Julie Vojtech was always healthy… until one day she simply wasn’t. A former lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, Julie’s quest for conventional treatment continued with little relief. Julie went to doctor after doctor without answers until she discovered naturopathic medicine, beginning her journey on the road to health. Julie recently spoke with our INM team, to share her naturopathic patient story.
INM: Hi Julie, can you tell us a little bit about your background? I understand you’ve had a successful career in the health care industry, working for some big names and promoting health care legislation.
Julie: I directed public affairs and lobbied health care policies for the pharmaceutical industry in several states for many years. More specifically, I developed and executed the communications, advocacy, and government relations strategies to shape public policy on the “conventional side” of health care.
I have a natural ability to organize and lead large coalitions of diverse stakeholders to influence lawmakers and policy. One of the coalitions I created and led passed bipartisan supported legislation in Minnesota that allowed indigent patients access to free/discounted medications. That program launched nationwide a year later. Another one of my coalitions passed health insurance coverage in Florida for oral chemotherapy medications. Despite stiff opposition, we passed bipartisan supported legislation and enacted a coverage program that lowered out-of-pocket costs for cancer patients.
An insider’s view raised questions
Julie: While I’m grateful for my accomplishments, much of my work centered around defending the industry’s pricing, sales, and marketing practices. An effective worker, I enjoyed my job but personally began to question the industry’s policies and my role within the pharmaceutical industry.
Maintaining patients on medications long-term is a profitable business, but is it always in the best interests of patients? Is it always cost-effective for patients, employers, and health insurers? Is it sustainable in the long run?
I also began to question our nation’s health care system and the focus on treating patients after they become ill. It seemed backwards to me. Once I left the industry and quit drinking the “punch,” my eyes opened wide and I could truly see the flaws with our health care system. I believe U.S. health care needs a transformation.
Maintaining patients on medications long-term is a profitable business, but is it always in the best interests of patients?
…Is it sustainable in the long run?
INM: You have extensive professional experiences in health care, when did health care start to become personal?
Julie: A couple of major personal turning points got my attention. First, I was very involved with caring for both of my parents at the end of their lives. Mom passed first, so my role with dad also extended to becoming his power of attorney and caregiver. Numerous lifestyle and environmental factors caused a miserable time at the end of their lives. They both took cocktails of prescription drugs with many horrible side effects. I witnessed their pain and suffering. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to.
While my parents were alive, some lifestyle and environmental factors leading to poor health were obvious. My dad smoked 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day, had a poor diet, and drank heavily. Other factors were subtler and didn’t become obvious to me until more recently. I wish I knew then what I know now. Ultimately, both parents ended up in skilled nursing homes where I also witnessed the pain and suffering of other patients, mostly from obesity, diabetes, smoking, and COPD. All of this had a profound effect on me.
When health concerns hit home
Julie: Second, I had my own health care scare.
Initially, I noticed quite a bit of pain when running. Suddenly I found myself in the ER three times within an 11-month period, with excruciating pain and inflammation. I felt like I was being stabbed with a knife all over my body. Just lying in bed hurt and I couldn’t get out of bed without assistance. Sometimes I had to be carried to the bathroom! I saw multiple doctors over a 3-year span, but none of them could explain what was causing my pain and inflammation. I was a lifelong runner, a health nut, and blessed with excellent health. I rarely saw a doctor other than my OB-GYN for my annual physical.
I was a lifelong runner, a health nut, and blessed with excellent health… Suddenly I found myself in the ER three times within an 11-month period, with excruciating pain and inflammation.
Prednisone helped manage the pain and inflammation short-term, but once I came off that steroid, the pain and inflammation returned. I was tested for everything from A-Z including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Lyme disease. All my bloodwork repeatedly returned as negative or normal. Despite not having a diagnosis, doctors wanted to prescribe very powerful medications, including opioids, with numerous side effects. They recommended the same medications my mother had taken and that scared the heck out of me.
Dismissed concerns and questions
Julie: My doctors dismissed me and my pain. My questions and concerns seemed to fall on deaf ears. My frustration with my doctors mounted due to their reluctance to identify and address the root cause of my illness. I knew there had to be a reason to go from being healthy and athletic to barely being able to walk to the mailbox. I couldn’t find a doctor willing to do anything beyond treating my symptoms with prescription drugs. After having worked for the pharmaceutical industry, the last thing I wanted to do was take prescription drugs!
INM: You’ve described your health journey as reaching a turning point. Was there a specific “Eureka” moment where you came to embrace naturopathic care?
Julie: I thought for certain I was headed back to the ER soon with another painful flare. I was off the Prednisone and nearly all my pain and inflammation had returned. At this point, one of my doctors replied to my questions and concerns saying, “The root cause is irrelevant, we just need to treat your symptoms. You don’t have any inflammation anywhere in your body. The pain is all in your head. You just need to see a pain specialist and be treated with narcotics.” I was livid!
I told my medical doctor that the root cause of my pain was relevant to me. I knew my body better than he did and I could feel inflammation all over my body. The pain was not in my head.
An introduction to naturopathic medicine
Julie: Shortly thereafter a friend recommended that I see a naturopathic doctor.
