Dr. Roni’s Journey From Deaths Door

In the spring of 1989, I was an ordinary woman living an ordinary life. I was 34, married, a mother and happily following my calling as a registered nurse. We lived in Southern California, where my husband and I owned and operated three nursing homes providing healthcare to medically fragile and developmentally disabled youth. But unbeknownst to my staff and patients, I had begun experiencing medical problems of my own.

In retrospect, my health challenges actually began about two years earlier, when I had started feeling a bit off kilter. I noticed that I was getting occasional headaches that, over time, became more frequent. Since I was very busy at home and at work, I just chalked it up to stress and popped an aspirin. No big deal, I thought. Then, I started feeling a little pain in my joints—nothing too uncomfortable or disabling. I would ignore these indications that something was wrong, down another aspirin or Tylenol and go on about my life. Little by little things started getting worse. My joints started aching; my muscles began to hurt; I started having night sweats; my heart started racing.

I sought help, beginning with my internist, who did not know what was wrong, so suggested I see another doctor. Over the course of several years, I saw close to 30 physicians: my primary, different neurologists, immunologists, a rheumatoid arthritis expert, several heart specialists, a psychiatrist, a gastroenterologist. None of them could figure out what was going on. Was it lupus? Multiple sclerosis? Cancer? A bone disease? Crohn’s disease? A boatload of viruses? Over time different doctors suspected many ghastly, horrible things, but nobody was certain about what was happening to my body. At first, they told me to keep taking aspirin to relieve my symptoms. Then they started handing me prescriptions: antibiotics, arthritis meds, steroids. At one point I was taking seven different drugs. In the meantime my symptoms kept getting worse and worse—and instead of occurring individually they started happening all at once.

Before long, whatever was going wrong with me took over my body and life. I lost my appetite. I lost weight. I got so constipated that I was only having a bowel movement once every week or two. My thinking became slow and muddled—sometimes my brain was so foggy that it felt like I was stuck in a Coca-Cola bottle and couldn’t get out. My body was bloated, my skin hurt and so did my eyeballs. At one point it felt like bugs were crawling all over me. Needless to say, as my body and life spiraled out of control and I sunk into a deep depression.

By 1989, I had basically become bedridden.

On one of the rare days that I dragged myself out, I apparently drove in circles for hours while taking my three-year-old daughter Whitney to school. When I snapped out of it, I had no idea where I was, where I’d been or where the time had gone. That’s when I knew something was desperately wrong. I admitted that I had a serious problem. I knew that if I didn’t get help, I might die.

You might wonder how someone like me could find myself in a situation like this. As a nurse and a nursing-home owner and administrator, I certainly knew a lot of doctors. I, of all people, should have been able to obtain proper care. So it would seem.

But like many people who develop a chronic illness, I had unknowingly strayed onto what healthcare providers secretly call “the sick wheel”: you go from doctor to doctor to doctor, none of whom knows exactly what’s wrong or has the complete picture of what’s going on, though each prescribes an additional medicine. When you’re on the sick wheel, you end up taking drug after drug after drug—one for the physical symptoms you originally showed up with, then another to cover up the symptoms, or side effects, the first drug causes. After a while your kidneys start hurting from trying to filter the man-made chemicals from the first two drugs out of your system. The kidneys are like the body’s trashcans, filtering waste and toxins from the blood, creating urine, helping to regulate blood pressure, but they aren’t designed to process synthetic substances like pharmaceutical drugs. Once they start aching (and if you’re on two meds they eventually will), the doctors typically prescribe a third drug to mask those symptoms. Before long, you have to take a fourth to cover up the symptoms caused by the third one. You reach a point where so many things are going wrong with your body that no one really knows what the problem is: the drugs or the disease.

Many people in the medical community know this cycle by a more ominous name: the “death ceremony.” It’s only a matter of time before the synthetic ingredients in the drugs wreak havoc inside your body, which becomes burdened with substances it wasn’t designed to process and, therefore, experiences as toxic. Eventually, these chemicals exhaust the kidney and liver. Many people end up on dialysis or a transplant list because medicine has damaged their organs. And lots of folks actually die of so-called “side effects” rather than of the disease they’re being treated for. In fact, the fourth leading cause of death according to the Food and Drug Administration is cited as “Adverse drug reactions.” Not surprisingly, people become depressed as they lose their quality of life and hope. Within medical circles it’s a well-known practice that the last drug they give you is Prozac or Antidepressant.

Since I worked within the hospital system, I knew I was waltzing a dance with death.

I felt lost and alone. My husband, who traveled out of the country on business a fair amount, wasn’t always around to support me. When he was there, he looked to me for the answers on health matters. Aside from my mother, who would nurture and pray for me, I hid my problems from loved ones. I believed that I was supposed to have all the answers since I was the medical practitioner in the family. I knew it was my moral and professional duty to help others, but for some reason, I thought that I wasn’t supposed to get sick. Now that I was ill, I felt fearful, ashamed and isolated, which, of course, made my situation worse.

