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Social Impact Heroes: How Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson is helping to improve the healthcare system by addressing the underlying causes of disease

Social Impact Heroes: How Dr. Stacie J. Stephenson is helping to improve the healthcare system by addressing the underlying causes of disease

As a doctor, it is my mission to and my highest duty to make a positive impact on every single individual I treat. Working to restore my patients’ health, achieve vitality, enhance wellness, and extend their life span has always been my primary goal as a doctor. Over the years, my greatest joy has been to witness people learn how to care for their bodies and thus not need me! I have traditionally encouraged my patients to victory by reminding them that my primary goal is for them to be empowered and not dependent on me — or — a mysterious and overly complicated healthcare system. Patient empowerment is my greatest goal and achievement. When I see a patient excited about reaching their personal health milestones, often in the face of significant health challenges along the way, it makes me smile with gratitude that I have done my part to inspire someone to soar like an eagle and express their full potential. Our health is the ultimate foundation of everything we do and can become in life. When a patient learns they have the power to determine their own health outcomes, this fuels confidence and empowerment across other areas of their lives.

As part of our series about people making an important social impact, I had the pleasure to interview Stacie J. Stephenson, DC, CNS, DABAAHP, FAARM. Dr. Stephenson is a recognized physician and lecturer focused on regenerative, functional, and natural medicine. One of the first female health physicians to offer integrative care to patients in the Midwest, Dr. Stephenson spent close to fifteen years in private practice before she was named Chair of Functional Medicine for Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA). Dr. Stephenson champions holistic, patient-centric care with equal emphasis on conventional and complementary therapies. Dr. Stephenson’s ‘whole person’ approach to disease prevention and healing was ahead of its time, teaching fellow medical professionals and patients across the country how health and recovery are influenced by lifestyle, diet, environment, and even beliefs, long before functional and integrative medicine had become a standard element of patient care. A renowned lecturer and educator, Dr. Stephenson has shared her expertise with leading hospitals and health advocacy groups throughout the country, speaking about topics ranging from innovations in genomics and personalized cancer therapies, to nutritional strategies that support recovery and long-term management of chronic and other diseases. Today, ‘Dr. Stacie,’ as she is known informally by her patients, colleagues, and friends, devotes a large share of her time and energy to improving cancer treatment and care, both through her advisory work for CTCA, as well as through her work as a member of the Gateway for Cancer Research Board of Directors. Dr. Stacie spearheads the organization’s annual Cures Gala in Chicago and is the founder and chairwoman of Gateway’s second marquis fundraising event, Vino con Stelle. Under her leadership, the inaugural Scottsdale gala raised over $500,000, and every year, the Cures Gala generates over $3.5 million with $0.99 of every dollar raised going directly to cancer research. Cancer treatment and care is one of many causes she supports. Together with her husband Richard, Dr. Stacie is a passionate philanthropist, committed to funding high impact organizations in the areas of children’s health and wellness, poverty, and education. Driving positive change on a global scale is just part of the couple’s mission. Dr. Stacie and Richard are also focused on grass roots advocacy, supporting local and regional causes in Illinois, Arizona, Michigan, and the US Virgin Islands.

Thank you for joining us Stacie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My personal experience as an athlete, entrepreneur, and overall high-achiever led me to functional medicine. During my teen and college years, I was an elite figure skater. With hopes of making the Olympics, I trained intensely for over a decade. I was also an aspiring doctor, and I had to finance my own education. I worked multiple jobs in between attending class and daily time on the ice. In the midst of all this, I started a property flipping business on my own. The stress of risking my financial well-being and future was a lot, but I enjoyed the thrill of success in real estate the same way I enjoyed a landing a perfect lutz. I thought I was invincible and that my energy and health was infinite. I was an elite athlete! I ate well and was very fit. Talk about a recipe for disaster! Not surprisingly, my body started to break down. I became physically and mentally exhausted. My menstrual period ceased. I suffered from recurring strep throat infections, rheumatic fever, and mononucleosis.

