but that is for another day). We were still 23, and a few of my friends and I found CrossFit right before it’s pinnacle and went all in. We combined a high intensity lifestyle with high intensity everything. It was fantastic and addicting, until it wasn’t.
I took it so seriously, that I started to want to coach and work with others one on one and I have had consistent personal training clients since right after that summer. We teach what we need to learn. In total, I worked for My Fit Foods for two years, in that time I learned a ton about business and customer service. I managed a store and made them fistful of dollars with my heart felt ability to convince people that they needed pre-packaged pre-portioned health meals. It was a great start, but I was getting restless. I saw more money than I had ever seen before and didn’t like the feel of it. I met countless people who were rich, but unhappy and unfulfilled, searching.
I had this dream of who I wanted to become, but I had no idea how to get there. Higher education seemed like the logical choice, so I started studying for the GRE and applied to the University of Texas Nutrition PhD Program and the University of Bridgeport Human Nutrition Program, as well as three other Naturopathic Physician schools around the nation. I got in everywhere except UT.
So I started online at the University of Bridgeport in the spring semester, thinking I would then go to ND school in the fall and transfer in the credits. Right before the summer, I got a call from Kathy McWilliams at UT asking me to resubmit my application for the incoming Fall class. A day later, I got an acceptance letter with a damn-near full scholarship, and the opportunity to earn a stipend, provided I work as a teaching assistant. I didn’t even have to think. I said yes, that day. UT- Austin’s nutrition program is top five in the country and has less than a 0.1% acceptance rate. I walked around the UT campus, dreaming of myself as some fancy scientist with all the nutritional answers. Little did I know that science was going to break my little ego and make me learn…to become patient and become respectful of how much we don’t and may never know.
A lot of people don’t thrive in PhD programs. The course loads aren’t set in stone, and you have to think for yourself. You are also dependent on your advisor to hold you accountable and keep you moving. Dr Davis took me under her wing and I have been incredibly lucky to have her as my advisor. She never micromanages me, but pushed me and supported me on this journey even though she knew I would never enter academia. In my first year, she let me work with UT basketball, and Todd Wright and Logan Schwartz, who showed me that being a strength coach was a real career. My salary is paid for by her or the nutritional science portion of the college, so she did in fact LET me work for Todd and Lo, and for that I am forever grateful.
Yet, the biggest gift of my graduate school education was time. I was done with my coursework in three semesters, and it lit a fire that no one had any of this figured out yet. I was quite attached to the Paleo movement, as it had helped me and my father and seemed to be our answer. I had gotten up to a personal training client load of about 10 and I was constantly experimenting (God bless them). I began to at least see the big picture of exercise, health, and nutrition. In my second year of grad school I found the search term “Functional Medicine”, and it was all over. Like so many others in this field, I had found IT, and over the past 3 years I have spent countless hours on PubMed, at seminars, and reading. When you find something you love and want to do with the rest of your life you also must invest money into it and over this time I easily spent well over 50K out of my own pocket on gadgets, textbooks, and continued education. Hell, I spent five thousand just last week. Everything and more of what I made from my PT clients went back into learning. Steph also paid the majority of the bills my first couple years of grad school, which allowed me even more time and money to invest in this endeavor. I always joke that eventually she will be my Yoga sugar momma and I will be the nerdiest of all nerdiest stay at home dads.
Over the last eight years, I have likely learned more about nutrition, biochemistry, digestion, genetics, and how research works than any other terminal degree I am aware of. Today, I earned a Doctorate in Nutrition that opens more doors and garners respect from the general public. That respect has to be continually earned through my effort to learn and find individual answers. Everyone in the department is a bit flummoxed why I would not pursue a Post-Doc position at Princeton, Harvard, or some other fancy school like my colleagues. But, my wife has waited for me for many years now, and since our honeymoon the dream to create a Functional Medicine and Yoga Retreat center in the Costa Rican Jungle has become the focal point of both our professional efforts.
It’s time to pack everything up again, to continue the search, to help others, to dive into the abyss of “this might not work” and swim as hard as we can to build a space out of knowledge and individual application, with the power to heal like the blue water and summer sun of Sand Bay.
See you there.
P.S. Thank you for reading what I write. If someone put a gun to my head and asked me to choose only one thing I could do for the rest of my life, without a second’s hesitation I would respond – writing. This story is quite ego-centric and there are many sentences that start with I and end with my. Future writing will not include many, if any first person narratives. They are just not that helpful or needed. Thank you for listening to this story, now it can be put it away.