This is a life story account of the career of Dr Wendy Rose Isbell. Wendy Rose is a Medical Practitioner who is very interested in the role of the mind and the body connection to achieve good health. As such, she has created a unique career path in New Zealand healthcare. Wendy Rose offers conventional medical treatments to patients, but has also learned about homeopathic and flower essence treatments and, where relevant, offers these to patients. She also provides flower essences and meditation through a separate business which focuses on personal and spiritual growth. This story is told in Wendy Rose’s own words, and tells of her career pathway from the first steps through to the present time.
I have worked in the healthcare industry for over a decade, and have an interest in the provision of health and wellness. I am grateful to Wendy Rose for participating in this project with me as part of the SOCI340: Life Stories and Social Analysis course. It was an important part of my pathway to becoming a Sociological researcher, and I enjoyed constructing this life story with her. I was interested to learn about the things that influenced Wendy Rose’s career decisions, and learning about her experiences working in healthcare. I hope that you enjoy this story too.
I have always had a deep understanding of doctoring. It’s as if I had been a doctor in a past life, and I came into this world with a purpose of filling that role in life again. My desire to become a doctor started at a very young age. Even at the age of four I had a sense of purpose. I knew the path I wanted to follow, and my family never had much say in the matter.
I had a lot of ill health as a child, with asthma in particular. When I was eight years old I was admitted to hospital, unconscious, after a particularly bad asthma attack. I actually think I had a near-death experience, because I can clearly remember coming back to my body. I looked at the doctor from inside the oxygen tent, and I understood what was happening, what I was doing, and that I was meant to be alive. I’m not sure if I wanted to come back, but I understood that it wasn’t my time to go yet.
My childhood experiences with doctors in the early 1950s taught me what it meant to be a doctor. My GP’s doctor wife wasn’t a proper doctor because she was a lady and there couldn’t be lady doctors. And the woman paediatrician I saw was very fierce and had a gruff demeanour, so I didn’t consider her a proper doctor either. These women were not role models for me. A proper doctor was someone who was on top of their game and knew the ins and outs of things. There was also a sense that a woman would be compromised by having a family. Therefore they wouldn’t be up with the play, so proper doctors were male.
When I was in late high school I visited the careers advisor. She said that I couldn’t be a doctor because I was a woman, and because I would have to buy a microscope and bones. Nonetheless I was determined to be a doctor. The pathway opened when my father, one night over the dinner table, said to me, “Well Wendy, if you want to be a doctor we’ll put you through med school even if we have to have holes in our shoes.”
So I did medical intermediate, passing exams in Physics, Chemistry and Zoology to get into Otago School of Medicine.
Moving to Dunedin was a traumatic transition for me. I didn’t know anybody in Dunedin, so I felt lonely. On top of that, my family moved to Wellington while I was studying, and they got used to me being away from home, so I didn’t have a sense of belonging anywhere. During Med School holidays I would visit home, and my sister would be saying, “Oh no, Wendy’s home, I have to share the room.”
I did four years in Dunedin, and I wasn’t a wonderful student. I failed some exams, but not too badly, so I had to sit Specials, which meant repeating the exam before the next year. Several of us had to do that. The problem was that each topic was taught separately and there was no coherence in the course. I didn’t feel like I had a comprehensive understanding because everything was so disconnected.
However, there were some very good psychiatrists in the teaching hospital in Dunedin who were inspirational to me. Psychiatrists were magical, because they were able to make formulations and put the pieces of the puzzle together. It was very exciting, because they were looking at things at a different level. They weren’t looking to blame people, but could pull out pieces of information that would help people sort out things for themselves. Quite a number of the class did psychiatry because of their inspired teaching.
I had a few interesting holiday jobs while I was a student. I worked as a Nurse Aide at Sunnyside Hospital, and then at Porirua Hospital. During that time I learned how to make beds, and saw a lot of inhumane treatment, but I enjoyed relating to the patients. I worked very long days at Porirua Hospital, travelling between Wellington and Porirua, working 12 and 13 hour days, which just about did me in.
In my final year of Med School I worked as an Acting House Surgeon at Auckland Hospital, which was an interesting experience. I worked in several different wards during my time there. The Medical Ward was sheer exhaustion, because we were working until 3 o’clock in the morning, and were also on call. The Critical Care Unit required a doctor on site all the time, so I had to sleep there. It was a real baptism by fire. At times it was scary, and other times it was boring. I was reliable, but I didn’t have experience so I could be useful by doing examinations and passing information on to the consultants. I relied on the nurses for assistance, and they were wonderful.
