Hello Dear One,
Today I am taking what feels like a big risk to tell you my story. It’s scary to be vulnerable and transparent when society programs us to wear the “I have it all together. My life is perfect” mask. However, I’ve learned that when we are courageous enough to take off our masks, and show the world who we really are, we can begin to truly connect with others and live an authentic, meaningful life. I’m sharing my story with the intention of offering you hope and encouragement on your own healing journey. I’m also sharing my story today, on Mother’s Day, in honor and celebration of my mother, and all the other women in the world who struggle to balance life, work, ministry and motherhood. Here goes…
In 2011 I gave birth to my third beautiful daughter, Christina. I allotted myself a few weeks off from my busy medical practice to recover and bond with this precious little one. My heart ached to know that I would soon have to leave her to return to my work as a rural family doctor. As the co-owner of a primary care clinic, my patients and colleagues relied on me to be there. The expenses of running the business were huge, and did not disappear when I was out of the office. I was on the postpartum hormonal roller coaster, and when Christina’s dried umbilical cord stump fell off on her tenth day of life, I cried uncontrollably.
Nevertheless, duty called and days later I left my newborn, along with my then three and six year old daughters, in the care of my husband and returned to doctoring. Christina flat our rejected the bottles of pumped breast milk that I left with my husband. Thankfully we lived a mile away from my office and he was able to bring her to me twice during the work day so she could nurse. I ran home for noon time feeding sessions as well. This went on for over a year. She would make up for lost time by nursing literally all night long as we co-slept. Then at 5 a.m. I’d wake up, nurse and head out to our local 50 bed hospital and round on my patients, followed by seeing 20+ patients a day in the office before returning home exhausted. My soul was hurting.
When I look back now, I’m not sure how I survived those early years of private practice and raising babies. Deep down I had long known that conventional medicine was not my true calling. A year after giving birth to my first daughter, Leah, I attended the National Wellness Conference in Stevens Point, Wisconsin and dreamed of having my own integrative medical center. Two years after my second daughter, Ana, was born I pressed on toward this goal and became a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine. A couple of years later I was a mom of three and a co-owner of a conventional family medical practice. I felt torn between my desire to be present for my children and the equally powerful calling to transform my medical practice. I was also frustrated by the push to see patients quickly, knowing full well that we were simply scratching the surface of their medical problems in our 15 minute visits. At the same time there were economic pressures on me to further increase the number of patients per day to meet the escalating costs of running a highly regulated primary care medical office with twenty employees.
The year before Christina was born my husband, Pete, and I started a health coaching business, the Life Wellness Center, that ran alongside my medical practice. I gave my patients recommendations for basic nutritional support such as fish oil, vitamin D, CoQ10 and gentle herbs for healing the gut and balancing hormones. I collaborated with a holistic nutritionist who helped my patients implement a Mediterranean diet for control of cardiometabolic diseases such as obesity, hyperlipidemia, hypertension, type 2 diabetes mellitus and coronary artery disease. It was a huge success for my patients and reinvigorated my practice of medicine.
It was wonderful to see patients actually reversing chronic diseases, losing substantial body fat, feeling great and no longer needing some of their prescription medications. We had some spectacular cases. One man with insulin dependent type 2 diabetes and a recent heart attack improved his HgbA1C (a blood test showing blood sugar control) from 14 to 6 in a six month period, and was able to discontinue insulin shots! Another woman who suffered with obesity and severe life-long psoriasis had a remission of her skin lesions within weeks of shifting her lifestyle and starting a nutraceutical treatment regimen.
This work was extremely rewarding, but there was one big problem – the bottom line. I was only able to afford to offer these lifestyle medicine services one day a week because it hurt my “productivity,” decreasing the number of patients I could see in a day. I hired a nurse practitioner to help provide the direct oversight required by insurance companies to bill for these services, but it was still not profitable in a insurance based business model. I limped along financially for two years trying to no avail to succeed in my conventional practice, and then in 2012 I made the decision to break away from the insurance based model and go to a direct pay model. On a shoe string budget I rented a small office space, hired an amazing secretary and started seeing patients. I spent 90+ minutes with new patients and as long as they needed for follow up visits. It was exhilarating. The patients loved it and there was a huge demand for my services. People were being healed by the deep listening, empathy and the holistic care I was able to provide with this new gift of time.
I continued to struggle financially, but was determined to offer affordable holistic primary care to serve the needs of my community. I hired health care business consultants and reluctantly started to accept insurance money for payment for my services, first as an out-of-network provider and then eventually as an in-net-work provider once again. The high demand for our services continued and my team grew quickly to include two nurse practitioners, two holistic nutritionists, an RN/aromatherapist, five certified medical assistants, two fitness instructors, two front office staff and an off-site business management team including a CPA, lawyer and certified professional medical coders. I offered weekend educational seminars and hosted a weekly radio show. I was living my dream, but in many ways it actually became a nightmare.
Sadly, much of our revenue was used to pay for the team required to collect our fees from Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance companies. As the owner/manager, I took on the challenging job of human resources and found the delicate art of managing employees to be quite stressful. Once again I felt enormous pressure to see more patients per day simply to keep our doors open. I was on overdrive, neglecting my family life and often working seven days a week trying to keep my business afloat. No surprise I was secretly struggling with stress induced health issues: blood pressure spikes, heart palpitations, muscle tension, headaches, anxiety, depressed mood, hypoglycemia and irritable bowel symptoms. This was the setup for my perfect storm. In January of 2016 it became clear that the business was not generating enough revenue to keep pace with our expenses. I contemplated giving up my in-network status with health insurance companies again, and converting the practice to a concierge model, but according to my consultants this would have required turning away most of my patients and charging $2500 per year per person. This just didn’t feel right to me.
