Chicago’s Natural Healer

Dr. C. Leslie Smith.
Dr. C. Leslie Smith.

By Gwen Aviles
Medill Reports

Not too long ago, most “real” doctors would not consider employing natural medicine. In fact, naturopathic procedures were so stigmatized that even Dr. C. Leslie Smith, one of the pioneers of holistic medicine in the Midwest and an acupuncturist with her own practice in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, never foresaw herself practicing it.

Smith was training to become a general surgeon at the University of Illinois College of Medicine when hardship struck. With only one year of school remaining, she developed a repetitive stress injury in her arms, which impeded her ability to operate.

“The more I tried to compensate with my left hand, the more my right hand became inflamed and vice versa,” she says. At one point, her arms became completely immobilized and nothing—not the physical therapy she was completing nor the narcotics and anti-inflammatories she was prescribed—could mollify her acute pain.

“Somebody finally said to me, ‘Why don’t you try acupuncture?’” she recalls. “So I did and I was completely blown away with how well it worked for me. It worked well enough that I was able to go about activities of daily living again.”

While acupuncture enabled Smith to drive and use her TV remote, it did not quell her pain to the point where she could do surgery. That’s when she decided to make the transition from practicing traditional medicine to practicing integrative medicine, a type of medicine that incorporates both traditional and alternative modalities.

Her traditional allopathic colleagues thought she was crazy.

Smith was not deterred, though she says this period was “a difficult time” in her life. She moved to Los Angeles with her husband, where she attended Yo San University to learn all aspects of Chinese medicine, from acupuncture to medicinal herbs. Afterward she completed her LAc—the certification to become a licensed acupuncturist—in Chicago at the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine and Harvard Medical School’s structural acupuncture course for physicians.

Now some of her prior colleagues want her help in treating their own disorders.

“I’m getting all kinds of messages from them asking, ‘Can acupuncture be used to treat this, that and the other thing?’ So there’s definitely a shift,” Smith says.

In January, the Department of Medicaid for Ohio extended coverage to acupuncture treatments delivered by non-medical providers for patients with migraines and lower back pain— conditions that have traditionally been most often treated with highly-addictive narcotics.

Although Ohio has taken the most dramatic step, it is not the only state to embrace alternative forms of medicine in the hopes of decreasing drug addiction. According to a 2016 survey by the National Academy for State Health Policy, 12 other states have implemented changes to encourage Medicaid beneficiaries to use methods beyond pharmaceuticals for pain management. In addition to acupuncture, such methods can include massage, yoga and chiropractic manipulation.

The increasing popularity of alternative medicine indicates the extent to which perceptions have changed. Natural medicine, which was first embraced on the East and West coasts, is solidifying its place in the Midwest—likely because the region bears the brunt of the opioid crisis. According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the region saw a 70 percent increase in opioid ER visits from 2016 to 2017.

“Not only is Asian medicine great in addressing the physical manifestations of addiction, but it is also useful in addressing its psychological component,” says Smith. “Acupuncture treats the physical and emotional pain, the etiology of why someone started using narcotics in the first place.”

Despite the promise of holistic medicine for pain management, cynics abound. One of the biggest obstacles in getting insurance companies to provide coverage for acupuncture and allopathic providers to set aside their instinctive skepticism is the question of research. Critics argue that taxpayers are being forced to fund unproven and unscientific treatments, but advocates argue that holistic medicine cannot be measured in the same way as traditional medicine and therefore different standards must be used to determine its effectiveness.

According to Smith, holistic medicine looks at the whole body, whereas Western medicine tends to look at each part of the body individually. Take your lungs, for instance. If you’re having a problem with a respiratory organ, you’ll likely be referred to a pulmonologist, who just focuses on the lungs or organs like the kidneys or the heart. But in holistic medicine, the lungs are only one moving part in an assembly line of pieces that must work together in order to function correctly.

As a result, when someone with asthma or allergies drops by Smith’s practice, she never just looks at their lungs. Because holistic medicine relies on the idea that all parts of the body are irrevocably connected, it allows for more nuanced interpretation when it comes to assigning a diagnosis. While Western medicine can categorize a group of people who have diabetes together, holistic medicine honors their individuality and is rooted in the belief that no groups of people have the same problem in the same etiology.

There may be ways for both holistic and traditional medicine to coexist, however, and Smith seems to epitomize that balance. In fact, some of her patients have said that one of the reasons why they feel so comfortable being treated by Smith is her combined biomedical and holistic backgrounds.

“Her combination of using both Eastern and Western medicine was instrumental in addressing both the symptoms and root causes of my seasonal affective disorder and thyroid issues,” said Jodi Lupo, a technology sales specialist who visited Smith regularly before moving to California.

Bobbi-Lee Williams, owner of the cannabis bakery Bobbi’s Baked, calls Smith a “true medicine woman and a compassionate, intuitive and highly skilled physician.” Williams, who suffers from chronic pain, started seeing Smith in 2015 and says she relaxes as soon as she walks in the door of her practice.

To be sure, the ambiance of the Chicago Healing Center—the practice Smith created that features medical treatments from a variety of other practitioners—is soothing. Replete with salt lamps, beautiful art and ready-to-pour tea, the waiting room resembles an Asian spa more than a traditionally barren doctor’s office. But the feelings of tranquility that Smith invokes seem to have more to do with her bedside manner than the office decor.

“She sat down with me for two hours and looked at my complete medical history,” said Williams. “Most doctors don’t take the time to do that, but getting that comprehensive background to really understand where that patient’s coming from makes an incredible difference.”

Smith’s latest endeavor includes increasing the accessibility of holistic medicine. She recently opened an extension of her practice, the Chicago Healing Center Community Acupuncture Clinic, next door to its original location. The facility offers low-cost options so patients with financial need can receive Asian medical treatment. Special discounts are offered to Medicare and Medicaid recipients, as well as students and military service people or veterans.

Besides presiding over her practice and the community center, Smith cares for her two dogs, dances and teaches in the Department of Family Medicine and the Department of Surgery at UIC.

“There was no integrative medicine at UIC when I was there as a student,” she said. “There was no conversation about it at all. And now I’m just one of many instructors who are teaching the future doctors about integrative medicine. It’s very exciting.”

Smith will begin a new position as Director of Integrative Medicine and the Director of Culinary Medicine at Southern Illinois medical school in Springfield beginning July 16th.

Photo at top: Dr. C. Leslie Smith employs both integrative and traditional medicinal techniques at her practice. (Photo Taken by Angela Garbot)