Looking back, it’s obvious why my body just quit on me. But at the time, the idea that a 21-year old elite athlete, with zero history of major injuries and no health challenges suddenly had a series of rapidly progressing and repeat health issues simply did not make sense to me, or frankly, to the doctors who were treating me. Healthcare providers just kept diagnosing and prescribing. This approach was entirely consistent with what I’d learned as a pre-med student, and it’s exactly what doctors are trained to do. But I grew increasingly unsatisfied with this approach because as soon as I overcame one illness, I was struck with another. After spending way too long trapped in this cycle, I began to think that my health issues weren’t just these separate illnesses. This was a bigger picture problem and I was frustrated with how little conventional medicine had to offer me.

I started to search for new perspectives and began learning about all types of medicine and healing practices across the world. My curiosity was endless and intense. I devoured every book and article I could get my hands on. By chance, I was invited to a talk Dr. Jeffery Bland, who is known as the ‘Father of Functional Medicine.’ Hearing him speak was a transformational moment for me. True health is found when we find, trace, and eliminate the root cause of ‘dis-ease’ rather than chase symptoms with chemicals — the whole diagnose and prescribe cycle I’d been trapped in. Functional medicine is empowering. Each of us has the opportunity to self-direct our health trajectory towards pathology or towards vitality. I am so grateful to have had this ‘aha moment.’ My life and career path were forever changed, as was my health.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career in functional medicine?

Ever the entrepreneur, just months after I’d finished my degree, I launched my private practice in a small town in central Illinois. I did this in a time and place where anyone doing anything outside conventional medicine was considered fringe. The concept of functional medicine — taking a more comprehensive and holistic view of a person’s health — was foreign, and, to the medical community in particular, threatening.

Within days of placing an ad in the local newspaper, announcing that I was accepting new patients (Yes, this is literally how we did back in those days!), I started getting phone calls. It was clear that just like me, people were curious, seeking new perspectives, and frustrated by what they experienced within the confines of the healthcare industry.

One of my first patients was a strikingly intelligent man who told me about the years he’d spent struggling with mental illness (bipolar disorder) and his resulting dependency on a cocktail of psychotropic medications, prescribed by his psychiatrist in ever-increasing doses. He was frustrated because he felt the more medicine he took, the more unwell he felt. When I asked him how he thought I could help he replied, “Doctor, my stomach talks to my head. I want you to help that stop so I can get back to work.” I know that what he said sounded like something a person suffering from mental illness would say, and I know that this is why when he’d told his other doctors, they kept adding to his cocktail of medications.

As a functional medicine doctor, what he said about his stomach talking to his brain made perfect, logical sense! There is neural connection between the digestive system and our brains. This is why when we get really nervous about something, we may feel queasy, get a stomach ache, or experience a sudden bout of diarrhea. Of course your stomach talks to your brain!

While I understood there could be an issue with how his digestive system was processing his medications, and could have interpreted his words to support such a conclusion, I had been trained to take a step back and look at things differently. I needed to take a simpler, bigger picture view. This led me to consider the potential causes of an imbalance in neurotransmitters, which is what triggers bipolar behaviors. I also considered the fact that many of our neurotransmitters are synthesized in the gut and brain. The stomach brain connection, again! Naturally, I began to wonder whether something the patient was eating or drinking was — at the very least — aggravating a chemical imbalance.

We proceeded with food sensitivity testing. What we found was that he had a rather extreme casein allergy (casein is a protein found in milk and other dairy products). To this day, I have never seen an antibody response as intense as his. At the time, very little was known about casein (and gluten) allergies and their potential impact on brain health. The research continues to this day, but it has clearly established a link between the two. With this new piece of information, our next steps were clear: a casein-free diet and a regimen of natural supplements that would support the healing of his digestive system from years of being attacked by antibodies that were fighting the casein in his gut.