This same month I took a trip to Sedona, Arizona with my mom to celebrate our birthdays. At the time she was battling metastatic breast cancer and I knew it would probably be her last birthday. We took a side trip to the Grand Canyon on my 40th birthday, and as I sat across from her at lunch the tears flowed from my eyes. I excused myself from the table and went to the restroom to pull myself together. I recognized that I was experiencing anhedonia, a symptom of depression defined by the inability to experience pleasure. It was one of the lowest points in my life, like a dark cloud had engulfed me. As we drove back through the desert valley to our condo in Sedona I stared quietly out the window. My mom calmly asked, “what are your thinking about?” I finally admitted that my life was not working. My business was failing. My health was a mess. I felt like a failure as a wife and mother. My precious mother was dying before my eyes. It was in that moment that I decided to pursue moving to Asheville to start over in my career and to be close to my mom during her last months on earth.
The summer before our Sedona trip my mother’s integrative physician, Dr. John Wilson Jr. of Asheville, NC had sent word through my mom that he was looking for a physician partner. I dismissed his invitation at the time as I had my own practice in Georgia, but this conversation flashed in my mind during that fateful car ride in the desert. Within days of returning home from Arizona, I sent my curriculum vitae along with a letter of interest to Dr. Wilson. He called me the same day and we arranged an interview that weekend. I returned to shadow him the following Tuesday and had a signed employment contract that weekend. Next came the painful process of winding down the Life Wellness Center in Georgia. I saw my last patient in Blairsville at the end of March and began full time work at Great Smokies Medical Center on April 1, 2016.
Our family experienced tremendous grief in 2016. We said goodbye to our home of nearly a decade, patients, friends, co-workers, schools and our church family as we re-located to a different state. We lost my mom to cancer and also suffered a devastating financial loss due to the closing of my business. Although the move was traumatic in many ways, we are experiencing healing and new life. After joining Dr. Wilson I have once again discovered the deeply gratifying work that can only happen with the gift of time with my patients. The Great Smokies Medical Center is the longest operating integrative medical center in the state and is completely opted out of insurance company networks allowing the doctors freedom to spend the often 3+ hours with new patients. I love having the time and freedom to fully hear people’s stories and practice in alignment with my values. I am also eternally grateful for the precious time we were able to spend close to my mother during her last year, as she died at the end of October, 2016. She was a truly remarkable human being and her death has left a great void in our world.
All of the difficulty of the past decade has brought into clear focus what is really important in life. I am truly grateful for all the trials, loss and grief. I know that may sound crazy, but it’s true. The pain has helped me to get crystal clear on what I need to be healthy and to live a joyful, abundant life. The heartache and struggle has actually fueled this shift in my mindset. The Bible teaches this same lesson, which at first glance may appear to be non-sense:
Consider it nothing but joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you fall into various trials. Be assured that the testing of your faith [through experience] produces endurance [leading to spiritual maturity, and inner peace]. And let endurance have its perfect result and do a thorough work, so that you may be perfect and completely developed [in your faith], lacking in nothing. ~James 1:2-4 AMP
Despite the grief and loss over the last several years, I’ve experienced remarkable healing of my physical and emotional symptoms. I give Jesus all the credit and attribute my healing to prayer, working with a Christian life coach and counselor, improving my work-life balance, connecting with a community of amazing female friends, making positive changes in my diet and taking nutritional supplements to restore optimal function to my body, brain and nervous system. I’m finally creating space in my life to practice what I preach and implement my own “Joy Prescription.” Nutritional and lifestyle adjustments have been critical to my healing, but these shifts could not have occurred without the profound spiritual growth that came as a result of the perfect storm and its aftermath. Nothing draws us closer to God than suffering. My spiritual practices of prayer, worship and reading Scripture helped me to shift my mindset, heal my mind/body and start down the path of cultivating joy and a healthy lifestyle. God’s word has brought desperately needed healing to my soul.
Psalm 19:1 NIV reminds us to stand in awe of God’s creation: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” When we slow down and wonder at the natural world, we see His fingerprints in all of creation. From the stars in the night sky, the flight of a delicate butterfly and the power of a lion’s roar, we see His infinite creativity and care for His creation. Our problems fade into the background when we meditate on the sovereign power of God. Psalm 19:1 actually holds the meaning of life, the purpose of all things, even us, even our suffering – we exist to bring glory to God. My life is ultimately not about me. The purpose of my life is the same as all of the rest of creation – to bring glory to God, to reflect His perfect goodness. This puts everything, our failures, short comings, successes and talents, into proper perspective. When you realize that you were created to serve the All-loving, All-powerful, All-knowing God who loves you unconditionally and guides your every step, it becomes a lot easier to accept trials and suffering as a necessary and important part of life.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. ~Romans 8:28 NIV
When I look back over my life I can clearly see how God used my deepest pains, struggles and losses to bring me closer to Him. He gave me freedom from the sin that was stealing my joy and life energy. He is smashing my idols (e.g. money, work, worldly success), crushing my fears and pride and freeing me from my obsession with pleasing and impressing others. This shift in my mindset allows me to rest in Jesus, knowing that I am deeply loved just the way that I am.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story. I hope that it has brought you some hope and encouragement. Feel free to share this post with the women in your life. Happy Mother’s Day!
Cynthia Libert, M.D.
P.S. Sign up to receive my free “Joy Prescriptions” by joining the Caring for the Body Community.