I did my final year of Med School in Christchurch, which is when all the information started to connect and make sense. I had learned the cardiovascular system, the respiratory system, and the neurological system, and now I was learning exactly how to approach a patient. It wasn’t until we started the clinical work that it all started to make sense in my mind. Interaction with patients made all the difference.
My career goals were to do something relating to psychosomatic stuff, or the connections between the mind and the body. I was interested in doing a joint specialisation in psychiatry and medicine, it felt like that’s where I belonged. I knew that the mind played a part in what the body did, even though very few people ever talked about it.
I stayed in Christchurch after completing Med School, to work as a House Surgeon. I found myself to be really interested in the medical side of things rather than surgery, and there was really good teaching in Christchurch. I went on to spend two and a half years as a Medical Registrar before going overseas.
In those days there was a problem with junior doctors leaving the country after just one year as a House Surgeon. So the Health Department established a bursary which meant that if you did four years as a junior doctor you got a year’s pay to go away. I’d done more than four years, and my ex-husband was due for study leave, so we were sponsored to go away and play.
We went to the UK, and I got my English membership, passing the exam the first time. I took a course in Advanced Medicine, attended the open seminars offered by the teaching schools, and had a whale of a time. This would have been a great time to learn about homeopathy, but unfortunately I had not discovered it yet.
I worked as a Medical Registrar for a while when I returned to New Zealand, and found that I was interested in doing Geriatrics. I applied for a job as a Registrar in Geriatrics at The Princess Margaret Hospital in Christchurch, but they suggested that I apply for the consultant position that had been advertised. So my first consultant position was in Geriatrics at age 29, and people jokingly congratulated me for being “on the senior staff.”
Geriatrics is a lovely specialty, and the mind and the body are really important there. There is a lot less leeway for things to go wrong with the elderly. Confusion may be caused by an infection, so it is important to not give sedation as a first measure. It is also important to know when to treat depression and dementia with psychiatry, and when to look for medical causes. Someone might present with depression, but there might be underlying medical causes, so it is important to be thorough.
I went into the psycho-geriatric ward, where my experiences of being a Nurse Aide and a Psych Registrar came in useful. I knew what it was like to not have power, but was now able to use my expertise to question authority and make sure things were done properly. So I was able to develop my interest in psychosomatic medicine, using the Medical and Psychiatric disciplines.
However, I was pregnant when I got the post and suffered from high blood pressure, so I promptly went on maternity leave. But the path had opened up for me, and I came back to it several years later.
My interest in alternative therapies began with a need to find treatments for myself. I was really very depressed after I had my children; a depressed housewife, never going out the door. I lost my confidence and did not work for several years. During that time I saw a psychiatrist, who was reluctant to prescribe antidepressants but did so eventually. I also looked into alternative therapies, to improve my whole general well-being.
So after being trained in teaching hospitals where everybody thought alternative treatments were just a joke, I surprised myself by finding an interest in them. I investigated polarity fields and crystals, but it was Rebirthing that helped me get through my depression. Rebirthing is a breathing technique which enables a person to access and consciously deal with subconscious issues. I did lots of that, and I eventually came right and went back to work. After a short stint at Family Planning, I returned to Geriatrics.
I was introduced to homeopathy through a counsellor, who explained that it had an intellectual basis and an intuitional basis. I had previously taken my daughter to see a homeopath, and had not been very convinced by the experience. She seemed very uncertain, and she looked through her books a lot. My daughter had another ear infection after the consultation, and had antibiotics. When I took her back for follow up she was dismayed that she had had antibiotics, and thought that we had ‘spoilt the case’. As a doctor, I did not understand homeopathic doses and things, and we had not been told not to give her antibiotics.
After the recommendation, I got some books about homeopathy, did some homework, and it made sense to me. Over time I read more and more about it, and by the mid 1980s I started seeing people at home one morning a week. Eventually I got a part-time room and provided homeopathy treatment for two or three half-days each week. And after working in teaching hospitals for nearly two decades, I worked up the courage to leave and provide homeopathic and medical care in the community.
Many decisions were made at this pivotal time in my life. I had decided to leave my husband, but had to take practical things into consideration, and needed to be able to afford to support myself. I turned down the option of being a full-time mum and going on the DPB, and instead decided to open a full-time practice and share parenting with my ex-husband. People didn’t understand at first, and thought that I had given up custody. Having them full-time would have allowed for regular routines and set expectations, but shared custody was useful at times.
It did not take long for me to find a room to work from. I was working to the medical model, with homeopathy treatment and flower essences. In some ways I am working exactly the same way now. I am still using the same examination record sheet that I developed before I left the hospital, for instance.
