The Astonishing Power of Love and Healing
Interview with Dr. Shiroko Sokitch, M.D.
I am excited to speak with Dr. Shiroko Sokitch who is an MD and also a licensed acupuncturist. Your credentials are interesting and impressive. You are a trained surgeon, and you are board certified in Medical Acupuncture, Integrative Medicine, and an Institute of Functional Medicine certified practitioner. You spent 10 years as an ER doctor, and you have been practicing a blend of Chinese and Western medicine for almost 30 years.
One of the most profound ways you help patients is by emphasizing the role of love in healing, especially in healing the heart. Can you tell us the title of your book?
My book is called Healing When it Seems Impossible: Seven Keys to Defy the Odds, and the first key is love.
We have some parallels in our careers. We’ve both served as ER doctors, and had to treat a lot of serious, intense illnesses in conventional care settings. We both have come to realize that using a functional medicine ‘toolbox’ helps move people forward in ways that conventional medicine alone can’t. How did all of your previous experience lead you to how you practice today?
Take all the time you want —it will be illuminating and valuable to listeners, so don’t feel you need to condense what you have to share with us today.
I originally decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was five years old. My great-grandmother was my very best friend. She collapsed in front of me one day, and was taken to the hospital. A few days later I was told that she died, and that her heart had stopped beating.
I was devastated. My mom was a single parent, and my dad had disappeared from my life already, so I had experienced loss before. It was so shocking — I had no idea what death meant. My mom said her heart had stopped beating, so I started to imagine how I could make her heart start beating again.
I decided on that day that I was going to become a doctor so that I could save lives, because I figured out that a doctor would have some kind of control in that situation.
When was the first time that you were able to save someone’s life?
During my third year in medical school I was in an ER rotation in a Seattle hospital. A patient arrived with multiple gunshot wounds, so we operated on him and saved his life. We literally saved his life. He was gone and then he was here, alive again! It was so thrilling! That led me to decide, “Oh, I’m going to be a surgeon!” So I went into surgical residency, and quickly came to see that at that time, in my mind, the very best medicine I could practice was surgery. That was the pinnacle of medicine for me.
So if surgery was the pinnacle of medicine for you—what happend?
For a while during my first and second years of residency we had some great successes, but we still had patients that we couldn’t heal. We couldn’t diagnose what was wrong with them. At that time I also hit what I call my first mid-life crisis at age 27, and came to realize that there was more to life than working 80-100 hours a week.
These two things collided and I took a month off from my residency. During that break I dreamt that if I stayed in surgery, I would die. It was literally almost like a huge banner that read, “If you stay in surgery, you will die.” Obviously I wasn’t happy at the time, because I had reached a crisis point, so I started asking myself, “What do I want to do? Where do I want to be? What is right for me?”
Somebody gave me a book around that time called The Web That Has No Weaver, about the theory and practice of Chinese medicine. I read this book and just fell in love with it.
What interested you about Chinese medicine?
The whole idea is that you’re made up of energy, and this energy travels through your body in certain patterns. When your energy is out of balance, there are problems. Balance is the main concept. I realized immediately that, “Oh, I’ve got to learn what this is about.”
I left my residency at the end of my second year and started working in the ER. I met a respiratory therapist there who was also an acupuncturist. He was already applying a crossover between Western and Chinese medicine, and he became kind of a mentor to me. I started to attend acupuncture school, and had a dream of being able to blend both Chinese and Western medicine so that I could offer patients the best of both worlds.
I later questioned why I was in acupuncture school every semester. I would ask myself, “What am I doing in school? I’ve been in school for who knows how many years, and I’m still in school! What am I doing?”
Why didn’t you quit?
I would think about it, but then something would happen with an ER patient or myself that Western medicine couldn’t solve. If I didn’t comprehend what was going on based on traditional methods, I was able to use Chinese medicine, which looks at imbalance differently than Western medicine. That helped me target specific testing, and even if the patient’s problems didn’t fit any available Western medicine tests, I still had answers that I could discuss. That’s how my early interest and training in Chinese Medicine evolved.
