Against All Odds: Sarin Gas Led Nora Abbas to Become a Naturopathic Physician

In 2011, I was evacuated from the small island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to the US during my senior year of high school at The Bahrain School, an International Baccalaureate (IB) high school. The school was centrally located in the capital, Manama. The Arab Spring uprising was intensifying and it was no longer safe for US citizens, so the US government issued an evacuation for all US dependents (those who were not active duty military). I was just a few months shy of my high school graduation when I  was sent home to Florida alone at the age of 17 to finish my remaining classes online.

Journey to Becoming a Naturopathic Physician: View of Manama, Bahrain from Amwaj Island, Years after the Attack (2018)
Journey to Becoming a Naturopathic Physician: View of Manama, Bahrain from Amwaj Island, Years after the Attack (2018)

My mother was the principal of the K-12 school owned and operated by the United States Department of Defense (DOD). Though I was sent home to the US, she was ordered to stay and keep everything running at the school despite that no students or teachers were present or even allowed on the premises.

The civil war, also known as the Arab Spring Uprising, was largely kept off the media, especially in foreign and US news, so I had no understanding of how severe the situation in Bahrain had become until I received a phone call two months after it began that I will never forget. Still today I relive every emotion that ran through me when I remember how the school counselor (still in the country at the time) called to tell me: “Your mother had a heart attack. She’s in ICU at the Bahrain Hospital.”

I don’t know what scared me more, the fact that she had a heart attack or the fact that she was alone in a foreign hospital with limited help. I felt absolutely useless. I was at least a 26-hour plane ride away and didn’t think I’d ever see my mom again.

What wasn’t mentioned on that phone call was that she had been attacked and gassed with uncut sarin gas canisters that led to a stress-induced cardiomyopathy. It was months before my mother was able to go back to the US for proper treatment, and eventually, after high school graduation, I lived with my mother to take care of her while I attended college. It was an experience that would lead me into medicine as a profession.

The Journey Towards Healing Begins

Initially, I never intended to become a doctor. I was pursuing molecular biology and had an interest in research and marine life. I was always fascinated with genetics (on multiple levels), especially epigenetics, which are changes in one’s gene expression (not the genetic code itself), as a result of environmental and dietary intervention.

A year into my molecular biology degree, I decided to add on a second degree in pre-medical biology in hopes of learning more about the human body so I could help my mother and better understand her condition.

The first year of college was the hardest. Not because of the course load, but because daily I’d watch my mom suffer in pain due to the skin lesions from the chemical gas burns. She coughed up blood and battled constant asthma and respiratory attacks.

She was prescribed 23 pharmaceutical agents for her undiagnosed condition. She was given something for each symptom or pathology, such as pain, difficulty breathing, high blood pressure, PTSD, etc. Occasionally, her medications would exacerbate her symptoms and cause further issues. For instance, the prescribed albuterol led to panic attacks and night terrors, which led to yet more medications. For her difficulty breathing, she was prescribed a nebulizer with lidocaine (eventually modified to be saline and lidocaine), but even this seldomly provided adequate relief. If it did not put her to sleep for hours, she would need to repeat the treatment every 3-5 hours or her cough would worsen.

My mother was desperate to get relief from her condition and was willing to try any other treatment options.  It reached a point where I couldn’t watch it anymore so when I wasn’t studying or taking care of her, I was reading all I could to try to help.

As fate would have it, not long after I started looking into alternative treatments for a poorly-understood case, I attended a meeting at school for those interested in undergraduate research. All of the attendees gave a brief intro into their areas of focus, all of which were marine-related with the exception of one woman, who  was part-time faculty and worked on her own research outside of school as well. She was the only one not in marine research, rather, medical research and more conveniently, cardiac gap-junction cells. As soon as she finished her lecture, I immediately asked: “Is this related to cases like Takotsubo Syndrome? This is a form of stress-induced cardiomyopathy and what my mother experienced. She responded: “No one else I’ve ever presented to is familiar with Takotsubo Syndrome. Come see me after.”

This began my transition into medicine.

Presenting my Own Research on Takotsubo Syndrome

Journey to Becoming a Naturopathic Physician: Presenting Research
Journey to Becoming a Naturopathic Physician: Presenting Research

For the remainder of my college education, I focused my undergraduate research on Takotsubo Syndrome and the long-term effects of catecholamines on gap-junction cells (specifically, connexin 43). This research later won “Best in Show” for undergraduate research at the Florida Institute of Technology (2014).

