The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal • September - December 2012 • Page 43
Conversing with Dr. Sickels, one gets the simultaneous impression of a quick, lively intelligence, yet one that expresses itself in a laid-back, thoughtful manner. He is the opposite of a high-pressure salesman, yet he has strong opinions, is passionate about his work, and is very reassuring. Tall, slim, and relaxed in his body, Dr. Sickels clearly “walks the walk,” as well as “talks the talk” of healthy living. He lives not too far from his office on the west side of Ann Arbor, and arrived for our interview there on his scooter, on a chilly autumn night, sporting a colorful hat and accompanied by his aging dog, Sprout.
I went to medical school specifically to do both sides…I figured if I was going into medicine, I had to learn the medicine side of it because, number one, I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want to have somebody die through me not knowing the conventional things. But I was still keeping a toe in the other stuff. Sandor Slomovits: How would you describe your work? Would “holistic doctor” be a good term? Dr. Malcolm Sickels: “Holistic medicine” tends to be more about looking at mindbody stuff, looking at the entire person, which certainly is encompassed in what I do, but does not really capture its essence. There’s “complementary medicine,” where the idea is we’re doing conventional medicine and we’re adding additional things that are not normally in the realm of medicine: massage, music therapy, sometimes acupuncture, maybe some yoga — those are all complementary to the conventional treatment. But they do not interfere with, nor replace, the conventional treatments. “Alternative medicine” is, generally, things you would do instead of regular medicine, so instead of taking aspirin for a headache, you might do acupressure. I remember walking around in my old house on Seventh Street one day, trying to come up with a term to capture the essence of what I do. And I came up with “integrative medicine,” because it’s not like we’re throwing out conventional medicine, but we’re trying to integrate the two things. We’re going to try to find the best of both. And then I was dismayed later when I heard on the radio, I think it was Andrew Weil, talking about integrative medicine. I thought, “Dang, I didn’t come up with that.” (Laughter) Sandor Slomovits: Is there medicine in your family? Dr. Malcolm Sickels: No, not at all. Sandor Slomovits: So, what led you to this? Dr. Malcolm Sickels: When I was in college, I got interested in herbal medicine because my roommate brought home a book of herbal stuff. Looking through that book was sort of a revelation, that there were other ways of treating people. Sandor: But you weren’t on a doctor track at that point. Dr. Sickels: No. I was a psych major, which is sort of what you go into if you don’t really know what you’re going into. (Laughter) It’s funny, because I’d never really gone to doctors much. I could probably have counted on one hand the number of times I’d been to a doctor. But that sort of planted the herbal bug in me. Then I did a study abroad in my last semester of college, in Vienna. And while I was there, I happened to go to a doctor because my toe had gotten stomped on at a concert. In Vienna, there was no big distinction between conventional medicine and herbal medicine. That was another revelation: Oh, there doesn’t have to be this big schism between these things. Then I came back home and needed a job, and I started working at the Rudolf Steiner School here in Ann Arbor. There were parents who were doctors, but I got to know them as parents first and then later found out they were doctors, and that sort of ruptured the idea in my head that doctors are this breed apart. They were just regular people. You didn’t have to be some come-down-from-the-sky-to-be-a-doctor and deign to be with regular people. Also, at the Steiner School it was not unusual for people to use homeopathic remedies, and they had Rescue Remedy in the office, so that helped reinforce things. And I was also working at Crazy Wisdom at that point. Sandor: Doing what? Dr. Sickels: You know, you just do everything at Crazy Wisdom. (Laughter) This was when they were on Fourth Avenue, in the little store. Sandor: And at the Steiner School? Dr. Sickels: I was doing after-care. I was there from when the kindergartners got out before lunch, till the end of the day. It was during this time that I started thinking I wanted to go into some kind of natural medicine. So, after one year here, my first daughter was born. My partner had to finish up school, so we spent another year here, and then we went to Madison, Wisconsin. There were no jobs, but I managed to get work at the natural food section of a big grocery store. That was when I really said, “OK, I gotta try to find a way to bring these two things together,” because people would come in and say, “Oh, my doctor is doing this, my doctor didn’t understand what I [wanted]…” And I realized the problem was that doctors had no idea of what any of these alternative things are. They didn’t know how to respond when their patients said, “I don’t want to do this, is there something
more natural to do?” So I said, “I guess somebody has to do it,” and I didn’t see anybody else doing it (laughs), so I said, “OK, I guess I gotta do it!” We came back to Ann Arbor in 1994, and I started taking the pre-reqs for med school and then started doing the things I had to do to apply. You have to take the MCAT and I actually took it before I took some of the classes [for the subjects] that were on it, like organic chemistry, and still did pretty well. I guess that impressed the U of M Medical School enough to let me in. The key thing is that I went to medical school specifically to do both sides. A lot of doctors who are doing what I do were originally conventional docs, and often either they or a family member had some kind of health crisis that was not addressed adequately, and that was when the veils were removed from their eyes and they started looking at other things. Sandor: You studied conventional medicine at U-M. Dr. Sickels: I figured if I was going into medicine, I had to learn the medicine side of it because, number one, I don’t want to kill anybody. I don’t want to have somebody die through me not knowing the conventional things. But I was still keeping a toe in the other stuff. There was a small group of students who were vaguely interested in alternative medicine and, once in awhile, there would be a talk about something alternative. Second year, we did systems. We’d go over an entire system of the body, like the endocrine system, or the pulmonary system, and then we would have a final for that system. I thought it would be interesting for people to see the other things that are out there, so I’d send out an email after the finals (so I wouldn’t screw up their tests) about other approaches to that system, which were mostly just pulled out of this big book called Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, because I didn’t really know that much about it at the time. And all the feedback I got from students was positive, and I never heard anything negative about it from faculty — except for one faculty guy who, during a talk, mentioned shark cartilage disparagingly. During the fourth year we had electives, and I managed to pull two electives on alternative medicine stuff. There was one with a doctor who is still at the University, and the other was in a North Westland clinic where there were a couple of doctors doing alternative medicine stuff.
Thyroid is another hormone that can be a frustrating problem for many people. Unfortunately, the orthodox approach to thyroid disease is to base all treatments on a single lab test, called TSH. However, keeping the TSH in the “normal range” doesn’t always alleviate the patient’s symptoms…I’ve been using an approach that seems radical compared to this: Getting the patient’s thyroid hormones to the point where the patient feels good. Bill Zirinsky: Are there some areas that you tend to specialize in, working with particular medical problems or maladies? Dr. Sickels: I was trained in family medicine, so I’m comfortable in dealing with a broad range of problems. The reason I went into family medicine was to be able to treat anyone walking in the door. Any other specialty restricts who the appropriate patients are: internal medicine only treats adults, gynecology only treats women, etc. But, yes, there are things that I take more of an interest in, as well as things that I feel I have had more success with. Recently, I have been taking more of an interest in cancer. Cancer is one of the most heartbreaking conditions to treat. The stakes are high, the treatments are appallingly expensive and unpleasant, and very little progress has been made in conventional treatments, despite all of the money spent and new drugs that have come out. It turns out that there are ways to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy using natural agents, as well as ways of using those same chemotherapeutic agents at lower doses, to reduce the toxicity and to achieve good outcomes.
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