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Dr. Bill Stewart: A Star in Our Healing Ecosystem

--Bela Shah, on Apr 25, 2012

On last Saturday’s Forest Call, Dr. William Stewart, better known as Dr. Bill, took many of us six feet under, into the depths of holistic, integrative medicine.  In less than two hours, it seemed like he had redefined the scope of health and medicine.

Every issue is a health issue. Everything we think, feel and do impacts our state of well-being in ways not yet fully understood by science. Without question, our ability to prevent disease, heal illness, overcome mental health issues, and maintain peak performance as we age is affected by our deepest inner beliefs and core values.” (Dr. Bill, “Deep Medicine: Harnessing the Source of Your Healing Power”)
Dr. Bill has been committed to healing our world since he was in pre-school. (He has a vague recollection of caring for anything that he felt needed his attention, whether it was a stuffed animal or a stepped on caterpillar.)   Since his pre-school years, Dr. Bill has grown up to become a nationally renowned oculoplastic surgeon and has received the “Best Doctors in America” recognition every year for more than ten years.  Then, after a life changing experience in India, Dr. Bill came back to the States and decided to leave surgery.  He put down his scalpel in order to explore the role of integrative medicine in the individual and collective healing process, and he ended up co-finding the Institute for Health and Healing, where he is currently the Medical Director.

What is integrative medicine?  These highlights from his interview describe Dr. Bill’s belief that health and medicine are not just physical, but also emotional, mental, and spiritual pursuits.

“Deep Medicine”: An Intriguing Phrase but What Exactly does it Mean?
In high school, Dr. Bill wrote a paper on Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Book of Genesis.  Even though he believed that it was very sophomoric, what still resonates with him is engaging the mystery or the unanswered question at the boundary or the unseen at the edge. 

“There was nothing that profound about it except that I was keenly aware that whether I was dealing with questions of faith and the divine, things were always unanswered and science was exactly the same way.  We can see things in the microscope but what is beyond it? What can’t we see?  What don’t we understand in spite of all we do understand?”

The “medicine” part of deep medicine tries to capture everything that might have a healing power.  Dr. Bill explained how native people have defined a person’s medicine as their individual capacity to heal; in that sense, our medicine is very personal, it’s life-long and unique and original.

“Each of us brings something to the unfolding creation that nobody else has, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  So each of our individual stories are an essential part of the medical possibilities that can unfold…It’s extremely important that everybody shows up with their medicine…we never know what thought or feeling or gesture or action will be a healing balm to someone else.”

Through deep medicine, Dr. Bill seeks to go beyond the superficial aspects of healing, to a more profound level that comes more from the heart than from the mind.  This approach seeks answers and possible solutions that are learned and wise as well as knoledgeable and scientifici.

Serving in India….and Experiencing a Life Change
In 1983, Dr. Bill spent a significant amount of time serving at the Aravind Eye Hospital in India.  He described how he found a group of people truly working from a place of compassion and truly serving not because of a paycheck at the end of the week.  “They were not laying bricks; they were building a cathedral to healing.”

Dr. Bill was stunned and inspired by the generosity of spirit, both in what was made available for use by people that were working 12 and 14 hours days and doing so with joy and caring, but what was offered to every patient who crossed the threshold, whether they were rich or poor, it didn’t matter what cast they were from. Whatever brought them through the door was fully met. 
“I went to India as a young surgeon, at a time when I was on an ascendency in my profession, and I went there truly full of myself, appreciating what I was going to be able to contribute to this developing institute in a developing country.  But I had my mind, body, and spirit blown by that Aravind experience. It was one of those shifting moments where I’ve never been the same after that. I may seem the same. But I’ve changed.
It led to what Dr. Bill described as “pulling a Seinfeld”, stepping away from his surgical practice into a different kind of healing practice. But what changed was not disenchantment with medicine as much as a broadening and deepening of his appreciation of what health is, and what well being is.  “There isn’t anything that does not have an impact on our health.  Whether we’re talking about environmental degradation or social justice or economics or politics or violence, every issue is a health issue.”

At that time, it was a giant step because in the 1980s when all this work started, the medical politics at California Pacific Medical Center began to create something that would actually balance the high tech, reductionist approach to medicine that physicians lived on a daily basis with a more high touch, in depth, holistic perspective.  Dr. Bill explained that it took some years to convince leadership at the highest levels that this should be tried, and he could have easily left the California Pacific Medical Center in order to start his own institution. But he chose to work within the belly of the beast….it was important for him to balance the benefits of modern medicine with integrative medicine. 