When did you start delving into Functional Medicine?
I moved to California and went into private practice in 1993. Those were the early days of functional medicine, so I added elements of functional medicine to my knowledge base of Chinese and Western medicine. All of these practices have been layered over the years into where I am today.
My mentor, Hillery Daily ND LAc, is an acupuncturist and Bastyr University trained naturopathic doctor. She studied at Bastyr during the early days when Jeff Bland and Joseph Pizzorno were there, when the university was first getting established. She radically helped one of my autoimmune patients who was getting recurrent bacterial infections and had already failed three immunomodulatory drugs.
I said, “How did you do that?” She said, “Functional medicine.” I have found that functional medicine is the unifying place where all these ideas come together.
Did you have mind-blowing experiences or “Aha!” moments when Chinese medicine helped you figure out which labs to order?
Yes! I’ve been practicing almost 30 years and I still love the understanding that Chinese medicine brings. I believe in healing, and I love the idea of healing and the gentleness of how energy moves. Functional medicine allows me to fine tune specific physiological processes in order to help people reach that place of healing.
That makes sense to me, too, because the body of knowledge in Chinese medicine is so vast and important, it’s an independent operating system. In some ways functional medicine is something that fits together with Chinese medicine in a modular way. That’s what I witnessed with my mentor, and also the Chinese medicine acupuncturist that I partner with here in Homer, Alaska.
What’s the science behind love as a healing tool? Love is so fascinating because it’s pivotal in spiritual experience, growth, friendship, and work. It also gets a lot of attention because it’s such a huge topic in human spirituality.
There’s grittiness to love as a tool, or giving love to a friend when the chips are down. In a previous interview you mentioned that when you were going through a really dark time your friend’s love was pivotal in your healing. There’s a grittiness and an authenticity to that. I see this in my patients’ journeys when love is part of their healing. It’s very real.
How do you feel when you are in love?
I feel great!
As soon as you even imagine being in love, you start getting a feeling of lightness and joy, right? Even if you’re not currently ‘in love,’ as soon as you start thinking about it your energy lightens up and you feel joy.
When people don’t feel well they often feel betrayed. They’re angry that they are sick. They feel physically miserable. Even without illness, people aren’t feeling ‘in love’ every single day of their lives. That’s not easy to achieve.
The first thing therefore is just to imagine being in love. And then imagine putting that thought, those feelings into yourself every single day. That doesn’t come from any other place or another person — it’s only you that generates it. It’s not the other person, that other person has their own feelings to produce. Two people come together in love because of the feelings formed by each of you, not because that person is giving you love, or you’re giving that person love. It’s more that you both bring love to the table.
How does love help people heal physiologically?
Oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone,’ initiates a physiological response that helps you overcome trauma. You can take oxytocin as a supplement, and I have even taken it myself. Scientific research has shown that using an oxytocin nasal spray can help reverse some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A lot of people, including many of my patients, lost their homes during the big wildfires that burned around Santa Rosa a couple of years ago — 6,000 homes burnt down! I put together a disaster recovery summit to help people who had gone through the trauma of fleeing their homes in the middle of the night to escape the fires. There were other disasters happening at that time in other parts of the world, and a lot of people were exposed to major disasters and trauma. Oxytocin’s effect of initiating or helping the feelings of love can help you cope with trauma.
Another example of the power of love in healing has to do with programs that focus on the coherence of heart, brain, and body, such as that offered by the HeartMath Institute. They’ve been doing research on the power of the heart and love in relation to healing for as long as I’ve been in practice. They have devices you can use to meditate in such a way that makes you coherent with your heart. Have I answered your question? I could talk forever!
