Laura Hill Temmerman was excited about a full-time job at a west coast academic medical center after completing graduate school, researching service excellence and the clinician-patient relationship. In 2008, she started experiencing stomach flu-like symptoms which would eventually be diagnosed as an extremely rare gastrointestinal (GI) bacterial infection. Several specialists, a functional medicine doctor, and a licensed naturopathic doctor later, Laura finally found the treatment and recovery path that was best suited for her body. With the help of physicians who took time to understand her condition, Laura now lives a full life and confidently understands the tools needed to manage her health.

Laura’s professional role

With an engineering background and graduate work in healthcare management, Laura enjoyed her full-time career in a leadership role in an academic medical center. Her work focused on process improvement applied in a service context. “I really loved the ability to have both precision and human narrative guiding the work,” Laura explained. She focused on bringing a healing environment to the medical center’s patients, optimizing the relationship between the patient and healthcare provider. Little did she know, she would become the patient struggling to communicate effectively with her own doctors in just a few short years.

Inspired by family

Laura and her husband biking Grizzly Peak Century.

Laura enjoys building relationships with people at work. She is detail-oriented, comprehensive in her assessment of a situation, and naturally inquisitive. Her ability to connect with people through one-on-one relationships made her an excellent candidate to research and launch a formal service excellence program in the hospital setting.

Growing up, Laura’s parents worked in healthcare. She learned the difference made by direct patient contact and genuine compassion, a unique experience she recalls instilling a “call to contribute.”

Several years prior to her graduate school program, Laura’s father began to struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Laura and her family were stymied by issues with regulatory misinterpretation of her father’s needs in his care facilities despite having experience within the healthcare industry throughout their lives both personally and professionally.  A misguided response to state guidelines required a move from one facility to another. This caused catastrophic dementia behavior symptoms in her father and unnecessary upheaval for the family. 

“Anyone who has been around dementia patients knows that any disruption in routine and in people they recognize and trust causes difficulties for both the patient and the family,” Laura said. Her father died in 2007, just one year before Laura would start to develop health issues of her own.

Declining health yet surrounded by medicine

Laura in her professional role 3 years post-diagnosis.

In October 2008, Laura began to experience stomach flu-like symptoms, although she would eventually learn she had an extremely rare gastrointestinal (GI) bacterial infection. This infection became the environmental trigger for her ultimate diagnosis of pancolitic (involving the entire colon) ulcerative colitis. It was only after working with a slew of doctors that she ultimately found the source of her pain and discomfort.

After one month of not recovering from her “stomach flu,” Laura could not eat, felt nauseous, and was rapidly losing weight and strength. She went to her primary care doctor for testing, where she was referred to a GI specialist. After a few visits, it was still unclear what was going on.

Looking for a natural approach

Laura received a recommendation from a trusted friend to a naturopathic doctor, Melody Wong, ND. A comprehensive battery of tests discovered the infection, and Dr. Wong talked with her about her test results in person for over an hour. Dr. Wong explained that although as a naturopathic doctor she did not typically begin treatment for patients with antibiotics, because of the severity of this infection, “if there is one time in your life that I am telling you that you need antibiotics, it is now.”[1]

The GI specialist wasn’t familiar with the lab Dr. Wong used and would not prescribe antibiotics for the infection detected by the laboratory.

“That shook me up,” Laura recalled. In December of 2008, she returned to Dr. Wong and began a natural treatment.

If NDs do prescribe medication, they anticipate and address potential side effects of that medication with natural therapies.

Do Naturopathic Doctors Prescribe Medication?

Early in 2009, after multiple requests and nearly begging, Laura finally received a prescription for a “standard, generic kind of antibiotic” from her primary care doctor, who knew nothing about treating the infection. However, she had a sensitivity to something in the antibiotic and could not complete the prescription. She returned to the doctor’s office, ultimately being seen by a different primary care doctor covering for her usual provider. This person took the time while Laura was in the room to research the infection, informing her that the antibiotics previously prescribed were not indicated for this particular infection. The new doctor prescribed a different antibiotic to be taken for seven days. Laura noticed some modest improvement but still was unable to eat solid food.

She began contemplating medical leave from work: “I was either in the bathroom or in bed, and that was it.”

Naturopathic and functional doctors work together

Laura biking part of the Tour de France 5 years post-diagnosis.