Initially I saw a person who called herself a naturopathic doctor, though she did not have the education or training of a licensable naturopathic doctor. She offered some helpful dietary advice, but she did not have the ability to diagnose or treat and her suggestions did not go nearly far enough. What little progress I made, quickly reversed. As a patient consumer, I found this extremely confusing because she called herself a naturopathic doctor. I learned the hard way that in states like Georgia where naturopathic doctors are not yet licensed, anyone can call themselves a naturopathic doctor because there isn’t any regulation to prevent doing so.
Regulation and licensure of naturopathic doctors provides consumer transparency and patient protection. It enables consumers to distinguish between qualified credentialed naturopathic doctors and lay people who claim to be providers. Just as MDs, DOs, and RNs are regulated and professionally licensed, naturopathic doctors should be as well.
To find the root cause of my pain and inflammation, my naturopathic doctor ran a variety of tests. She discovered that I had small bowel inflammation, leaky gut, delayed food allergies, hormonal imbalances that included a low functioning thyroid and adrenal stress, an overgrowth of Candida, and spinal issues.
I’ve made several lifestyle changes. I eliminated all my allergens which include alcohol, beef, corn, dairy, eggs, gluten/grains, soy, sugar (refined), and all processed foods. I take natural supplements and compound medications to treat the identified issues and imbalances. My care plan includes a physical medicine component with spinal adjustments and strict orders for daily stretching.
“…adults can also be waylaid by allergic reactions to foods they’ve enjoyed all their lives. Moreover, a food allergy that first rears its head in adulthood isn’t likely to go away.”Harvard Health
INM: How has your life changed since you’ve taken more control of your health?
Julie: I’m excited to say that with I’m about 95% pain-free now without synthetic pharmaceutical medications. I walk, lift weights, ride horses, and hike. I believe I’ll run again soon. I have a goal of running another marathon!
I learned that historically I wasn’t quite as healthy as I thought I was. While I exercised daily, I rarely ever stretched. While I ate many healthy foods, I still consumed too much sugar and processed food. Sugar is so addictive and my greatest weakness. During the first couple weeks of quitting sugar, I had tremendous cravings! The cravings subsided soon after.
I am very conscious of everything I put into my body now. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. While consuming any of my allergens won’t immediately send me to the ER, if I fall back into my old habits, the pain and inflammation will return. My naturopathic doctor used alcoholism as an analogy: recovering alcoholics can’t just cut back on alcohol, they must eliminate it. Likewise, I can’t just cut back on my allergens. I must eliminate them.
Overall, I feel healthier and I have more energy. My pain and inflammation are close to being completely gone. I rarely ever miss the foods and wine that I gave up. I feel fabulous!
People often comment that I have a restrictive diet, but I have a different point of view. I eat a variety of fruit, vegetables, fish, and chicken and I feel great. My family loves the healthy dishes I cook for them. Most restaurants are accommodating and willing to prepare entrees in a healthy manner. Now I’m trying to help family and friends understand that serving my allergens to me, especially sweets like cookies and cake, is just like giving alcohol to an alcoholic.
INM: What distinguishes naturopathic medicine from your previous health care experiences? Is this something you would recommend to family and friends?
Julie: I recommend naturopathic doctors to everybody. They’re excellent partners to conventional medical doctors. Naturopathic medicine complements conventional medicine and should be an integral part of our health care system. Naturopathic doctors treat the whole person. They identify and address the root cause of an illness. They focus on preventing and reversing disease. They treat naturally whenever possible with lifestyle modifications, while minimizing the use of prescription drugs. They really strive to help patients achieve optimal health, not just the absence of disease. My doctor and I have a dialogue and she listens to me. We are partners in my health care, and she has empowered me to take control of my health.
Naturopathic doctors treat the whole person. They identify and address the root cause of an illness. They focus on preventing and reversing disease… They really strive to help patients achieve optimal health, not just the absence of disease.
INM: What’s next?
Julie: My life-changing personal and professional epiphanies gave me a unique fresh new perspective and inspired me to return to school for a certification in holistic health. Now I realize that my life’s purpose is to help people transform their lifestyles so they’re healthier and happier, live with less pain, and minimize their dependence on prescription drugs. The best way for me to live my purpose is by combining my public policy skills, along with my passion for holistic health, and advocate public policies that will make holistic health care more mainstream and patient accessible.
I am advocating public policies that promote optimal health and disease prevention/reversal through healthy lifestyles and environment.
I’ve done a complete 180. Now I’m advocating for naturopathic medicine. My ultimate vision is to lead a team that creates a paradigm shift, transforming our current health care system to a holistic health care system that promotes optimal health and disease prevention, starting with examining the whole person, looking for the root cause of illness, and treating naturally whenever possible.
I am living testament that naturopathic medicine is efficacious and cost-effective for patients, health insurers, and employers. I also believe it is more sustainable to our health care system.
I shudder to think of where I might be if I was taking all those powerful synthetic pharmaceutical medications and opioids initially prescribed to me. I am so grateful that I discovered and chose naturopathic medicine. I feel fabulous and I just want to share this! I want everybody to know about naturopathic medicine and to have this choice if they want it.