In the midst of their suffering, our patients who use the power of love can move forward. That’s what a lot of the people you and I take care of experience. Love is like turning the light on, there is an illumination and lightness of feeling.
This will all be of terrific value to people. Those who follow our work should monitor over- or under-production of the stress hormone cortisol. Also the idea that oxytocin can balance or aid in parasympathetic nervous system tone, which is the rest-digest, restore-replete healing picture.
I’m so glad that you were there for those people around you, it’s a testament to the power of your toolbox that you were able to help them with that level of intensity of suffering and loss. It’s great news for people that want to use your approach in healing.
I also find there is a healing alliance that is formed — there’s an intimacy that comes from an authentic place and connects to that same authentic place in the other person.
I believe that we teach best what we most want to learn. You are very overt about forming loving, caring connections with people. There’s courage and an immediacy to that.
One of the very first things I learned in medical school and residency was that we’re not supposed to get involved with our patients. We’re supposed to maintain a clinical, professional distance. I have learned the opposite is true. When I studied Chinese medicine and also began my personal healing and spiritual path that paralleled my practice, I found that there’s a way to be very involved with your patients and not lose your ability to see them on a clinical level.
The deeper you connect with a person, the better you can understand their health issues, because emotions, emotional traumas, and relationships in their lives connect to whatever’s going on with them physically. There’s so many pieces to understanding a health concern, especially a difficult health concern. It’s never as simple as seeing just one symptom and coming up with a diagnosis. In both Chinese medicine and functional medicine there’s a perspective of the whole system being involved.
Patients’ lifestyles, their emotional supports, relationships, spiritual connections, extended family — all of those things play a role in the matrix of the health of the whole person. I think that my caring manner and desire to help people heal, and my desire to strive to be better is what helps me help patients so well.
I agree, yet I feel there are critical boundaries when we connect to people at that level. I had to learn those boundaries in that my patients didn’t need to learn details about my own journey, but they need to know that I’ve had an intense journey. I had to be careful about parsing that out. I‘ve gained confidence now as to what is productive to share with patients.
I have found through functional medicine that I can both heal and connect with patients in the same setting. It was helpful to learn about the science behind it, such as David Jones‘ work on the importance of making connections and the therapeutic alliance, and the HeartMath Institute’s research on how a clinician’s state of coherence and positivity can induce coherent heart rhythm in patients.
What about COVID-19? What advice, expertise, and encouragement can you share?
It’s important to note that there’s so much we don’t know about COVID-19 at this point, so I am still sorting this out. It’s certainly making people feel sicker than typical flu symptoms. Those who get really sick end up on ventilators, and it’s very scary. The press coverage is also terrifying. Some of my elderly patients are still brave enough to come to my office. To keep them safe I of course wear masks and gloves, I clean every surface and every piece of paper lying around. Lots of things have changed within just a couple of months.
When we buy into the heightened fear that comes along with the possibility of getting a potentially lethal illness we can forget that we are not helpless. You have to believe in your own healing ability. You can bring love and your own healing ability into the equation. You can use this time of social distancing for good rather than allowing your levels of fear and frustration and anxiety build.
I’m helping people cope with COVID-19 by assuring them that if they strengthen their Triangle of Wellness they have the ability to heal, and will likely stay well while following precautions — we all need to hold onto that.
During this stressful time there’s always going to be fear and anxiety, but your body also has the innate inner strength and the ability to heal. I work with my patients to build upon this inner strength that we all have within ourselves. To support that strength it is important to build your immune system.
Key #2 is the Triangle of Wellness in my book When it Seems Impossible: Seven Keys to Defy the Odds. This triangle consists of the nervous system, the immune system, and hormones. These are your pillars of strength, and when they are balanced and strong you can recover from anything.
Some of this strength comes from believing in your ability to heal. That’s where I start with my patients. No matter how dire a patient’s condition is when they arrive, we start with the possibility of healing. Your cells know how to heal, but we have to set the structure up to allow them to heal. This is the case with coronavirus as it is with anything else.