Laura’s mother found a functional medicine doctor in Kansas City near her mother’s home. Dr. Jane Murray ultimately validated what Laura had heard from Dr. Wong, and confirmed that Laura would need antibiotics for at least one month because of her particular infection. It was Yersinia entercolitica, a bacterial infection related to the Black Plague (Yersinia Pestis). Together, they discussed the impact and risks of continued antibiotic treatment on her body.

“It really gave me that trust and belief I needed at the time to know my condition could improve,” Laura reflected. “With both Dr. Wong and Dr. Murray, if something was not working, they wanted to know right away. They wanted to be on the phone with me or see me in person to do any course correction.”

The CDC estimates Y. enterocolitica causes almost 117,000 illnesses, 640 hospitalizations, and 35 deaths in the United States every year.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The infection began to clear, but her GI health was still not back to normal. She and Dr. Wong discussed how to reduce inflammation. By then, Laura was showing symptoms similar to inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

When patients fall through the cracks

There are systemic issues in patient care. Laura describes,  and patients can fall through the cracks. Things get lost in the system, even to patients who are in a bit of some urgent need for something.”

More testing ensued, and Laura got a call with a diagnosis a few days after a colonoscopy and began “maintenance medication.” Again, she was referred to a few specialists, and she discussed taking prednisone with specialists. She was on prednisone for most of the summer.

Listen to your body.  Keep an open mind to explore your options. Follow your intuition for your health is in your hands.

Melody Wong, ND

“I was very honest with the doctors and explained that I was not comfortable staying on medication for the rest of my life. I’m not talking about six months from now. I’m not even talking about two years from now. ‘But what if in five or ten years I am stable and want to reduce my medication? Are you open to that?’ The doctor made it very clear she would not discuss it any further. They were not open to that.” 

Laura was not content with the idea that there could be no improvement in her long-term care plan, whether for a chronic illness or acute symptom relief.

Use your ‘Gut’ instinct

Laura displaying her love of health, nature, and exercise.

Laura finished the visit but walked out from that doctor’s office knowing she would never be back. She says that if someone reading her story takes anything away from it, it should be to know your values.

“Use your gut instinct. Pun intended. Know what trust for you feels like.”

Laura Hill Temmerman

After that visit, Laura began seeing the GI specialist who she still sees today. He listens to her and adjusts medication accordingly. “He said, ‘I’m not going to tell you what to do. It is your body; you know your body,’” she described. “We talked about what to do when issues come up, establishing how to address any symptoms quickly knowing I was decreasing off of a therapeutic medication  load.”

Laura has now been off of her maintenance medication for at least five years. The fact that she cannot remember the exact date is a testament to Dr. Wong’s impact on her health by understanding how diet and supplemental nutrition can be used to manage inflammation.

“I have developed the sensitivity and attunement with my own body to understand what I need, and I can do it quickly enough and in an informed way so I do not need to resort to prescription drugs to control my issues,” Laura explained. “Many times, the prescription drugs were masking what the real issues were for me.” This isn’t to say any patient with the same diagnosis should do the same thing as me. It depends on the severity of the case and complex circumstances unique to each of us. But I firmly believe every patient can find further stability and health by actively engaging with a licensed naturopathic doctor in their care process to strengthen their body’s immune response and mitigate inflammation.

Laura considers her health journey an extraordinary educational experience, learning the efficacy of working with naturopathic medicine and functional medicine and the fact that some, though not all, conventional medical doctors are open to natural and integrative approaches.

“It was a tremendous learning opportunity about how the systems of our body are meant to stabilize us,” Laura said. “But we have to provide those systems the nutritional resources and sometimes the boost wherever there  is a deficit or gap.”

There’s a learning opportunity for everyone involved, really

“I think there needs to be an openness to learning about different modalities. This is similar to how I learned to develop that trust with my care team so that providers across different dimensions and modalities grew to  trust one another.” Of course, all with the potential of helping Laura find and maintain better health care outcomes.

Laura Hill Temmerman serves as the Patient Experience Advisor for NGA Healthcare Consulting, is an active volunteer and board member with the California Association of Healthcare Leaders and also teaches Pilates at two studios near San Jose, CA. She holds gratitude and positivity as guiding principles in her self-care in order to best help others.