One of the few people who knew what was going on with me was my girlfriend Deborah whom I called Deb. I let Deb talk me into getting a colonic, a holistic healthcare procedure where a trained practitioner flushes out your colon, or large intestine, with water. The colon is the primary organ that eliminates waste and toxins from the body. When the colon is clean the body is able to purify itself more easily. At the time, hospitals still gave people enemas to clean out their bowels and to help them use the bathroom more easily, so a colonic was nothing but a glorified enema in my mind. Since nothing the doctors were doing was helping and Deb had offered to pay for it, I figured, “Why not?”

During my appointment, colon therapist Eloise of Agoura, California, explained how the procedure helped remove toxins from the body Afterwards, I actually felt a little bit better.

“You’re over-proteinized,” Eloise told me.

“Nonsense,” I thought to myself. My typical diet consisted of meat and potatoes. “How can you eat too much protein?” I wondered. Yet I had to admit that I felt better after that colonic, too. And she wasn’t trying to give me any pills, which was a relief after my previous experiences with medication. Over time, I began to trust Eloise and continued to see her regularly.

Since Deb was right about colonics, I decided to take her advice to go see an herbalist, a health practitioner who treats illness by using plant-based remedies administered as teas, powders, liquid and tinctures. The herbalist was shocked to see the list of prescription medications I was taking—and even more surprised that I didn’t know why I was on them. The more he asked about my medical treatment, the more I realized I didn’t know the answers to some very basic, yet vital, questions. This made me feel both scared and inadequate. I was a nurse, after all! I should have had answers. Prescription drugs, while helpful, are serious business and are not to be taken lightly.

“I know this is going to sound crazy to you,” I said, “but my mind is so foggy I feel like I’m in a Coca-Cola bottle.”

“You’re not crazy, you’re sick,” he told me. “We’re all exposed to many toxins—in the environment, in our homes and in our workplaces. You’re carrying a huge toxic load in your system and your body is being compromised.”

That made sense to me. I explained that in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, butterflies and ladybugs and little insects were always flying around. But in Thousand Oaks , Simi Valley, and Santa Barbara California, where I now lived and worked, nothing flew, nothing moved. It was an agricultural area. Crop dusting was prevalent; herbicides and pesticides were ubiquitous. California also has among the nation’s most stringent rules involving pest control in nursing facilities. We were always getting sprayed for something.

Aha! That’s the problem: your body can’t take this stuff anymore,” he told me. “All these drugs you’re on are making things worse. We’ve got to wean you off of them. And your digestive system is very bad. We have to put you on baby food.”

The idea of getting off my meds was a big stretch to me. I didn’t want to be overmedicated, but at the same time I didn’t think it was safe for me to be completely medication-free. The thought that I had to eat baby food sounded outrageous. What Dr. Taylor was saying and the way he was thinking was foreign to me, but the more we talked, I sensed that he was right. I felt relieved and hopeful for the first time.

For several months baby food was my only form of sustenance. I lost a lot of weight, which concerned me since I was already small because I was sick. My herbalist just told me that if I wanted to maintain my weight to eat more of it. I wasn’t exactly in love with the stuff and it’s hard to eat 20 jars of baby food everyday, but I ate enough to sustain me. Before long I noticed my energy returning. In about three months, I felt noticeably better. And I had started moving my bowels more often, which I knew was an important sign.

Today I understand that my body was releasing a boatload of toxins.

That organic baby food was pure (no artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives) and simple (just pure fruit or vegetable with nothing else mixed in) enough that a baby’s newly formed digestive system could tolerate it. It was a lot easier for my body to break down than regular food, healthier than the food I’d been eating, and it allowed my digestive system to rest. As my body grew stronger, one by one the herbalist began weaning me off of prescription drugs.

Feeling better and slowly recovering my life, something told me to order a copy of my medical chart. When it arrived it was a thick binder. I read every page of notes each of the doctors had written from all my appointments over the years. Toward the end of my file, I came across one set of notations called S.O.A.P. (an acronym standing for subjective, objective, assessment, plan) notes, in which the doctor or nurse assesses and summarizes what is going on with the patient, then writes a plan for their care. Here’s what my S.O.A.P. notes said: Tears ran down my face as I kept reading it.

Subjective:  Feeling weak, feverish, my joints ache and I have a severe headache, I feel like I am in a Coke bottle and I can’t get out, Also Doctor my eyeballs hurt

Objective:  Well dressed, well-informed African American female presenting in office once again after many visits this month with multiple symptoms.

Assessment:  Temperature: 99.2; Pulse: 88; Respiration: 20; Blood pressure: 98/60; Weight: 128 lbs; Skin: warm, dry; Affect: flat.