First and foremost I work as a medical doctor. I relish the tradition of medicine, where you follow history, past history, interrogation, examination, diagnosis, and then go on to investigations and management. I find this very logical, so that all aspects of a patient’s case can be covered. I also appreciate the robust ethical basis of medicine, and the base of knowledge with an excellent system of hypothesis, setting up trials, double blinding to rule out bias, collection of data, evaluation, and then conclusions. Major journals follow a very rigorous process to guard against publication bias. This is important, so that one person or one group can’t sway other people just because of their personal opinions. The knowledge available can lead to a consensus of opinion (albeit one with nuances and provisos). In this way, the process of medicine remains constant, but the information available is continually being updated.
The alternative therapies I offer in my practice are only the ones I have trained in and have found to be helpful, namely Homeopathy, Flower Essences and Homeobotanicals (herbal preparations). The range of complementary and alternative medicine is so wide that I think it would not be possible for one person to cover the whole field. In integrative medicine, doctors combine medicine with a number of alternative practices and techniques. That is not really my focus, as I am concentrating both on medicine and the treatment modalities I have chosen to use. In the United States there is a trend towards anti-aging medicine, where various treatments and supplements are given. I am not in that camp, as my focus is more on treating and preventing disease, and promoting health and well-being. Having worked in geriatrics, I do not subscribe to the fear of ageing or ill health.
Most of my patients come to me because I do homeopathy, but some come to me as a general practitioner, and some want a health check-up or second opinion, so I have to be clear about what it is they want from me. When a new patient comes to me I ask them to fill in a four sided health questionnaire. They can download this and fill it in at home, or come in before their appointment. The first two pages from the questionnaire are in a standard medical format, as it is taught to medical students and advanced trainees. The wording is taken directly from the “blue book” that is used as a student guide, and I did that so that this can be a teaching practice as well. That explains why I have used the terms “Complaints”, “Past History”, and “Social History.” The third page is headed “Interrogation”, and is a checklist of symptoms to do with the various body systems, together with a few extra questions to help with homeopathic remedies, such as food cravings and aversions, and so on. Most of the last page is about “Modalities”, to give more information about likes and dislikes, and when the person feels better or worse, to help with choosing homeopathic remedies.
In the consultation I talk to the patient about their health problems, and ask for more information if I need it. I go through the questionnaire, and ask further questions to give me a better picture of their health problems. The patient can give me more information then, or at any other time. Then I do a full medical examination, and I find this very useful, because I am able to rule out any problems that aren’t present, and can look at any abnormal physical findings. Sometimes I find evidence of significant abnormalities which need further investigation. I write down the examination findings and make a Problem List of Active and Inactive Problems. The patient is there while I am doing this, so we go through the problem list together. If they have had recent investigations I ask permission to ring for the results, and contact the laboratory or x-ray facility to ask for a copy to be faxed through to me. This is done immediately, so I can review the results while the patient is still here, and we can discuss any further tests that may be useful. Then I do any medical prescribing that is necessary. At this stage I can continue on with homeopathy or Flower Essences if the patient wishes.
If a patient has not mentioned alternative therapy I will say that I also practice homeopathy and flower essences, and enquire if they would like treatment with these. If they say no, I say “that is fine”, and we complete the consultation and arrange for follow up visits. Even if I think the person would benefit from a homeopathic treatment, or if they are a textbook example for treatment with a particular remedy, I would never push them, because it is their decision. If the patient is not sure, I suggest they go away and have a look at my website and read about what I can offer, or give them handouts to take away. I am happy to prescribe them conventional medicine, or provide other treatments if they decide that they want it.
If they say yes, I show them page of information entitled “Homeopathic Treatment”. I give them a Consent Form. I explain that there are benefits to using homeopathy in conjunction with traditional medicine, such as homeopathy can often help with conditions which “fall between the cracks” with conventional medicine, and that homeopathy can add to conventional medical treatment.
The risks of homeopathy as part of the treatment are the opposite side of the coin. If the patient needs conventional medicine they should have it. I do not use homeopathic treatment as a way to avoid prescribing necessary conventional treatment. There are no real side effects of homeopathic medicine, but that sometimes people can get an aggravation after taking a remedy. This can be an aggravation of the symptoms they have, or that they have had. If this happens it usually occurs in the first few days, and resolves fairly quickly. I ask them to contact me if they think they might be having an aggravation so I can help them, but in practice I rarely have anyone ringing me back about this.
