Envisioning the Future Series: Alumni Spotlight Dr. Shermie Cadabona

Our Envisioning the Future blog series gives you a glimpse of some of the exciting and diverse careers and opportunities our ACTCM graduates are pursuing. Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing their stories, experiences, and advice with you. Get to know what motivates them, our ACTCM community—and be inspired!

Dr. Shermie Cadabona earned her Master of Science in Traditional Chinese Medicine degree (’14) and her Doctorate of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine (’17) from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. We recently chatted with her about what it’s like to work in a truly integrative medical setting, how she decided to change careers after 17 years as a construction engineer, and advice she has for soon-to-be grads.

What have you been up to since graduating from ACTCM?
I’m a licensed acupuncturist at Sutter Health Institute for Health and Healing (IHH). After I finished the master’s program at ACTCM, I returned to complete the transitional doctorate program. While I was still in my master’s program, I became a certified massage therapist and was able to start building a part-time practice on the side. Once I graduated, I added acupuncture to my services and continued in private practice for a few years. There were many lessons to be learned, not only as a practitioner, but also as a new business owner. And ultimately, I learned I wasn’t so great at marketing.

That’s partially what led me to my current role at IHH. I decided that I was better suited to working in a more structured environment, where I wouldn’t have to drain my energy on marketing. The position at IHH and others that I was looking at all preferred candidates to have a doctoral-level degree. So in that sense, ACTCM’s transitional doctorate also really opened doors for me.

How has it been working at IHH?
It’s really the ideal integrative medical setting, very similar to what we talked about in school. You have Western medical practitioners in the same room as acupuncturists talking about cases, sharing patients and knowledge. At IHH, acupuncture falls under specialty care services. Under this department, we also have a chiropractor; massage therapists; naturopathic, functional medicine; and Ayurvedic medicine practitioners. Primary care includes your traditional Western medical team, MDs, and nurses. I work there four days a week, which is 32 hours, and is considered full time with benefits. It’s a lot when it’s packed with patients. I see up to 12 to 13 patients a day.

I have meetings three different times a month with the staff, and sometimes providers will share cases. Providers have the opportunity to either present a case that had great success, or perhaps a more complicated case, and ask the group, “What do you think? How would you approach this case from your specific knowledge base?” With cases like those, we all have the opportunity to learn from each other. It’s humbling and empowering at the same time. When I started at IHH, I was still a relatively new practitioner with only three years of experience. Getting thrown into that felt like being a small fish in a big pond. It was scary at first, but through these meetings, I got to know my co-workers on a more personal level, and that took some of the scariness away. I realized that everyone around that table, no matter if they’ve been in practice two years or 25 years, are all learning from each other.

I’m grateful to have landed in such a great place where there’s that openness to learn from each other. That really is the model integrative care is going for. I’m sure the success rate of reaching that varies organization to organization, depending on who’s running it, personality conflicts, etc.

What sorts of cases do you typically see?
I specialize in musculoskeletal issues. That stems from my experience with personal injuries that also got me interested in bodywork. But because we are a general practice, I see all kinds of cases. I have patients that are going through chemo, patients who are stressed from working in an office, and patients with everything in between. The types of patients I now see are diverse and broader than what I saw in private practice, and even at the school clinic.

What have been some of the biggest differences between working in solo private practice and IHH?
It’s definitely very different being a solo practitioner vs. staff practitioner. When I was a solo practitioner, I rarely would have anyone else in the office to bounce ideas off of. But now at IHH, I have this whole building of people whom I can ask for help. It’s incredible to also have these folks around to help you support patients through their care, instead of having to be responsible for everything yourself. If a patient is going through a particularly hard time for example, I can introduce them to our psychotherapist and offer them someone who can help hold additional space for them.

Also, at a solo or smaller integrative practice there might be less sharing of patients because everybody’s a little paranoid of another practitioner stealing their patients. But at IHH, because it is bigger, I find that there is less pressure to hang onto those patients, and we can send them around, let them go, and really allow the patient to decide at the end of the day who is the best fit for them. In that sense, it’s great to be able to really focus on what’s best for the patient.

What were you doing before you started school, and how did you become interested in TCM?
I had a career in engineering and construction management for over 17 years. My degree was in electrical engineering. A lot of those years were pretty unhappy. I did my job well and saved people a lot of money. But, at the end of the day, I went home and felt really tired and drained. there was nothing sustaining me. The one thing that helped me stay sane was my martial arts practice. I’ve been practicing and studying mostly Filipino martial arts, but also Jeet Kune Do, Muay Thai, and others. This one time, I attended a seminar in L.A., and the instructor asked one of the students to be a volunteer. The instructor set up the room so that the students were in a semi-circle around the volunteer, as the volunteer was facing out into the audience. The instructor placed himself 30 feet behind the volunteer. The room fell suddenly silent, and then the instructor started doing a Tai Chi move, slowly drawing the volunteers’ energy in for about 30 seconds. The volunteer who was just standing upright, started falling back and had to catch his balance, as if an invisible rope was pulling him. That really got me curious and planted a seed in my brain.

It wasn’t for another two years that I then came across a public course at ACTCM called Demystifying Chinese Medicine. It was a six-week evening course that I started while still working. It really opened my eyes to Chinese medicine because up until then, I had no exposure. It wouldn’t be for another two years that I finally quit my job and started full time at ACTCM. The biggest learning for me was to always follow your interests, because you never know where they will lead you or what kind of doors that will be open to you.

How does your martial arts practice influence your work?
My training in Jeet Kune Do has been most influential. It’s Bruce Lee’s philosophy. The premise is that martial arts is an expression of the body, but the way you get there is to expose yourself to every art you can, and to explore anything you are interested in. Try this, try that, and then see what works for you. If it works, great, study it more. If not, then put it aside and look for something else. This philosophy has really helped me develop as a practitioner. It has encouraged me to take new classes, and be open to different things.

Any advice for students or recent grads?
Trust the medicine and know your foundations. I remember in my fundamentals class, we were going through all the patterns of the Zang Fu, and when we reached the end of it, my teacher said, “Okay, that’s it! You know everything now.” I remember thinking, “how?” and that it was only my second term. I later understood that these foundational concepts are what our medicine is built on. They will take you everywhere you need to go. Knowing your basics is what gets you to a good diagnosis, which will guide your treatment plan and lead to great results and happy, healthier patients.

Another important lesson that I’ve learned since I’ve been at IHH is that your presence is one of the most valuable things in a healing relationship with your patient. A big part of our medicine is the time that we spend face-to-face with patients, listening to their story. Not just where is the pain in your elbow, but really understanding the emotional aspects and looking past physical symptoms. Understand that as a practitioner and a healer, your presence is so important because many people don’t have anybody to really talk to. It’s interesting because patients looking for a Western primary care doctor will often look for someone who will take the time to listen to them. As an acupuncturist, we do that every day. Patients just want to be heard, and to know they are truly being cared for.

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