Plan:  Prozac 40 mg QD, RTC in 90 days

The word hit me like a ton of bricks: Prozac, The death ceremony. The doctors had placed me in it. I felt like I was being stabbed in the heart. My medical peers had given up and written me off, as I’d seen happen to many other patients.

“My God! If I don’t save my life, no one will save it for me,” I realized.

From that point on—even though I was still a registered nurse—I lost faith in my medical peers’ ability to help me get well. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I realized that I had to go on a rampage to save my own life.

By this time my marriage had fallen apart and I was a single mother.

I was desperate, scared and slowly losing my business. My childhood friend, Tony DeLuz, came to California, rescued me and helped me hold onto my business, which allowed me to focus on getting better.

After about a year of working with Eloise and my herbalist, one of them told me about a clinic in Mexico that offered treatments you couldn’t obtain in the U.S. Debra and I went there for about two weeks, while Tony and my staff held down the fort.

At the American Biologics Clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, healthcare was approached very differently than in the United States. Instead of prescribing prescription medications, the Clinic used natural remedies to improve my immune function; thereby, allowing my own body to fight the toxins and viruses invading it.  I had a compromised Liver, the reason for my yellow eyes and painful eyeballs, as well as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia, neither of which I had heard of. CFS is characterized by devastating tiredness that prohibits you from performing common activities. Fibromyalgia affects the muscles and joints and the endocrine and cognitive systems, causing anxiety, nervousness, apathy, confusion and irritability. Years later, I would identify myself as having environmental illness (EI), where exposure to environmental hazards like chemicals, allergens, pollution and other toxins makes you sick or aggravates existing medical conditions.

All these conditions are common among people whose body is overloaded with toxic chemicals, but at that time American medical professionals were just learning about them. If you were experiencing their symptoms, most doctors would tell you that it was “all in your head,” when, in fact, they require a multi-specialist approach since they affect so many different organs and systems. In Mexico, I received many different treatments that I hadn’t known about before—live-blood-cell therapy, intravenous vitamin drips, Ozone treatments, coffee enemas—and, yes, more colonics. I was stunned to discover that there were many more ways to help people heal than I had been exposed to in the United States. When I left Mexico, I was still very sick but I felt hopeful, noticeably better and was able to begin working again.

Once I returned home, I threw myself into learning everything I could about holistic medicine.

I was still ill so I did most of my studying in bed. By now, I knew that a healthy colon would be the key to my recovery, so I studied to become certified as a colon therapist, earning my certificate in 1993.  I also enrolled in the distance-learning program in Natural Healing.

As I studied natural healing, I began to learn that alternative doctors are preventing heart attacks and minimizing the need for prescription drugs and surgery by doing things like helping people eat healthier foods, strengthening their immune systems and administering treatments designed to remove poisonous heavy metals like arsenic and mercury from their body. The more I learned, the more I grew disenchanted—and sometimes even angry—with my profession. While complementary medicine, a diverse collection of healthcare practices and products that fall outside of the traditions of conventional medicine, isn’t the end all and be all, it does have an awful lot to offer. Unfortunately, the medical establishment looks down on it.

I earned my Ph.D. in Natural Healing in 1996. Thirsty for more knowledge, I enrolled in the Clayton School of Natural Healing to receive my N.D. (Naturopathic Doctor Degree). A naturopath differs from a traditional allopathic doctor educated at a typical American medical school. Allopathic physicians are trained to diagnose and treat diseases, prescribe drugs, and perform invasive surgical procedures. They do not learn much about prevention, how a person can heal their own body, or how to correct the root causes or reasons a person developed a health condition in the first place, though few will just come out and tell you this.

Naturopaths are trained to be both healers and educators. We believe that when provided with the right conditions the body naturally and innately heals itself. Our job is to teach our clients how to create those conditions. A naturopath’s training is similar to that of an allopathic doctor, but instead of learning how to prescribe drugs and perform surgery (which we believe are useful, but just not the treatment of first choice) we are trained to treat our clients with foods, nutritional supplements, herbs, enemas, colonics, various mind/body/spirit approaches, iridology, Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine (a healing system native to India), stress reduction and relaxation techniques that help the body heal itself.

In naturopathic school learned many important concepts that would help me to heal myself.

For example, that brain fog/Coke bottle feeling that caused me to feel “out of it” and unable to find my daughter’s school? I learned it’s a classic symptom of Candida, a type of fungus where the body is overrun with yeast cells, and that you can get rid of it by going on an anti-Candida cleanse and strict program of dietary changes, herbs and phytonutrients.