At that stage, I already have most of the information I need for choosing a homeopathic remedy. I can ask for more information if I need it. I go to my dispensing desk, and consult the Repertories: reference books sorted by symptoms, with lists of remedies used for treating each symptom. I look up the important symptoms and assemble the possible remedies. Then I consult the Materia Medicas: reference books which list each remedy, and the symptoms it produces, and is used for. At this stage I can ask whether the patient has any further symptoms that would help differentiate between the remedies. This may take a while, and I need to be quite clear before I give a remedy.
While I am doing this for the first appointment, the patient is usually reading the information sheet and going through the Consent Form. I write down a short list of possible remedies at the first appointment, and I can refer to this list at follow up appointments, although second remedies are only chosen after looking at the results of the first remedy.
I make up the remedy and go back to the patient, and thank them for filling in the Consent Form. I will tell them the name of the remedy, and briefly mention what aspects of their case it is relevant for. If I am giving a high potency homeopathic remedy I explain that there is only one dose of the remedy, and that it is in an alcohol base, and tastes nice. If it is a child I usually give the remedy in a straw, and make a feeble joke that because it contains alcohol they are not allowed to drive afterwards!
If at this stage the patient still has questions, I will not give the remedy, but will answer the questions as best I can, refer them to my webpage and the handouts, and make up a dose in tablet form that they can take away, so that they can decide at their leisure whether to take it. I don’t want to force them to take a remedy if they don’t want to, but equally I don’t want to “argue the point” about homeopathy.
I often recommend Flower Essences as well as homeopathic treatment. I explain that these are used to help with emotional and mental stresses, which then has a spin off onto their general health. I often say that when I started using Flower Essences people seemed to get better sooner with their homeopathic treatment. Flower Essences work quite subtly, and I often relate this to working with the mind-body connection. It can be quite difficult to explain the treatment in a few short sentences, and I sometimes wonder if the patients who could most benefit from their use might be the ones who are not willing to consider that mental and emotional issues are a factor in their health and well-being.
I don’t routinely recommend Homeobotanicals. However, if I think they would be helpful for conditions such as injuries, colds and flu, headaches, or menopausal conditions, I will discuss this directly with the patient, giving them handouts and printed instructions for their use.
At follow up appointments I ask the patient how they are, and how they have been, and note that carefully. I ask how they are under each of the headings of their Active Problem List. I check any physical things that need to be done, such as taking the blood pressure. I go through their results and explain them. If they would like a homeopathic remedy I go to my books and choose a remedy, and give it to them. Then I discuss further recommendations and arrange another appointment if it is needed.
Flower essences are a water-based therapy that I first started using before I had The Light House. Things like Bach Flowers and Rescue Remedy are reasonably well-known. The essences are made by selecting flowers and putting them in a glass bowl with spring water, and then leaving it outside in the sun. The idea behind the use of flower essences is very feely-feely. Edward Bach started the idea, and he said “In the presence of which disease melts away as snow in the sunshine.” I describe the idea behind flower essences as wanting to harness the subtle energy and vibes that you get from walking through a garden or sitting under the trees. My collection of flower essences quickly grew, as I found more in America and around the world. I jokingly said that they were bad for business, because people got better more quickly.
I had moved into The Light House by then, and was interested in meditation and attended several seminars in the United States by Orin and DaBen. Orin and DaBen also produce books, audio courses and meditation music. One seminar was held in North California, where it was dry and barren, and the water was piped in, so the flowers and trees had only just enough water to survive. After that course I had the inspiration to photograph Christchurch flowers when I got home, and make my own flower essences.
When I arrived back in Christchurch it was the first day of September and everything was green and lush. The cherry blossoms were out, and the daffodils were out, and it was perfect. So I set to making flower essences, which was an enormous amount of work. By Christmas I had most of the flowers chosen for the kit, and had decided what each would be used for. It was a lot of work in a short period of time, and the photographs and flower essences needed to be done at different times of day, but it was wonderful. I put the flower essences out in kit format, and gave some talks about using them. But after selling a few kits I put them away to focus on my day job. It was sort of like a hobby I had to get out of my system.
But that was not the end of this path. Last year a patient introduced me to Star Essences, which inspired me to start looking at the Christchurch flower essences again. Star Essences are produced by a lady called Star, who is based in Santa Barbara and makes flower essences from the orchids in Machu Picchu, Peru. I read her book and found that she’d had much the same experiences as I had in making flower essences. I followed her example and did a complete rework of my own range, working with a graphic designer to create new labels and packaging, and put them out again last year.
The flower essences received some interest within the first week that I put them out. A Brazilian couple, who were in New Zealand for their studies at Lincoln University, came to the first course I did here, and were very excited by them. They have been using them, and offering them to others, and even wanted to introduce me to a lady in the rainforest in Brazil that heals people with plants.