Outside of school, I focused my self-guided research on natural ways to help my mother’s condition as a whole. This ultimately led to changing both of our diets entirely, incorporating herbs and nutrients into our daily routines, and addressing the mental component of her severe PTSD through mindfulness practices and various cognitive behavioral therapies.

Her health made a complete 180-degree turn, as did my own.  A woman with a complex, undiagnosed condition and who was given a very poor prognosis due to lung lesions and gas exposure, now had a second chance.

My Journey Toward Becoming a Naturopathic Physician

I had no idea what I had gotten into at the time and nor did she. This was in part because we took  a second look at family recipes we had been using for generations and found healthier alternative ingredients and learned how to prepare vegetables and grains we had never even heard of before. We wanted to both preserve family traditions and also make meals that appealed to us both so that this would be a lasting lifestyle change and not just a quick fix.

Journey to Becoming a Naturopathic Physician: My mother and I immediately after completing my interview at NUNM (2017)
Journey to Becoming a Naturopathic Physician: My mother and I immediately after completing my interview at NUNM (2017)

Somewhere along the road (about a year and a half after graduating from college) my mother was on the phone with one of her best friends, the woman who made the call in Bahrain to have her rushed to the hospital immediately after her heart attack. She was a commanding officer of the US medical facilities on the naval base in Bahrain at the time and was often required to work closely with my mother regarding issues that would affect the school and US dependents. In doing so, they became good friends, especially after my mother’s attack.

My mother was giving her an update on all of her progress when her friend asked, “Why isn’t Nora pursuing naturopathic medicine?”

My mother and I were stunned. Neither of us knew it existed or had even heard of it (being from an unlicensed state and living overseas), but with a little bit of research it became clear it was the solution I had been looking for. I finally felt like I had a direction in life!

In order to become a naturopathic physician I applied to naturopathic medical school and was admitted into my top choice program. When it came time to enroll for classes, it was my health that now took a turn and required my full attention. I had to defer.  After traveling abroad, I developed severe GI symptoms that put me in and out of the hospital. I was down to 88lbs and given various diagnoses from multiple conventional medical doctors and GI specialists without any improvement or relief. Over the course of these visits I most notably received a colonoscopy, an IBS diagnosis with characterization of diarrhea (though never experienced diarrhea), and a diagnosis of dysentery (without lab work or first evaluating for presence of parasites or other infections).

My health was becoming worse and no one was addressing the underlying issue apart from hydration and over-the-counter supplements. And so, I finally decided to fly to Portland, Oregon to be evaluated by an naturopathic physician who, within a matter of minutes into the visit, guided me to the answers we’d long been searching for, and helped get me on the path to healing my gut and pinpointing the causes of my illness.

A year and a half later I was able to revisit my dream of becoming a naturopathic physician, and I am now entering my third year of naturopathic medical school at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) and truly loving every minute of it. What’s even better, my best friend, my mother, visits every other month to explore the beautiful Pacific Northwest with me. We are finally both in great health.

INM's team is made up of naturopathic doctors and health journalists.

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Deb Hubers

Debra Hubers is a serial entrepreneur and has started seven businesses; ranging from an advanced genomics to an employer health care purchasing cooperative. Deb has over 35 years of experience in healthcare finance, education, technology, and pharmacogenomics.

Ms. Hubers has dedicated her career to measuring and improving healthcare outcomes. Her expertise is leveraging technology to deliver personalized, preventative medicine. Ms. Hubers co-founded La Vita Compounding Pharmacy in 2007. Collaborating with her business partner, physicians and strategic partners, Deb has grown La Vita to be one of the most respected and sought-after personalized medicine providers on the west coast. She is also Co-Founder of EpigeneticsRx, a leading provider of precise, personalized, prevention which positively impacts genetic expression.

Alex Keller, ND

Dr. Alex Keller, ND, AFMCP is a graduate of the University of Ottawa with an Honours Bachelor in Health Sciences and Psychology. Although originally intending to attend conventional medical school, following a three-month volunteer internship at a rural Kenyan hospital where he observed how doctors used local food to treat patients, he shifted his career goals and pursued a degree in naturopathic medicine at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto.