Sure enough, after three weeks of a no-casein diet combined with regular intake of probiotics, prebiotics, fish oils, zinc, and vitamin D, he started to emerge from the dense mental fog he’d been living in for years. I knew we were on the right track. It was a privilege to be a part of this man’s healing. With every visit, I could see subtle but meaningful changes in his demeanor. Of course, he remained in treatment with his psychiatrist, and I truly believed that he and his doctor would eventually find they could reduce or even eliminate some or all of his medications.

About two months later, I received a phone call from his psychiatrist. When I realized who he was, I thought he was probably calling to celebrate the patient’s progress. Instead, he was irate. Our patient had decided to try tapering down his medications, with the goal of eventually going off them entirely.

The psychiatrist demanded to know why I had prescribed the casein-free diet and supplements, and there was absolutely no convincing him of my reasoning for doing so. I was appalled by the psychiatrist’s lack of respect for our patient, and I was angered by his utter disinterest in the patient’s well-being. This was a huge wake-up call for me, and it wasn’t the last phone call I got from an irate doctor who wanted to argue with me about a patient’s God-given right to choose whatever courses of treatment they desire. It would be a while before anyone really started questioning the modern healthcare industrial complex but those phone calls were an early sign that the system doesn’t always put patients first.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Just two months after the ink was dry on my diploma, I opened my private practice in a small town in central Illinois. I had $4000 to my name, a dream of helping people find ways to help themselves, and a steadfast resolve to practice functional medicine in its purest form.

My landlord knew my situation and I somehow convinced him to take a chance on me. To this day, I am grateful for his trust and confidence. I spent my last $50 taking out an ad in the local paper to announce that I was accepting patients and set about decorating my shabby little office. I created a meager reception area and an exam room using office items that had been left behind by the previous tenant, and hung a few anatomy charts.

In hindsight, it feels silly to have put everything I had into building my practice in a small, blue collar town where few people had ever heard of functional medicine. For most, the idea that they would visit anyone other than their family practitioner for a health issue had never even crossed their minds. I was oblivious, I was hopeful, I was passionate. And I knew that in communities like this, people were suffering. On a hunch, I started my career there precisely because I knew people really needed me.

I spent a week nervously sitting by my rotary dial phone, waiting for the calls to come… Which was easy to do seeing as I was also living in my office!!! It was pretty easy to conceal my living situation, except for one thing… my cat, Dr. B! He was my best friend and confidant. I knew he shouldn’t have been anywhere near my office but I couldn’t bear the thought of being without him. Nothing could go wrong, right?!

When I saw my first two patients, the system worked well and Dr. B stayed hidden. I thought we had things down when my third patient walked through the door. She came in for help with migraine headaches and general fatigue. We started our discussion about diet and food sensitivities, as well as the benefits of acupuncture and we decided to proceed. She returned a few days later for her first acupuncture appointment. Once she’d gotten comfortable, face down on my table, we got to work. And at the very moment started with the needles, I see Dr. B pawing and playing feverishly underneath the treatment room door that led to my “storage room / bedroom”!

I prayed he would get bored and go back to his favorite spot under my bed. But he didn’t!!! I keep praying that my patient’s eyes are closed and that she won’t see those little, furry paws popping in and out of the space between the door and carpet! There was no doubt in mind that the instant my patient saw Dr. B’s paws, she would end the treatment and never come back. She’d report me to the health department and my dreams would be crushed. A cat in a medical office!!!! Just the proof all the skeptics in this small town needed to prove I was crazy.

As we wrapped up the session, Dr. B heard our voices and the crinkling of exam table paper, and must have assumed we’d be coming out soon. And he was right… As soon as we made our way through the door on the other side of the room and walked back into the reception area, that darn cat jumped right on top of the desk I used for scheduling and let out an excited “Welcome, please love on me!!!!” meow. I was a goner, now, I was sure of it!

My sweet patient reached out and gave Dr. B a loving rub before excitedly telling me, “Oh! I just adore kitties! What is his name!?” I was so relieved I nearly fainted. “His name is Dr. B, and he assists with the scheduling and paperwork around here.” She laughed and left the office as if nothing unusual had happened. I was still terrified she would never come back and would spread the word about that crazy “alternative medicine” lady who keeps a cat in her office… Thankfully, she did not. She was a patient for years and we shared many laughs about this story!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

I have always believed that you treat the root cause, not the symptoms. Functional medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease, using a systems-oriented approach and engaging both patient and practitioner in a therapeutic partnership. It is an evolution in the practice of medicine that better addresses the healthcare needs of the 21st century.

