Cynthia Li, MD graduated from The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and has practiced internal medicine in settings as diverse as Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, San Francisco General Hospital, St. Anthony Medical Clinic for the homeless and Doctors Without Borders in rural China.
Her own health challenges led her to functional medicine, a paradigm that addresses the root causes of chronic conditions. She currently serves on the faculty of the Healer's Art Program at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, and has a private practice. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and their two daughters.
Millions of people worldwide are affected by autoimmune diseases - most of them are women. Some are common, like rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroid disease while others are mysterious conditions like chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) and dysautonomia.
While the latter are gaining attention, patients struggling with these ailments are often dismissed by their doctors, families and friends. The medical community often refers to them as “difficult patients” because they don’t follow the traditional check-boxes of illness and their symptoms can elude standard testing. When one doctor develops a disabling autoimmune illness and becomes that “difficult patient” herself, the beliefs and methods she once swore by collapse.
Brave New Medicine: A Doctor’s Unconventional Path to Healing Her Autoimmune Illness, published by Reveal Press on September 1, 2019 takes us on an intimate whirlwind of a journey with Cynthia Li, a doctor who seemingly had it all until her health took an unexpected turn, leading her to question her medical training.
Dr. Li is forced to dive into the root causes of her illness and to learn to unlock her body's innate intelligence and wholeness. Drawing on cutting-edge science, ancient healing arts and the power of intuition, Brave New Medicine offers support, validation and a new perspective for doctors and patients alike.
This book is invaluable reading for anyone living with a debilitating auto-immune condition or disease. Family and friends would also benefit, as Dr. Li intimately describes how her illness took its toll on her life, marriage, family and career. If your friends, family or co-workers struggle to understand, this book can serve as a conversation opener.
Organization of the Book
Brave New Medicine is a memoir that depicts Dr. Li's journey from health to illness and finally, to wellness.
The book opens with "Grand Rounds: The Difficult Patient." On page 3, Dr. Li writes:
"More than a decade has passed, and I can still feel the ominous flutter. It feels even clearer now than the day it started, because at the time I had no idea what it meant. The quality was deceptively gentle, like a baby chick ruffling its feathers beneath my breastbone. But in the coming years, this ruffle would escalate into a storm of unimaginable symptoms - dizziness, exhaustion, and profound weakness - making me my own difficult patient. She would break me down, then would break me open to new ways of understanding health and disease. She would reveal to me just how layered and dynamic the human body was.
The journey toward optimal health isn't a simple one. It's a mystery embedded in the personal ecosystem of mind, body and spirit."
Parts 1 and 2 provide the palette that paints the before, during and after picture. Part 3 includes the how-to's - the technique on how to go from a monochromatic landscape to to one that is rich in colour, movement - life!
While RA is a different auto-immune animal from the one that Dr. Li wrestled with, there are, I believe, commonalities in the genesis, the impact and in the lessening of symptoms and improvements in health and well-being.
This book resonated with me on so many levels; over the course of my forty-three-year-long journey with RA, I have gravitated to implementing and adopting many of her How to Get Off the Couch/How to Heal tips. There are fifteen of them, many of which I regularly practice and I have some more work to do.
I have shared some of the strategies I use on this blog and in my writing for HealthCentral.com. One of my biggest take-aways is that of validation: the treatments, practitioners and protocols I pursue serve to set me on a different trajectory. By sharing her healing journey, Dr. Li has given me courage to share more of my journey - things I do that help me live better with RA.
On page 36, Dr. Li talks about her MDR (minimum daily requirement). In her case, time in nature and time spent in solitude. Even if you don't have a chronic illness, you would do well to identify your MDR of things you need to do that will allow you to live better. Then, make it non-negotiable - share it with family and friends. If you have a case of FOMO (fear of missing out), it's time to realize that there is a price to pay when you try to do it all. What happens when you miss your MDR?
On page 75, Dr. Li links the information her midwife shared to a concept she learned in college:
"It reminded me of the Japanese concept of ma I had learned about in college. Ma, which meant 'gap' or 'pause,' is the negative space in buildings, like the openings under doorways and within fireplaces, or the spaces outlining the contents of a room. So, if a space feels cluttered, it's not because of an excess of things, per se, but a deficiency of ma. Ma isn't an actual "thing." It's created by one's consciousness. This helped me understand the focus of nothingness in meditation, and it's application to the labor process. My God, I thought, this concept could even apply to my marriage and health challenges."
There's no doubt that an RA flare is painful. Next time the "heat is on," see if you can relieve some of your suffering by paying attention to the ma - the space in between the pain.
I cried when I read about how Dr. Li's husband's simple act of making the bed resulted in feelings of tenderness and intimacy.
There is so much more I could recount, but instead, I will suggest that you pick up a copy of Brave New Medicine. Read it, then rejoice in the discovery of invaluable pearls of wisdom.
The Stress Connection
On page 193, Dr. Li shares The Five Causes of Disease:
- Stress (emotional, mental, physical)
- Poor diet
Chronic stress is a debilitating as chronic illness. In 1936, Canadian researcher Hans Selye described stress as the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change. Non-specific refers to the myriad of signs and symptoms of stress; over time it exacts a hefty toll.
When you are under chronic stress, it's like stepping on the gas and brake of your car at the same time. Wired, tired and finally burnt out, you don't give your body a chance to get into the rest, digest and heal stages that are so important for health and wellness.
I often joke that, as Auntie Stress, I am my own best client. Learning and practicing techniques to transform my stress has been, well, transformative. I urge you to onboard techniques - do it for the health of it! Even if you are able to maintain the health you do have, that is worth celebrating!
What Others are Saying
By Suzanne Elizabeth on Good Reads:
"Good read about the personal journey of a physician learning to navigate through her own autoimmune health crisis. I would highly recommend for anyone suffering with chronic disease or otherwise unexplained constellation of symptoms."
By Anonymous on Amazon:
"I just finished Brave New Medicine this morning and I don't believe I have ever read something that resonated so strongly with me. I have read so many books on "steps you can take for healing", but I've never read a book like this one that acknowledges the emotional components of chronic illness, or what it means for your relationships, or how strongly it affects your identity. And even more, how hard it is to rebuild all those things as the new you. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease or other chronic illness, this book is worth reading for a lot of reasons, but most importantly how well it articulates some of the psychological challenges associated with illness ."
By Anonymous on Barnes & Noble:
"Her courageous journey to healing inspires and calls into question conventional medicine . She takes the reader on her own journey through recovery, testing, health changes and how she was inspired to find her own healing practices. A very poignant and real look at the true suffering of a chronic pain patient in today's western medical system.. I appreciate very much receiving this book for a ARC as it came at the right time for me. Thank you to the author for this important body of work."