Dr Jen’s Journey

I graduated from UCT Medical School in 1996 and did my internship at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1997. With a passion for primary care, I worked as a locum doctor in various GP practices in and around Cape Town. As a newly qualified doctor, I soon became aware of the strong link between lifestyle and physical/mental/emotional dysfunction but I felt inadequate in my ability to manage chronic lifestyle-related diseases… I felt like my only “toolbox” was my prescription pad and pen! I was forever exploring “natural medicine alternatives” like homeopathy, herbal medicine; I kept searching for an “antidote to stress”. Life was so different then…no internet at our fingertips, no smart phones… it is difficult to imagine how we managed?! After two years of GP work, I had started feeling very disillusioned…I did not feel like I was truly helping my patients. Everything felt driven by rushed appointments, pharmaceutical reps, prescription drugs and specialist referrals.

At the end of 1999, my husband and I moved to London and I started specializing as a NHS GP. I worked in A&E and then in ENT but just before my final year working as a registrar in a GP practice, my husband was transferred to Denver, Colorado. We lived in the USA for 3 years. I worked as a research fellow at the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes affiliated with the Denver Health Sciences Center. During this time I was involved in the DAISY study, which is searching for the environmental cause of Type 1 Diabetes as well as research looking into the occurrence of Celiac Disease in children with Type 1 Diabetes. I co-authored a few publications and learnt a lot about research. The key concept that my research experience had highlighted for me was how our environment and our daily choices influence our health. We spent most of our spare time skiing the Rocky Mountains in winter and doing triathlons in summer. I fell in love with the Wholefoods store in Denver which embraced whole food, plant-based living and my passion for a healthy lifestyle grew from strength to strength. Our first son was also born in Denver and so our time there will forever hold a special place in my heart. Once he turned a year old, we chose to head back home to East London, SA to be close to our family.

I have been very blessed to work part-time whilst raising our two boys. For many years, I worked shifts in our local casualty and did GP work as well. My family and I enjoyed a lifelong memorable experience living in Saskatchewan, Canada for 3 months. I worked in a wonderful primary care practice there. The magnitude of lifestyle-related presentations there was as high as in SA. I always spent far longer with my patients and tried to implement skills that I had learnt along the way. My long struggle with infertility had sparked an even deeper interest in the mind-body connection, how our environment interacts with our genetics and the power of food as medicine. During this time, I followed a raw vegan lifestyle for close to 9 years but since have reintroduced cooked whole, plant food and I do have a portion of sustainably caught oily fish about twice a month to maintain my Vitamin B12 levels without the need to supplement.

I studied Functional Medicine in 2012 by attending and completing the first AFMCP (Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice) hosted in SA and then also completed the Functional Nutrition course through the IFM a few years later. Although I learnt so much, I still felt that I lacked training in behavior change. Without behavior change, I could see that the root cause of many chronic diseases was not going to shift. I had still not found my niche and was forever feeling disillusioned and frustrated working within our “health care” or rather more aptly called our “sick care” system.

To increase my job satisfaction, I started training with our local cardiothoracic surgeon. I discovered that I actually love surgery! He taught me how to harvest the saphenous veins and radial artery to use as coronary artery grafts and then assist at the chest during all open heart surgeries. I have now been doing this for close to 12 years and still love it. I guess that I get my adrenaline rush in the cardiac theatre as every case is unique and the active assisting is something that I truly enjoy. Of course, every time I am in theatre, I am witnessing the long-term consequence of an unhealthy lifestyle and how lifestyle medicine may have prevented the patient needing such invasive surgery. Experiencing this has fuelled my passion for lifestyle medicine even further.

During 2018, I decided to explore the field of nutrigenomics and epigenetics by completing a Foundations Course in Translational Nutrigenomics. I find this science and research fascinating. I am now part of a very pro-active network of predominantly registered dieticians and medical doctors with a strong focus on continued professional development by hosting weekly webinars and sharing resources.

In 2020, I specialized in Lifestyle Medicine by writing the board certification examination of the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine (IBLM). I am therefore a diplomat of the IBLM and a certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician. With Lifestyle Medicine, I have finally found my niche. With a solid focus on behavior change strategies and motivational interviewing skills, I feel well equipped to support patients who are ready to change. I offer the nutrigenomic test to all of my lifestyle medicine practice patients. The way that I see nutrigenomics fitting in well with the lifestyle medicine approach is that the personalized information gained provides validation for the need for behavior change. It also serves as additional instrinsic motivation for behavior change. It is the successful behavior change and improved lifestyle factors that then positively changes the epigenome to help prevent, treat and hopefully reverse disease. I am enjoying my lifestyle practice immensely and finally feel like I am making a difference. My dream however, is to improve health and wellness on a much larger scale by influencing positive change at a community and policy level. We need to improve our obesogenic and inflammatory environment in order to truly improve not only our health, but the health of our planet too. This is why I have joined a group of like-minded physicians and together we have established the South African Lifestyle Medicine Association (SALMA). I serve as Vice President on the SALMA executive committee as well as on the Board of Directors. We are working together towards a shared dream of eradicating non-communicable diseases in South Africa.

The future is exciting and I would love to inspire you all to live your healthiest and happiest life.

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