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More About Bastyr University

The following article appeared on the SFGate website on Friday, June 23rd, 2006:

Crazy Healers Enter the World

Want to feel better about the state of modern medicine? Watch Naturopathic doctors graduate

By Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist

My college graduation ceremony sent roughly 300 sunbaked slightly baffled exasperatingly verbose Shakespeare-drunk UC Berkeley English grads out into the world without the slightest clue as to what the hell they were going to do with their lives.

Most, I imagine, became teachers. Or maybe attorneys, for which I hereby apologize. A few became authors. Many found no immediate work being brilliant Milton-quoting wits at celebrity parties and hence promptly moved right back in with their parents and went on to not figure out their lives until they were roughly 37 years old, at which point they realized they'd been managing that particular Starbucks for about 12 years already, which prompted them to say OK what the hell I guess this is it, I mean I suppose it could be worse, I mean hell at least I'm not a former communications major who's now stocking little pink socklettes at a Baby Gap in Tulsa, am I right? Damn right.

But never mind all that. Here is the good news: Thankfully, amid the tens of thousands of bewildered college grads just like those from my class who leave the hallowed halls of the academy every spring and face the Thunderdome of Brutal Reality, not all such ceremonies are equally fraught.

I am here to tell you, I have recently witnessed a different sort of matriculation, a different sort of human launch. It was the 2006 graduation ceremony of Bastyr University up in Seattle, perhaps the finest and most respected and most difficult naturopathic medical school in the nation. And it was something to behold.

Bastyr is an alternative medical academy. It is perhaps most famous for cranking out world-class naturopathic doctors who, for the first four years of their studies, work through the exact same basic, intense science material as their Western-trained counterparts, all about cadavers and biology and hard-core physiology and all related labs and testings and the accompanying brutal anxiety and a vicious attrition rate for first- and second-year students who just can't hack the insane pace and staggering workload.

But after four years, the ND students switch gears entirely and move toward the real work of alternative healing, consisting of two or three more years of natural medicines and wellness and whole-person treatment, compassion and prevention and organic systems and an astounding array or ancient nontoxic practices, none of which resorts to slicing the flesh and loading it up with chemicals as a first mode of therapy.

It's a funky school. One part Birkenstock, one part slick modern facility, one part extremely rigorous university, one part spiritual quest and all parts full of slightly oddball uniquely attuned students who have dared to say, Screw the traditional Western medical establishment and let's see if we can't try something more, you know, whole. Crazy, isn't it?

(I attended the ceremony, by the way, because my brilliant and goofy older sister was graduating from Bastyr's naturopathic doctoral program at the top of her class and it was she who delivered the commencement speech for the ND grads, which is amazing and wondrous in its own right. But that's another column.)

Oh, make no mistake. The Bastyr ceremony, it was a bit tedious. It was slow and formalized and there were lots of people parading around in the typical black gowns and there were long speeches and staid processions and meek piano music and the whole thing took well over three hours, during which the primary challenge became escaping the tightly packed aisles long enough to find a restroom.

Then again, it was this very formality that made the event rather extraordinary. Because, despite its alternative bent, this was no hempy hippie shaman drum circle out in a field by the woods. The venue (the Seattle symphony building) was beautiful, the ceremony professional and full of elegance and class, the president of the university spoke eloquently and passionately and gave advice to the grads of such articulation and grace, you couldn't help but feel something rather exceptional was happening here.

In other words, this was not a random ragtag assortment of herb-crazed eccentrics promoting medical pot and compost toilets. These were deeply trained healers and full-power doctors. Just doctors of a different, more open-hearted, open-minded bent. What a thing.

In fact, the Bastyr ceremony possessed an element that seems to be missing from the huge array of grad ceremonies happening across the nation: change. Cool and atypical and hopeful and deeply informed and just a little bit unexpected. Which is, by most accounts, the best kind.

Oh sure, you attend a regular ol' university and watch the engineering department grad ceremony or the comp lit ceremony, the physics department ceremony or the botany department ceremony and you get a feeling that, well, at least we're still trying to pump smart people out into the world, and many of them are still full of new ideas and fresh integrity and crushing debt that will take roughly 77 years to pay off, and yet most will invariably end up jaded and burned out and working in marketing for a dot-com, wondering what happened to their dream of writing a book on how to make your own absinthe.

But watching the Bastyr ceremony was different. It was like watching a bucket of very peculiar and incandescent flowers get tossed onto a field of coal. This year, the school pumped over 250 alternative healers out into the pill-popping, surgery-happy, overmedicated world (up from just 35 grads only a dozen years ago) from Chinese medicine practitioners to professional acupuncturists, holistic nutrition experts to spiritually aware alternative psychologists to even a few young 'n' sexy midwives, along with dozens of full NDs who will take their state board exams (just like Western docs) and enter into the teeming world of suffering and pain and actually not offer surgery or Lipitor within the first 10 minutes of your consultation.

These doctors will, instead, spend hours getting to know patients, understanding lives, tapping into ancient ideas of medicinal arts; these are doctors who will harness the formidable power of nature and spirit and time-tested human wisdom to help smack illness upside the head and, hell, after all that if you still need some Prozac and a surgical rearrangement of your spleen, then by all means, they can recommend that, too.

I know, it sounds crazy. Integration and balance and the honoring of nature and ancient medicine? Mutual respect for all healing arts, from tincture to scalpel, herb to chemical? What a thing. What a thing to watch new healers of this ilk enter the world. It's almost enough to give you a dose of that most rare of healing inoculations: hope.

 
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