Can you share patients’ feedback as to what they have found most helpful?
Patients say that maybe the most helpful thing is hope. For example, a new patient came in yesterday who has been through some very intense situations, but for her I think the biggest takeaway was the idea that there is hope. She said that provides her with a starting point, because she has many complicated health issues.
At times it’s too overwhelming — there are so many possible outcomes and that creates anxiety. Having a starting point to make even one change becomes doable; it is one tiny step that you can take. You can cut out gluten for example, or dairy. Then based upon that outcome you can take another tiny step.
Patients like to have their healing protocol broken down into small, doable steps. They are also encouraged by the prospect that their body already knows how to heal. They need to keep repeating these mantras, “My body knows how to heal” and “Somewhere in me is the knowledge of how to heal.”
Anytime you are facing a serious, chronic, or lingering health issue, it’s like walking on a precipice. On one side – you have everything to lose. On the other side is your health, renewal, and a life that you love.
What I’ve experienced in my own life is a two part process, macro or larger steps, and micro or smaller steps. The micro involves taking small incremental steps, focusing on process and not perfection. That helps that scared, frozen feeling go away. I think perhaps the ‘micro’ approach is the most important if there are feelings of hopelessness or overwhelm.
I think one of the macros is that patients have been learning that diseases do not come out of nowhere, they come from somewhere. They come from imbalances, they come from our genes being washed over by the environment and by our lives. I think that gives them a sense of hope and confidence that if they take steps they can impact their risks and outcomes.
I love the way you talked about the big picture and then the little steps that you take in order to get to the big picture. The big picture itself can be overwhelming, and I have experienced that myself. Completing my book took five years. If I looked at it as an entire book, it was too much. When I broke it down into little steps, it was manageable.
How can people get your book When it Seems Impossible: Seven Keys to Defy the Odds?
It’s already available as a hard copy and ebook on Kindle, and the Audible version will be out soon.
Your patients can read your book before or after their first visit with you. How does that help your patients to have a sort of ‘operating manual’?
It’s great because many of them either read it before coming in for their first visit, or later when they want to learn more. Some patients arrive who are already incorporating certain principles that I advocate in the book. That is very helpful because I sometimes take for granted that people already know some certain principles. It also helps lay a foundation for how to approach the healing journey, which they might never have the time to hear from me in person in such detail.
I think that it’s really important to provide the reference tools such as your book, these blogs, recorded interviews, and so on because we want everyone to have access to this information.
Any last thoughts? Anything you’d like people to know that I didn’t remember to ask you, Dr. Sokitch?
Love — I want to end with what we began with. This is the one tool you need to call on right away in your healing journey, whatever your healing journey is. If you’re sheltered at home because of COVID-19, if you’re feeling anxious about your future, or if you’re dealing with some critical health issue, you have to believe in your ability to heal and focus on love. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on love. You may not feel like there’s love in your life, or you may not feel like there’s anything to do with love that you can focus on, but you can and you must. Pick something small, so that even if there’s only one tiny part of your body that isn’t it pain, even if it’s your pinky toe, love your pinky toe.
Giving somebody love right now might be wearing a mask when you go out in public so that you don’t expose anyone you meet to whatever you may have. Even that basic act of love is a great starting place.
Love acts like a boomerang. People often think love should come to them, but if you put love out, it will come back to you like a boomerang. If you can’t feel it coming towards you, give love towards somebody. If there’s nobody to love, give a stranger love. We can’t be standing in line at Starbucks and paying for the guy behind us, but find a way to give somebody love. You can always love more, and you can always give love to someone somewhere.
Thank you for your time and your wisdom. It’s been a privilege to get to spend time with you. You’ve made a big difference for me, and so I’m going to reflect on what you shared and it’s going to illuminate my day.
Rob Downey, MD
Founder of Seaworthy Functional Medicine