After one year of practicing with the esteemed Dr. Chris Pickrell, ND, RH in a community acupuncture setting, in 2015 he and his wife Dr. Jenn Keller, ND moved to rural Ottawa, Canada where they started an organic farm and retreat center. In the same year, Alex and his athletic therapist sister Jess Keller combined their practices to form Keller Active Health, an integrative physical therapy clinic.

Ever curious and passionate about the education of evidence-based natural medicine, in 2017, Dr. Keller joined a fledgling Ottawa-based health tech startup named Fullscript. He serves as its Medical Director and oversees the development of medical education content for practitioners across North America.

Prior to medicine, Alex worked in the renewable energy sector, where he developed a deep passion for sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship. This connection between medicine and agriculture now drives Alex to focus much of his energy on bringing awareness to the quality and sourcing standards in the supplement and organic agriculture supply chains.

Today, he splits his professional time practicing as a clinician, working for Fullscript, and expanding the farming operation while chasing his kids with Jenn and occasionally running ultra-marathon trail races. He is also currently completing an Executive MBA through the Quantic School of Business & Technology with a focus on supply chain innovation.

Pamela Snider, ND

Pamela Snider, ND, is Executive and Senior Editor for the Foundations of Naturopathic Medicine Project, producing a first of its kind international textbook of Naturopathic medicine through a series of international retreats and symposia. A nationally recognized integrative health and policy leader, she is active in both national and regional integrative health initiatives. Dr. Snider serves on the Board of Directors, was founding Executive Director and co-founder of the Academic Consortium for Integrative Health (ACIH/ACCAHCa consortium of the councils of schools, accrediting agencies and certifying bodies of the licensed, traditional and emerging integrative health professions, and is currently Vice Chair and co-founder of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC).  Dr. Snider served as a founding Board Member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine from 2014-2016. Her public policy work includes completing a two year appointment to the DHHS Center For Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Medicare Coverage Advisory Committee (MCAC); serving as a Steering Committee Member for  the HRSA funded American College of Preventive Medicine NCCIM Integrative Medicine in Preventive Medicine Residency program, co-directing in USPHS Region X the Building Bridges Between Provider Communities Group, an exploration of interdisciplinary collaboration and common ground between public health and CAM; serving for 22 years on Washington State’s Health Professional Loan Repayment and Scholarship Program Advisory Committee (HPLRSP); providing technical assistance to and developing key language for the enabling legislation for NIH Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCIH/NCCAM); and staffing Joseph Pizzorno ND during his appointment as Commissioner on the White House Commission on CAM Policy.

From 1994-2003, Dr. Snider served as Associate Dean for Public and Professional Affairs and Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, dividing her work between academic and public affairs activities, including chairing the Naturopathic Medicine Program Curriculum Review Committee.  Dr. Snider has been teaching, publishing and lecturing widely on Naturopathic philosophy, theory integrative health, public policy, and other topics for over 30 years. Currently, an Associate Professor at National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM) in Portland, OR, Dr. Snider also continues at Bastyr University in her 22nd year as a faculty member teaching naturopathic medicine history, clinical theory, and global context. Among her Naturopathic medicine professional roles she serves on the Institute for Natural Medicine’s Leadership Council.  In 1989, she co-led the naturopathic profession with Dr. Jared Zeff, in developing a unifying definition of naturopathic medicine and its principles of practice adopted unanimously by the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) House of Delegates. She was a co-investigator in the 2004 NIH NCCAM research study, the North American Naturopathic Medical Research Agenda and CAM Advisor in NIHCCAM’s Financing Integrative Health Care (University of Washington).  Her areas of experience include healthcare education; naturopathic and interdisciplinary clinical theory, curriculum development; clinical practice; government and legislative affairs, public policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community organizing.  Dr. Snider has received the Ontario Naturopathic Physician of the Year Award, the Physician of the Year Award from the AANP, the President’s Outstanding Vision Award and Distinguished Alumnus Award at Bastyr University, AANP’s President’s Award, an honorary Doctorate of Naturopathic Philosophy from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine (CCNM), the William A Mitchell Vis Award from the AANP and The Gathering – NMSA’s Beacon Award. She received her ND degree in 1982 from Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences and is a licensed naturopathic physician in the State of Washington. She lives with her husband and children at their homestead in North Bend Washington, in the beautiful mountain to sea landscape and home of The Revival – Restore the Vis, an annual student-led community gathering.

