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Peter Stern

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With over 40 years working in natural healthcare in the Southern Humboldt community, Naturopathic Doctor, Licensed Acupuncturist, and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Peter Stern has seen his practice grow from 1 or 2 patients a day to a bustling private practice that has just helped train and launch the career of his likely successor, assuring local residents of quality holistic medicine well into the future.

Where it started

In 1971 Peter moved to Humboldt County to become a “back to the land hippie”. Four years into that experience he found himself wondering what was next and decided to start taking anatomy and physiology courses at College of the Redwoods along with his land partner at the time, Kate Lanigan. “From then on I was just fascinated by medicine and knew I needed to do something in the field,” says Peter.

Lanigan went on to become a Physician’s Assistant (PA) who served in the Southern Humboldt Community for many years as a PA and midwife.

Peter applied to PA  school, medical school, and to a naturopathic program. “Naturopathy was this weird thing I didn’t know much about, but since it was all about using natural therapies for healing, it sounded right in tune with my wanting to live on the land and be self-sufficient. So I went to a four-year naturopathic medical school.”

At the time Peter attended, naturopathy was not yet a licensed profession in California, “But I didn’t really care because I was an outlaw of sorts.” Peter graduated in 1981 and returned to Humboldt. “I started working at Redwoods Rural where the mission was to provide holistic healthcare, to give people choices and to put the patient first, and to support what patients wanted rather than dictating what they needed which is what western medicine is so good at doing.”

Peter ultimately worked at Redwoods Rural for 18 years, but at first, he says, “it was really slow. I was doing mostly herbs and nutrition and I’d see maybe one or two people a day, and then take a 2-hour lunch break to play tennis.”

Bringing acupuncture to Southern Humboldt

Peter attributes the early licensure status of acupuncture to then Governor Jerry Brown’s interest in California’s Chinese community.

A lucky encounter at a 1982 continuing ed conference in the Bay Area led to Peter learning about a program offered by the Chinese government to train western medical professionals in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Unattached at the time, Peter signed up and spent 4 months in Beijing studying TCM, followed by another year of training in the Bay Area to get his California Acupuncture License. “Really fortuitously, when I came home in 1985, Medi-Cal [California’s low-income health insurance at the time] started covering acupuncture. “That changed everything. I had two rooms at Redwoods Rural and an assistant and was as busy as could be.”

Peter attributes the relatively early licensure status of acupuncture in California (1976, with additional legislature in 1978 making the practice “primary care” and stripping the referral requirement for visits) to then Governor Jerry Brown’s interest in California’s Chinese community. This proved to be another stroke of luck early in Peter’s career to be able to operate under a license, although it may have diminished his self-proclaimed outlaw status. “Brown really wanted Chinese practitioners to be allowed to work in California. Governor Moonbeam was all over it.”

Redwoods Rural’s state funding status at the time allowed for a high reimbursement level for acupuncture services, a huge improvement over previous measly reimbursement rates, allowing Peter’s practice to benefit not just his patients, but Redwoods Rural and himself as well.

Unfortunately, Medi-Cal stopped covering acupuncture for several years, then coverage was reinstated in 2016 through an act of the legislature for a handful of specific diagnoses.  “Now there are some actual state-of-the-art studies showing that acupuncture is effective for chronic back pain, joint pain, and migraine headaches, so Medi-Cal covers just those services.”

One of Peter’s hopes for the future is that Medicare will also expand its limited coverage. “They will now cover services for low back pain that doesn’t respond to other therapies and only if those services are administered by an MD.” With very few licensed acupuncturists who are also MDs, this amounts to little more than lip service from Medicare.

Garberville Clinic & RRHC

Fast forward to 1998 when the political landscape in local healthcare became divided over the idea of a merger between the Garberville clinic and RRHC. Most of the providers at both clinics wanted to merge services for many pragmatic reasons, but the RRHC board of directors, referred to by Peter as “hippier than thou,” would not budge, and the merger idea died a difficult death.

In reaction to RRHC’s intransigence, Peter, as well as then-medical director of RRHC Bill Hunter, MD, and PA, Linda Candiotti, all moved their practices to the Garberville Clinic. Ron Hood, MD, and Lorraine Carolan, PA and midwife, stayed on at RRHC.

It turns out, according to Peter, that the two facilities in fact could not have merged due to RRHC’s state funding status precluding such a partnership.

During the two years Peter worked at the Garberville Clinic, the healthcare district was dropping into dire financial circumstances and approaching bankruptcy. “They hired this corporate saver named George Koortbojian. A lot of people called him Kevorkian. The way he looked at numbers, I was drawing a salary but not making the district any money, so he had to let me go. In fact, when the numbers were looked at correctly I was making the district about $100,000 a year above my salary.”

But it was all for the best, says Peter of yet another charmed twist in his career path. “He (Koortbojian) got me this place, which had been being used as offices by various community organizations,” says Peter of his practice’s current home at 764 Cedar Street in Garberville, a residence converted to offices many years ago.

“I was scared because I was never in private practice before, but it’s been great and I can hardly believe it’s been 22 years since we moved here.”

An alternative approach to care

My approach to medicine is to look at the whole person and look at underlying factors in their illness or their wellness.

Why would a person choose a so-called alternative approach to care? “My approach to medicine is to look at the whole person and look at underlying factors in their illness or their wellness and try to incorporate understanding of what’s happening in their process and address it from a more natural standpoint. Using herbs, nutrition, and physical therapies like acupuncture is, I think, appealing to a lot of people.”

