I’m often asked why I got into functional medicine. To really understand it, we have to go back- back to school, back to my training, and back to my first clinical practice employment. When I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with my degree as a pediatric nurse practitioner, I felt ready. I had gone to one of the best schools in the county, got a 4.0, graduated with highest honors, and had some of the best mentors during my clinical practice rotations. To top it off, I got my first job with Dr. Valerie Wheelock, a well-known and loved pediatrician. I felt equipped… but boy, I was in for an unexpected surprise.
I had so many parents challenge me in ways that I never expected. They challenged the vaccine schedule, challenged my choice to treat an antibiotic for an ear infection, and sought desperately after the information I had never been taught. Diet? Supplements? Essential Oils? Maybe I learned about scurvy somewhere along the way, or that iron deficiency anemia was a screening lab needed at certain age milestones, but I was never really taught anything about how to advise on nutrition for a growing child. The formula reps were the authority in the pediatric world. Certainly, I knew nothing about supplements, other than to maybe snicker behind someone's back, and label them as “woo-woo” if they were using them. When those parents were on my schedule, I felt anxiety and a sense of doom. Ultimately my ego was challenged. After all, I was a trained provider, wasn’t I supposed to know better than my patients in most things?
The message given to providers, both inadvertently and directly, that they are “authorities” in a person's health is faulty. It is actually the patient that is the authority over their own health, and we, as medical providers, are their partners. It wasn’t until a few years later when I began studying for my doctorate at Johns Hopkins that I started to have some clarity. During my doctoral work, I had to spend 6 months “defining my problem in practice”. Well, that was easy. My problem was I avoided all of those oil-rubbing, vaccine-hesitant, supplement-bound parents because I knew I was not equipped to be their partner in a type of health care I had no training on. And so it began.
If I was going to partner with those parents, understand them, listen to them, and give them evidence-based and safe advice, I had to educate myself on their world. And this ultimately changed my world, and my own health forever. Since then, I have worked hard on bridging that knowledge gap, in a way that was science-based (not “woo-woo”). I’ve also worked hard on keeping an open mind in that just maybe pharmaceuticals are not the only answer, all the time.
It's been 9 years since and I’m still learning, and my thirst likely will never be satiated on learning all things that are integrative and functional for health management. It's like I was looking through binoculars before, only seeing the base of the mountain, and when I took those lenses off, I could see the landscape: the enormity of the mountain, its majestic peaks, the rivers that cut through it, the sky that swirled around it, the whole picture, the whole person. The mainstream medical narrative has its place, undeniably, but it is only part of the wellness journey we are all on in this life.
Today, I feel most grateful for those days sitting knee to knee with moms who made my blood pressure rise as they drilled me over how I was going to advise managing their children when they came in for a wellness visit or a cold. In fact, I consider some of them my dearest friends. I resonate with Aristotle's wisdom, when he once said, “the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know”. My pledge to myself, my family, and my patients is to remain humble, with an open heart, an open mind, and with as little ego as possible, always in pursuit of the truth, so that I may always try to see the whole mountain.
- Dr. Emily Gutierrez, DNP, C-PNP, IFMCP, PMHS, CCN
Doctor of Nursing Practice, Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, Institute of Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner, Certified Primary Care Mental Health Specialist, and Certified Clinical Nutritionist