Self-knowing is important, particularly so for those pursuing a career in natural medicine, according to Britta Zimmer, ND (’04). But self-knowing must be developed through experience – despite not knowing where it might take you.
Raised in Washington, D.C., Dr. Zimmer is the Medical Director at Pacific Quest, a wilderness therapy program located on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. The program has helped nearly 3,000 teens and young adults in mental health crisis since its founding in 2004, treating issues like internalized stress, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem through a strengths- and community-based approach rooted in the outdoors. Set against the idyllic backdrop of a tropical island paradise, Pacific Quest provides an ideal environment for healing.
Students come from all over the country and stay for an average of 90 days. After saying goodbye to cellphones and screens, they dive into daily activities that develop a deep mind-body connection in service of self-knowing and achieving a seemingly simple set of goals: good sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress management. The program’s satisfaction rate is remarkable: 95% of families report being satisfied to very satisfied with the outcomes.
But with just around three months’ treatment, it’s important to hold realistic expectations. “These kids have been sick for years,” says Dr. Zimmer. “It is our responsibility to help them, but it’s not 100% our responsibility to heal them.”
Instead, Dr. Zimmer and the Pacific Quest team focus on helping students create a sustainable healthy lifestyle, giving them the tools necessary to reach their goals after leaving the program. For many students and families on the cusp of despair, Pacific Quest’s holistic approach provides a life-changing opportunity to learn, heal, and grow.
Persistence, adaptability, and courage pay off
If it sounds like a dream job, Dr. Zimmer is the first to tell you it is. But she didn’t set out to work in this setting. In fact, she didn’t set out toward naturopathy at all. Nevertheless, as is the case for so many healers, Dr. Zimmer’s own path to natural medicine and self-knowing begins close to home.
“My grandfather was a physician, and you know, when you have a physician in your family, you just kind of get a pill for everything. But then I had a brother who had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and all I remember as a 12-year-old was that he would go into the hospital, and he would come back worse – so I remember having this conviction saying, ‘I want to be the type of doctor that when someone comes to see me, they come back [home] better.’”
Having no knowledge of naturopathic medicine at the time, Dr. Zimmer later attended the University of Virginia where she enrolled in pre-med. She recalls clearly how one day in chemistry lab, it simply dawned on her that the trajectory and pace of the conventional medicine path wasn’t what she wanted. She switched gears, majoring instead in international relations, which took her to Japan. It was there that she found a healer, and once again she began to toy with the idea of a career in medicine – but this time, it was a different kind of medicine.
Dr. Zimmer recounts how, during her time at NUNM, she was able to immerse herself in experiences that both challenged and gave shape to her vision.
“At first, I was very science-based. I remember learning about homeopathy and thinking, ‘I don’t need that modality.’ And then when I got into the last two years in the clinical setting, I saw some of my most influential mentors were using a lot of homeopathy, so I started to take a lot of extra homeopathy courses.”
Once she settled into her private practice, she started out doing homeopathy, but again found herself pivoting, realizing that what she really needed was a different framework for her patients altogether.
“These lifestyle skills, eating well and sleeping well and exercising – you know, the basic prescriptions that we would want all of our patients to follow – a lot of patients were having trouble doing that. I wanted some type of framework that helps my patients just realize these are so important. [But] it’s frustrating in outpatient care when you know what your patient needs to do and they don’t do it. So from there I started envisioning … some type of retreat center.”
The rest, she says, was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. After moving to Hawaii, she heard about Pacific Quest and became curious. Hilo being a fairly small community, one night Dr. Zimmer wound up at the same social function as the Pacific Quest owners. “I literally just walked up, handed him my business card, and said, ‘Do you have a medical person that works for you?’ He said, ‘No, we have a dietitian that we consult with.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a naturopathic physician, and I think your organization needs an ND.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what that is, and I don’t know who you are. But I’m interested.’”
Experience, trust, and a network of peers
It takes considerable conviction to sell a perfect stranger an unknown medicine and your professional services, but Dr. Zimmer says that cultivating confidence in both is imperative to any career in naturopathic medicine.
Without structured opportunities like internships, aspiring NDs must create their own immersive post-graduate experiences. In particular, she credits her intensive training as an NUNM resident working at Outside In with spurring her transformation from “cautious student” to “capable expert.”
“Being at Outside In was humbling. The volume of patients I had to see was extraordinary, and it just built a skill and confidence that I think is really necessary for a lot of practitioners. Being kind of like a case coordinator and collaborator and delegator and all that, it kind of gave me the wider lens of what we have to do as physicians, because it’s not just patient care. I look back at my experience in that community health clinic and it still informs my practices.”
The leadership skills Dr. Zimmer acquired as a resident are precisely what got her hired at Pacific Quest. When she first came on, in 2008, Pacific Quest only worked with about 12 students at a time. But by 2011, that number had quadrupled, creating a need for a larger medical staff. That’s when Dr. Zimmer, as the organization’s first Medical Director, developed the organization’s new integrative psychiatry program. These days, Dr. Zimmer oversees a team of two RNs, three medical assistants, a psychiatrist, and two consultants (both NDs) who create tailored integrative medical plans for around 30 students at a time.
She stresses the importance of having a professional network, recalling how one faculty member in her early medical student days called her out for guessing about a patient’s treatment. “If you don’t know,” he instructed her, “you say, ‘I’m going to look into that.’”
She’s taken that lesson to heart, noting that many patients arrive at naturopathy desperate because conventional medicine failed to yield answers. She considers her many mentors and peers as another tool in her black bag. “It’s okay to do some research. There’s always something we can do while we figure out what’s really going on. There’s always something we can offer, even just being there with [the patient], listening to them and looking them in the eye and saying, ‘Wow, you know, I’m going to figure this out. We’re going to figure this out together.’”