I also realized that I had to be able to understand and help people who were sick access their mind-body connection. So I next studied became certified as a hypnotist by the American Institute of Hypnotherapy. Knowing hypnosis also helped me overcome my own physical challenges. As I educated myself, I “test drove” on my own body every procedure I learned in school. I learned their strengths and limitations, what worked and what didn’t. Overall, I was amazed by the results!

One day, I woke up and realized I felt great. I had the kind of feeling that makes you sing in the shower at the top of your lungs! I don’t know what happened on that particular morning; wellness is a process, it doesn’t come in a magic pill. Yet I’ve learned that there’s often a point at which you get over some kind of hump and suddenly realize you’re getting better. It had taken me seven years, but I accomplished my goal of healing myself! I still read this story and cry I still remember the trials and tribulations. I have FORGIVEN BUT I WILL NEVER FORGET.

While I was engaged in this exhausting process of studying and healing, my old friend Deb told me about Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Though I had grown up in and lived in Connecticut, about four hours from “The Vineyard,” as the island is called, I didn’t know anything about this playground for the “rich and famous.” I hadn’t had any downtime since I could remember, so I gladly investigated. The ferry ride over was beautiful. I felt rejuvenated by the blue skies, the feel of warm sunshine on my face, the seagulls that waft alongside the boat as it travels, and the smell of the fresh sea air. When I arrived, I felt like I was in heaven. I loved the pastel-colored gingerbread cottages, the dramatic cliffs, the island’s scenic lighthouses. I decided that I had to live there. Within a year my family and I had moved into a spacious home in the town of Oak Bluffs.

I worked as a nurse at Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. I had mixed feelings about being back in a hospital setting, but my return to traditional medicine taught me a lot. I found that I felt guilty distributing the roughly 25 pills I provided to many of my patients daily, knowing that I was exposing them to the medicine’s side effects. I realized, instead, that I wanted to teach people to repair, regenerate and rejuvenate themselves by detoxifying their body. As a side job, I began working with older people who were interested in being weaned off of medications. Over time, my client list grew. I also started a support group for people with CFS. Word traveled that I knew how to help people heal. Before long, my house was filled with friends and guests wanting me to help them get better from CFS, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis. I did.

In the middle of all this, I bore my son Toron.

My pregnancy put more stress on my healing-but-still-fragile body than it was able to handle. After giving birth, it took me a month to walk and two years to recover. While nursing myself back to optimal health, I developed the cleansing program and healing philosophy behind the Martha’s Vineyard Diet Detox.

In 1999 I opened the Martha’s Vineyard Holistic Retreat (www.mvholisticretreat.com), located at the Martha’s Vineyard Inn, located in Vineyard Haven, the largest town on the Vineyard. My background allows me to integrate traditional Western and alternative approaches, while my experience in acute and chronic care allows me to help people who are extremely sick. My clients range from Islanders to vacationers to New Age gurus to medical doctors, some of whom say they fear being run out of their profession for pursuing alternative care. In the off-season I travel around the country and treat people in their homes.

I noticed that as I detoxed my clients to help them improve their health, they would feel thrilled that they were also losing weight. I kept reminding them that they were healing from chronic diseases, but they kept talking about dropping pounds. In time, I started to understand just how important weight loss was to them. Indeed, a healthy body and a healthy weight go hand in hand, and weight-loss is a wonderful consequence of detoxifying the body. But between the demands of starting a business, beginning menopause (at which point my metabolism slowed to a crawl), and not exercising, I started to get quite heavy. Although I was eating very healthy foods, over several years I gained about 50 pounds. This really bothered me. Even prior to getting sick, I had been obsessed with dieting. Weight has always been a challenge for me; the women in my family tend to be hippy and we all carry weight around our butt. Over the years I’d done a lot of research on diets and dieting and tried them all: Atkins, Pritikin, high protein, low carb. None of them worked. Fortunately, by this time I knew that toxicity must play a role, but I was so busy helping to heal others that I didn’t address my own weight problem right away.

One day James Hester, an entertainment-industry marketing and promotions professional, came to stay at the Inn. He was surprised not only by how much younger and vibrant he looked after detoxing, but by how his energy level and outlook on life both improved during the process. I detoxed James twice. He lost 21 pounds each time. He started referring his friends and family. They detoxed, lost weight, felt better and looked great. But after he knew me fairly well, James got on my case, insisting that I needed to lose weight. At his urging I decided to heed my own advice and lost the 50 pounds. My metabolism is still extremely slow, but I keep my weight down by following the program. In the meantime James kept referring people to me. Each time, he observed that everyone lost weight.

“This detoxing for health is great,” he told me. “But I am convinced that you have a diet—a detox diet!” He went on a mission to get me this book deal. In order to prove that my program worked, I detoxed my publisher Judith, who lost 21 pounds. My editor Hilary, also detoxed. The New York Times Book was born and to this day it not only saves my life but millions around the country

Your Partner is Wellness

Dr. Roni