Some of the medical community think I’m nuts. I have always been aware of others watching me, and I have tried not to put a foot wrong.
People questioned my decision to leave Geriatrics to run my practice. One of the consultants encouraged me to go to a clinical meeting which was about how bad alternative treatments were and how alternative practitioners try to turn people against medicine. Another consultant expressed disappointment in my decision by remarking that I would have had a good career ahead of me. The implication was clear.
People also questioned my competence as a doctor. The College of General Practitioners was unsure what to do with me when I did my Fellowship training. They suggested I might have to complete a “Draft 7” to prove that I was competent. I filled that in and submitted it within a week, but they didn’t know what to do with it.
I received a rude letter from a GP in Timaru, who said that I should not call myself ‘doctor’ because I was not on the Medical Register. But he couldn’t trump me. I had done my training as a physician so I very politely informed him that I was listed on the Specialist Register. I can be bloody-minded sometimes.
When I began my practice, I asked the Medical Council, the Medical Association and the Medical Protection Society for advice, which was a wonderful way to get people on board. They said that it would be fine as long as my patients were not followed-up by a non-medical person. So I have adhered to that, and kept a low profile.
One of the laboratories refused to send me test results that other doctors had requested. This was eventually sorted out, and a consent form was designed for my patients to complete so that I could receive their results. Even though that was twenty years ago, I still don’t use that laboratory. The incident has been forgiven, but not forgotten.
I recently attended my Medical School class reunion to mark 40 years since we graduated, where I had a couple of interesting experiences with people who have an interest in Pharmacology. I was talking to the Chairman of Pharmac before the reunion officially started, who asked me what I was doing now. I said, “General Practice...” and after a slight pause I added, “... and homeopathy”. He coughed and turned away from me in response. Also, one of my closest colleagues in final year is a professor of pharmacology now. He said that I should expect some ‘robust riposte’ from him.
There was a session at the reunion titled ‘Non Evidence Based Medicine,’ where I gave a talk about flower essences. I said that I do proper medicine as well, and I understand their concerns about alternative treatments, because I was expecting them to be sceptical. But they were respectful. It was interesting, because people could recognise that there are a lot of emotional and physical things that pharmacology can’t cover.
I may have done a little bit of path blazing for alternative therapies. I was an expert adviser for a tribunal held by the Health and Disability Commission a few years ago, where a doctor had been using very very alternative therapies without any treatment basis (whereas homeopathy does have a large basis). I was able to give my opinion about the use of alternative therapies, and emphasise that I think you’ve got to be safe, refer people on and do the right thing. The tribunal report said that the Health and Disability Commission is not against people doing complementary or alternative medicine, but medical care must be provided to patients first.
Non doctors who work solely in alternative therapies are not subject to the same level of accountability that doctors are. I read an article in a medical journal about a man who spoke to his naturopath about a big lump on his head. The naturopath was certain that it was not malignant, and told him not to go to a GP. After a few months he did speak to a doctor, and the lump was diagnosed as a squamous cell carconima which had spread into the skull. It was shocking, but the Health and Disability Commission could not hold a tribunal about that incident because the naturopath wasn’t a registered doctor.
A lot of doctors do homeopathy in the UK. They don't usually come from a specialist background, but there are homeopathic hospitals. If I was there I could go on ward rounds.
Nobody in the medical community has been supportive of my practice and interests, so at times it has felt very difficult. I don't want to smudge my copy-book as a doctor, so I have not been very open to collaborating with people.
I am set up to be a teaching practice if necessary. I had some medical students early on, but they were not very respectful of patients. It’s only more recently that I have gone back to my medical roots, and become more open to other people doing things at the practice. I've had to foot it in both worlds, and I hope that after me it won't be so hard for people.
I have never had a set career path, but I have noticed the pathways opening for me and I feel that I am achieving the goals I wanted. Leaving the hospital was one turning point, and I am at another turning point now. I am seeing the practice as more of a healing place and hope that my patients will allow other dimensions to their treatment.
I am very interested in the possibility of becoming more involved in cancer treatment. At this point, I don’t have enough clout behind me to be accepted in this area, so it is a more long term goal. I would also like to market flower essences and other services to consultants working in places like St George’s Hospital.
I am also interested in an area of research that argues that the medical practice is sterile, and often fails to look after the overall well-being of the patient. I am reading a book titled ‘Care of the Soul in Medicine’ by Thomas Moore, and am hoping to incorporate aspects from that into my practice.
There are plenty more paths for me to choose from. I’m just starting now.
Wendy Rose Isbell