By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, functional medicine addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms.

Functional practitioners spend time with their patients, listening to their histories and looking at the interactions among genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors that can influence long-term health and complex, chronic disease. In this way, functional medicine supports the unique expression of health and vitality for each individual and changes the way patients are treated. This is something that the modern industrial healthcare complex — subject to intense political and economic influences — just doesn’t do.

Over the last twenty years, non-Western and non-conventional medicine has moved from the fringe to the cutting edge. We’re seeing concepts from functional medicine, integrative medicine, and even ancient healing practices integrated into the mainstream. This means more patients are getting the personalized care they are entitled to, that they are escaping the diagnose-and-prescribe cycle, that they’re feeling better, and living life more fully.

Back in the 1990s, I’d never have believed that today, every single leading cancer center in this country would embrace functional and integrative medicine. I would have laughed you out of the room! But little by little, together with my functional medicine peers, and my colleagues in integrative, naturopathic, and other areas of medicine, we’ve helped drive meaningful change.

There is simply no excuse for treating patients like they are on an assembly line the minute they step into a doctor’s office or hospital. That any healthcare provider would dismiss centuries-old health and wellness practices simply because they come from outside the Western tradition is offensive. The struggle isn’t over, but we’re seeing positive change in terms of society’s acceptance of and demands for better and more personalized healthcare. We’re seeing a new appetite for clinical research into how our practices can complement standard treatment and care, and we’re seeing an ever-increasing number of doctors who share our thinking and goals.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your cause?

As a doctor, it is my mission to and my highest duty to make a positive impact on every single individual I treat. Candidly, this is a tough question as I am honored to share I feel I have done very well in this regard!

Working to restore my patients’ health, achieve vitality, enhance wellness, and extend their life span has always been my primary goal as a doctor. Over the years, my greatest joy has been to witness people learn how to care for their bodies and thus not need me! I have traditionally encouraged my patients to victory by reminding them that my primary goal is for them to be empowered and not dependent on me — or — a mysterious and overly complicated healthcare system.

Patient empowerment is my greatest goal and achievement. When I see a patient excited about reaching their personal health milestones, often in the face of significant health challenges along the way, it makes me smile with gratitude that I have done my part to inspire someone to soar like an eagle and express their full potential. Our health is the ultimate foundation of everything we do and can become in life. When a patient learns they have the power to determine their own health outcomes, this fuels confidence and empowerment across other areas of their lives.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

To the Healthcare Industry:

There is room for all of us in the sandbox! Not only that, but also, the sandbox is a better place with all of us in it! Each patient is different and no single approach to health and wellness is right for everyone. Patient outcomes are better when they are treated as unique people, not as their disease. A patient-focused model of treatment and care is holistic and should include whatever practices — from conventional Western medicine to functional medicine, Chinese medicine, and beyond — best resolves both the underlying cause of symptoms of that patient’s disease.

To our Community Leaders and Government Officials:

