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Blurring Boundaries: Creating a CAM-Inspired Career Path

Alyssa Todaro, PhD student, NIH

"Treatment originates outside you; healing comes from within." – Andrew Weil, M.D.

As a student in the Department of Biobehavioral Health at Penn State, my coursework consisted mainly of biology, physiology, and psychology classes. A nursing class was not on the agenda.

But “Introduction to Complementary Medicine” just seemed so interesting.

After some careful persuasion, my undergraduate advisor agreed to break the rules and count the course as “health education.” By the end of the semester, I was in love. The course professor brought in humor therapists, musicians, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and my personal favorite, hypnotherapists. They all gave demonstrations and lectures, but more importantly, each and every one of them cared about their patients as people, not as walking diseases. They spoke passionately about the satisfaction and daily rewards they received as integrative health practitioners.

In search of a summer internship before beginning a doctoral program in public health, I perused an online public database of all the active NIH intramural research reports related to Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) protocols that were hiring research assistants for the summer. “Hypnosis as a pain and symptom management strategy in patients with sickle cell disease” caught my eye and before I knew it, I was packing boxes for the “big move” from a small town in Pennsylvania to our Nation’s Capital.

The protocol was implemented through the nursing department. Beginning to see a trend?

Given all of the acronyms at the National Institutes of Health (or the NIH: case in point), I wasn’t surprised to learn that my official title as a summer intern was “IRTA,” or Intramural Research Trainee Award recipient. Okay, so the name’s a little confusing. The job, however, exceeded all of my expectations.

In eight short weeks, I learned statistical analysis techniques I never had the chance to do in college, was encouraged to write an abstract for the Society of Behavioral Medicine, and presented a poster on shared decision-making and CAM use in an underserved population with arthritis and rheumatic diseases. I interviewed and interacted with patients for the first time in my life, learned about the Pain and Palliative Care team and the integrative modalities available to patients at the NIH Clinical Center (CC), and shadowed many world-renowned investigators whose work interests me. I focused my efforts on the hypnosis protocol, but also assisted with the beginning phases of a yoga study for patients with rheumatic disease.

I will remain at the NIH CC as a part-time post-baccalaureate “IRTA” as I begin doctoral coursework this fall at the University of Maryland, School of Public Health. My goal and focus is to continue exploring how integrative approaches to health work in the realm of public health and why the two require total connectivity. Just as I was given a chance in not one but two nursing departments without an intention of becoming a nurse, I believe CAM deserves a chance at integration into our world of “traditional” Western medicine.

After all, sometimes breaking with tradition is the only way to get to where you are going.