Susan Haeger

Susan Haeger is Founder/Principal of Transformative Health Solutions Inc. She has applied her twenty plus years in executive leadership to help shape and drive adoption of progressive health policy for whole person healthcare. She was a section contributor to the 2021 INM/AANP published professional white paper, Naturopathic Physicians as Whole Health Specialists: The Future is Whole Person Health Care that provides supporting evidence for the profession’s significant and unique contributions to preventive, whole person care and models of integrative clinical practice.

Bruce Barlean

Bruce Barlean is an owner and founder of Barlean’s, a global dietary supplement manufacturer located in the Pacific Northwest in Ferndale, WA. Bruce has been actively involved in the Natural Products industry since 1989 and is passionate about making a difference in the world and positively impacting the lives of others.

Bruce believes that people can make a difference in the world through ordinary purchases. He is committed to improving the quality of life for every person on the planet by making the best products and by using the profits to support outreach programs. Bruce summarizes it simply, “We make good stuff to do good stuff”.

In the late 1980’s Bruce became passionate about how health could be dramatically improved with Flax Oil Supplementation. Bruce along with his entrepreneurial parents saw the potential to improve the lives of many people and in 1989 they began selling Flax Oil under the Barlean’s name. From 1989 – 2000 the business grew an average of 40% year over year. While most companies saw a decline in business in the 2001 recession, Barlean’s continued to grow and soon became America’s #1 selling flaxseed oil and continues to be to the present. The brand has since expanded to include additional oils, green food concentrates and other premium supplements. Bruce continues to drive innovation and over the years his products and company have won countless awards including: Eight consecutive Vity Awards for #1 EFA, Six consecutive Vity Awards for #1 Greens Food Supplement, Natural Choice Award for Best Specialty Supplement, Best Product of the Year, Best New Product, Gold Medal Taster’s Choice Award, Gold Medal American Masters of Taste Award, #1 Health Food Store Brand for Consumer Satisfaction by Consumer Lab, and Manufacturer of the Year.

In 2013 as the company was on the eve of celebrating the 25th year in business Bruce and his parents decided to take their desire to help people to a new level that they call Pathway to a Better Life – which is now seen in the Barlean’s logo. Bruce and his parents had always been generous in their giving and support of charities, but as part of the Pathway to a Better Life they decided to increased partnership with charitable organizations such as: Vitamin Angels, Compassion International, KidsTown International, Autism Hope Alliance, Engedi Refuge, Project 92, and others. And because so many people are unable to meet basic nutritional needs, Bruce created a comprehensive Omega-3 and multivitamin formula that he distributes free-of-charge to local food banks. In addition, Bruce decided the company would supply food banks with organic coconut oil to provide people with a health alternative to standard cooking oils.

Always generous with his time Bruce has served as a youth leader for his local church for several years and continues to mentor youth. He has been on several not for profit boards including; Whatcom County Pregnancy Center (2003-2006), Natural Products Association (dates?), and the Institute for Natural Medicine Leadership Council (presently).

The Barlean family have been avid supporters of Bastyr University since the 1990’s and in 2013 were given Bastyr’s most prestigious honor, the Mission Award, which recognizes their leadership over time in improving the health and well-being of the human community.

Bruce currently resides in Ferndale, WA with his wife Lisa and their two dogs: Heinz & Shadow. When he’s not helping others he can be found fishing (catch & release).

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Michelle Simon

Michelle Simon, PHD, ND

President & CEO

As president and CEO of INM, Dr. Simon brings her passion for working with organizations dedicated to improving the quality and delivery of healthcare. This desire stems from her years of practice as a licensed naturopathic physician. In addition to holding a Naturopathic Doctorate from Bastyr University she also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She has served on boards for the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP), the Naturopathic Physicians Research Institute (NPRI), and several advisory boards. Dr. Simon served nine years on the Washington State Health Technology Clinical Committee, as Ambassador to the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine (AIHM) and was recognized as 2018 AANP Physician of the Year. Dr. Simon shares with her husband a passion for adventure travel, preferably by boat or motorcycle. She also enjoys teaching a women’s off-road motorcycling class.