He was strongly motivated by James Hutton, a geologist and a physician in the late 1700s who suggested that we needed planetary medicine, instead of species specific medicine, because this would allow us to appreciate our relationship to other species as well as our environment.  “We know the impact that education, poverty, and violence have on our wellbeing, on our immune system and level of stress, and on the diseases we get and how we’re able to heal from them or not.  It’s so linked to everything around us and it’s part of the proof of the interconnection that we really share with everything in creation.”

The Best Diagnosis of Healing is Change
A caller commented on the way the healthcare insurance systems are set up today, which don’t really allow for a dialogue between the patient and his doctor.  But sometimes what a doctor has to provide is not medical knowledge, just plain old compassion.  So how can this system change?  Dr. Bill acknowledged that we’re at a place now where the benefits of biotechnical medicine our out of balance with the power of holistic or integrative or relational medicine.  But he expressed his belief that we’re at a very significant transition phase where changes are going to occur within the system, pointing out that currently, we don’t really have a “system”.  "We have a patchwork of systems that are blended together into this quilt that doesn’t keep us warm but goes under the name of the healthcare system.” 

Each individual needs to participate in their own well being…we can’t turn that over to experts.  Yet experts have to appreciate that we aren’t a machine.  Those things that are holistic are essential to rebalancing us, they are essential healing factors when our health is disrupted. We’re too reliant right now on the change that can come from radiation therapy or pharmaceuticals and not trusting in change that can come from nutrition, and relationships, and our own exercise. I believe that everybody has to express their own deep medicine, their own calling, their own passion, and that’s how change will occur. The best diagnosis of healing is change.”
Participating in Our Own Well Being
What is a recipe for self care? How do we maintain that awareness?  Just as the natives believed, “our medicine is very personal, it’s life-long and unique and original.”  Everyone has their own recipe for their well being and to get to that recipe, Dr. Bill explained that we have to allow ourselves to slow down so that we can hear our own wisdom, our own desires, and feel what it is that feels rights…what choices do we need to make?  In medicine, the sooner that symptom is recognized, the easier it is to treat.  Similarly, in life, the earlier we can recognize that we’re beginning to get hungry, tired, depressed, thirsty, etc., we have to take steps to counter these symptoms.  We should eat before we’re too hungry, have something to drink before we’re bone dry thirsty, and rest before we’re exhausted. And all of this requires making appointments with ourselves to check in.  How are we feeling?  These simple reminders are essential to our well being.

Even Dr. Bill doesn’t have this perfectly managed.  He admitted that he also gets overtired and experiences the same kind of challenges that all of us experience from too much work or not enough free time.  

But he shared two last pieces of very valuable advice:
  • Number One: In so much as we can, learn to rest at the ores.”
  • Number Two: Do what needs to be done to keep yourselves “on dream” or connected to the fire within your calling, your passion, your highest values, and your deepest desires.  When you’re in service, when you’re “on dream”, you tire less.”
  • Number Three: Life is just a matter of going a bit to the left and course correcting back to the right, and trying to maintain the balance.  I’m sure the Dali Lama gets angry and tired and I know that Dr. V at the Aravind Eye Hospital got angry and tired.  But I think the masters over time become more facile and regain their balance when they lose it.  Everyone should pursue their own deep medicine to hear what their inner wisdom voice is asking of you next.

And what are Dr. Bill’s personal secrets:)?  He walks and takes the stairs as much as possible, he has a new puppy that he describes as “an unconditional innocent love machine hanging around”, he practices yoga during a minimum of two 90 minute sessions a week, and he pursues wonderful relationships that expand him, while trying to avoid those that don’t.

As Pavi so eloquently articulated,

“What a poignant and fiercely beautiful place healers and doctors are in.  They are people who stand up to be keepers of their brothers and that responsibility comes with so many different kinds of edges. Over the centuries, I feel like the travelers have lost their path a little bit…in this day and age, as we are searching for a way to bring medicine back to the values that it originated with, we look for stars to follow and Dr Bill you are one of them that is shining brightly…that instantaneous experience of humility that you experienced…that quality is so important in a field that has a lot of hubris…you are the antidote…may your ilk and tribe increase.”