A lot of people try acupuncture because they have heard about its well-documented effectiveness for pain relief and whatever insurance they happen to have will cover it. “I treat a lot of musculo-skeletal problems.” While Peter can and does treat other medical issues such as respiratory and digestive issues as well as metabolic disease, he estimates about 70% of what people come in for are musculo-skeletal issues.

As the baby boomer population has aged, so has the age of much of Peter’s clientele. “In the beginning, I saw mostly younger people, very few older people. That bridge had not really been built yet and with a lot of the older people in the community in those days it was kind of the red necks vs. the hippies. I started seeing older people when Bill (Hunter) started bridging that gap and sending them to me. Bill was really open to anything, and so was Mark (Phelps).”

Peter also does a lot of complementary therapies for people undergoing standard western treatments for all kinds of disease, from cancer to autoimmune conditions to heart disease. “There are certain times when whatever is going on is outside of my expertise and I don’t hesitate to refer people to western medicine.”

In some cases Southern Humboldt’s isolation hampers those referrals when the next step would be to see a specialist. “That’s one of the harder things now, is our limited access to specialists. Many of them are far away and it can take two or three months to get an appointment.”

However, Peter sees an advantage to health just in living rurally. “Just living up here people are so much closer to nature. I see a lot of stress-related disorders. I counsel people all the time to get out and take a walk, get outside. We live in this beautiful place.”

When asked how his field has evolved over the years, Peter acknowledges that while TCM is very old, with the theories dating back 5,000 years, there are some practitioners employing more new age techniques.” They’ll use electronic meridian diagnosis, or laser acupuncture, or other new age therapies. I’m still doing kind of what they were doing a long time ago. If you looked in on my practice and compared it to what they were doing a thousand years ago you wouldn’t see much difference. One difference is that the needles are much thinner now and much easier to tolerate. With the Chinese, there is a little bit of a no pain, no gain mentality.” Other new-age techniques have been developed both in China and TCM practitioners in the west.

“In terms of naturopathic medicine, looking at research on metabolic disease and nutritional therapies, a lot has been refined. The huge change, I think, in terms of what gets seen by practitioners is how much chronic degenerative disease there is, especially metabolic disease like diabetes and insulin resistance. That’s the name of the game now. I think as a rule obesity is not as prevalent in our community as elsewhere, I think metabolic disease is. There’s a condition called metabolic obesity where you’re not fat but your body acts as if it were. It has a lot to do with poor dietary choices such as refined carbs.”

Holistic medicine in the community

That’s one thing I recommend; exercise therapies for almost everyone.

Peter also sees positive change in Southern Humboldt’s health, mentioning the community park and various fitness and movement classes that encourage exercise. “That’s one thing I recommend; exercise therapies for almost everyone. If not just for its stress-reducing effects. I think people were not as stressed 40 years ago. “Insomnia and anxiety are two things I see a lot.”

Concerns about the state of the world are making us anxious, according to Peter. Climate change is increasingly on everyone’s mind. Peter noticed about 7-8 years ago that high school seniors’ statements about what they want to do with their lives were often mentioning dealing with climate change. There is tremendous fear throughout the world about the future. “And with good reason,” says Peter. “We’re doomed.”

Regarding access to care, or lack thereof, Peter fully supports a single payer healthcare system.  “I’m a big proponent of single payer. I hate the inequity of our system. I have a lot of patients with no insurance and they are so screwed. Any time they need more intervention or diagnostics, it’s unaffordable. Single payer works.”

The cost of laboratory tests can be especially prohibitive and Peter laments the closure of Redwood Labs, which used to operate in Eureka offering significant discount prices compared to private pay at clinics and hospitals. Even without a single payer overhaul, the funding of discount labs could improve quality of health to the many uninsured in our community.

Regarding covid, Peter says, “It’s still early on in our ability to study this stuff and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. I try and listen to people who are way smarter than I am and who seem to have a down home ability to look at data and interpret it.” He likes to read epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina and Medscape editor Jeremy Faust. “It’s just been so polarizing in a lot of ways. Early on I was asking people if they were vaccinated and they didn’t want to tell me. There was a stigma and they thought I might judge them.” Peter is a believer in the effectiveness of mask-wearing and told of a visit with a patient who soon after tested positive, making her contagious during her treatment. Peter never became symptomatic.

With what is probably a big smile hidden behind his mask, Peter describes his longtime assistant and newly fledged trainee, Sheila O’Toole. Sheila recently finished her 4-year program of coursework and tutorial and can sit for her board exams. “She’s just a very special person. About 6 or 7 years ago Sheila was my assistant. Assistants don’t really need to know more than what they do, but Sheila was always really interested in everything we do.” Peter had done a tutorial program 20 years ago with Booie Volk and Andrea Shafir.  “I’m working towards retirement and I know I’m not going to do this the rest of my life, but I’ll keep doing it for a while because I get so much from it.”

So another fortuitous twist presented itself as a willing apprentice appeared. “It’s hard to get straight medical providers to come here, so it would be really hard to find any alternative providers to move to this community. So I asked Sheila if she would be interested in doing the training and she leapt at the opportunity. She has been so focused and has done so much work. I’m really proud of her. She’s the most caring person I know.”

With Peter’s experience and dedication to draw from, Sheila will take the baton for the next generations of natural healthcare patients in Southern Humboldt and beyond.

SHCHD, Staff writer