In today’s world, where we see chronic disease, obesity, and opioid addiction reaching epidemic levels, it is more important than ever to embrace a patient-centered model. Here is what I ask of our communities, leaders, and healthcare activists: until our healthcare system has truly adopted a patient-centered model of care, we must find ways to expand choice and access. As consumers, we must demand it. We know with certainty that patients fare better under this approach, which means the cost of treatment and care goes down. Imagine how transformative it would be if we looked at disease prevention the same way! It’s a long road to get there but it’s worth it no matter whether you measure success in terms of patient outcomes, long-term health, or cost.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, leadership is the ability to inspire and drive change among those around them, whether by intention or example. It is always based on mutual respect among leaders and their community, whether that be a parent within a family, a physician in her practice, or an elected official in a city. Leadership is also a people skill; mutual respect can only be achieved when leaders build authentic relationships with the members of their community.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  • It’s no fun to be a pioneer. It places you at the “bleeding edge of the sword” rather than the “leading edge”. It’s much smoother to jump onboard a movement once the pioneers have taken the beatings.
  • It’s also not wise to be a cowboy. Find others with more social influence than you have to “fly protective cover” on your behalf.
  • Never allow a customer/patient to leave upset for anything you could have avoided. Make it right. Period. Forget about policies or procedures or office hours or weekends. Just make it right and let your integrity and compassion shine.
  • Treat every patient/customer like family. Love them. Hug them. Walk the journey with them. Cry with them. Celebrate with them. You don’t have to be clinical. Be human. Be real.
  • Always keep your vision. Surround yourself with those who support your vision. Always be willing to learn more. Stay open to others influence as they may have ideas you never thought about.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I work every day to inspire a movement! Our society’s views and practices around healthcare are flawed. I’m not talking about the political issues here but something much more fundamental. What is important to me right now, and what I seek to change through my work, is healthcare’s lack of focus on patients. Our system has become a machine that too often treats patients like they are on an assembly line. Healthcare providers and all the businesses that serve them will be able to deliver better outcomes when we start looking at patients as the unique individuals they truly are. This means opening our minds — as providers — to all the various approaches, therapies, and treatments available to patients.

We have to acknowledge, understand, and become experts in wellness — not just treating disease with a standard list of drugs, procedures, and surgeries. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we — both as patients and providers — placed as a high a value on wellness as we do on life? Our jobs as doctors must be about prevention. We owe it to our patients to really zero in on what kind of lifestyle will best protect and enhance their overall health and well-being given whatever their genes and personal history can tell us. This is an inherently personal, custom-tailored approach to healthcare that could yield huge social, emotional, and economic benefits across our society.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” — Anon

I came across this phrase early on in my career. I was an independent, entrepreneurial woman but I spent a lot of my younger years feeling like I’d made so many wrong decisions about the big things in life. I had a terrible habit of deconstructing the past and wondering what if… what if I’d made a different choice about my relationship? What if I’d just “settled” for a career in conventional medicine, instead of following my instinct and taking a different path? This kind of thinking led me to feel insecure and tentative about my trajectory as a young woman in functional medicine.

When I read this quote, it was like a light switch flipped inside my head. I started to think about all the energy I spent questioning myself and looking to the past for answers about the future. This quote reminded me that no matter what, I would succeed because I was following my passion. It made me feel less tentative because it reminded me that I was in charge of where I was, where I was going, and what I would accomplish. It helped me give myself permission to have a bad day or make a mistake, and it made recovering from those so much more pleasant and even reassuring.

I knew I didn’t fit the mold of the typical functional medicine physician. I also knew I would never be comfortable or happy practicing the usual “name it and blame it” or “diagnose and adios” medicine that we all learned in college. I wanted to do more, feel passionate about my work every day, and hopefully, to inspire and empower others. With the courage to accept that I would make mistakes along the way, the confidence that they wouldn’t derail me, and sheer grit, I built my private practice and realized the reward in helping others was far greater than I had ever even anticipated.

I still love this quote and often share it with patients who may be stuck in cycles of regret and worry. Our endings aren’t set in stone. We can change our lives, our health, everything! We are powerful beings!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I would absolutely love to have lunch with Melinda Gates! I admire her career and would love to share our experiences working in traditionally male-dominated industries. I think we’d have lots to talk about between her experiences in the early days of the tech boom, and mine in functional medicine! I greatly admire Melinda’s work as a philanthropist as well and talking about this part of her life and work would definitely be a big part of lunch conversation. Philanthropy is a major part of my life, too, and I am very curious about the ins-and-outs of how she partnered with her husband to create and run one of today’s most well-regarded charitable foundations. Melinda is truly an inspiration!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me sharing health and wellness tips and snapshots of my work and daily life me on Instagram, @drsjstephenson