Sarajevo Wisdom

The classroom is perfect chaos.  The crowd of seventeen year olds laugh, joke, jostle, giggle, squeal, and generally make merry.  They are wearing  ragged winter coats.  This is because there is no glass in the school windows.  It is winter in Sarajevo, and it”s very cold in the  mountains of Yugoslavia.  The year is 1997. The brutal four year war of blockade and genocide in Sarajevo is finally finished, leaving the city  a bombed out nightmare.  Earlier, I had seen the Olympic Stadium, now a collapsed disaster area, with a huge graffiti on the side—“WHY?”.  Surrounding this very school  are many planted red signs displaying  skull and crossbones denoting “Caution!  Live landmines!” 

The school’s hallways are still deeply littered with shattered glass,  and the walls are punctuated with bullet holes.  Missile and grenade craters are everywhere. Many walls display warning signs with symbols demonstrating how the aggressors had laced the entire area with land mines, then placed a toy, or cigarette pack, or liquor bottle on top, so as to lure children or adults into picking up the item and detonating the bomb one can see through  the broken windows the stark, ruined, naked elevator shaft of the rubbled  communications building—a tragic skeleton many stories high- all that’s left of the center of area communications. Through the same windows, in every direction, one can see the  rumbling tanks and jeeps of the UN peacekeepers. 

 In the high school, these children are the survivors.  Many are refugees from elsewhere, most have lost  family, friends and homes.  And they do not hesitate to tell me their endlessly  tragic stories – such as a mother shot by a sniper while fetching bread for her family, or living in the basement of their apartment buildings for four years, without daring to venture outside-with clotheslines stretching between buildings to safely pass back and forth needed supplies.  Or their entire village and most people in it were destroyed and tortured.  These children have been cold, starved, orphaned, abused, terrorized, and suffered every challenge we would hope our children never have to endure.

 And yet, here they all are, living, laughing, telling about their sweethearts, or their basketball heroes, or their dreams for the future.  They are in especially good spirits at the moment because I am there, dressed as a clown in silvery sparkly clothes and wearing a purple wig,  red nose and big red patent leather shoes.  Their teacher has given up on the idea of any further lessons for the day and left the room.  The kids’ pure bursts of laughter shoot crystal jets of steam into the frigid air. 

I wasn’t always a clown.  Actually, I spend most of my time as a conservatively dressed medical doctor who doesn’t do physical humor, doesn’t get in peoples’ faces, and doesn’t behave in a silly way.  But my friend Dr. Patch Adams (not my husband, ex-husband, brother, uncle or father) persuaded me to clown with him and others in challenged places on the planet, and I decided it was a good thing to do.

So here I am in Sarajevo, alone with these feisty children of war.  It had been daunting to enter this room of teenagers.  It’s one thing to clown for 5 year olds, quite another to make a teenager laugh.  Teenagers everywhere are testing  their newly acquired worldliness, while careful not to look silly to their friends, etc., and these kids are no different.  Looking cool sometimes doesn’t allow free laughter in front of adults.  And teenagers in troubled places can sometimes be violent mirrors of the disasters they are living. 

But I decide to use face paint, which I mostly just smear around.  Face painting was never a my forte, but the kids here think it’s hilarious.  So we are laughing, and jumping around in the crowded room, and being silly, and the kids are telling me their stories.

 These stories are their gifts to me—precious gifts I have received from similarly challenged and damaged folks in many places on the planet.  These gifts are worth more than anything I might be able to do as a doctor or clown for them, and I am so grateful.  This is wisdom from the trenches, from those for whom living another day or eating a meal or having warm clothes or surviving an episode of strep throat are not givens.  They are stories from those who  know full well how to thrive on a challenged planet and in difficult times, and have been living that hard-won  knowledge on a daily basis.

Suddenly, a magic thing happens—that unexpected thing that stops time  and bathes the scene  in the brightest, purest, most healing light.  A handsome, dark-eyed boy named Ahmed asks if I will paint a yin yang on his buddy’s forehead. 

These are Muslim children, so my own internal bias clicks in.  Since a yin yang is a symbol of eastern philosophies and religions and not a Muslim tradition, I ask Ahmed, “Do you  know what a Yin Yang means?”

Without hesitation, he says “Sure, do you know what it means?”

“I do,” I answer, then ask,”What does it mean to you?”

 “Well,” he says, “It means Where there is great Darkness, there is great Light, and Where there is great Sadness there is great Joy, and where there is Death, there also is Life.”

 It takes a moment for me to catch my breath.  I’m not hearing any sound, though the room remains riotous.  It’s just me and the dark wells of this ancient boy’s eyes.  I’m thinking about all this 17 year old boy has survived, and how deeply he understands what he has just said.

He smiled and laughed at his buddy as I did my sloppy version of a yin yang on his forehead.  And I was thinking that I would never forget the amazing wisdom this child of war has shared with me.  And I am grateful – all these years later, his words reverberate in my heart as the world explodes with senseless violence.  There is hope, there is always hope – he taught me.

2005 Interview with the Dalai Lama’s Physician – Love Means Life, Hate mMeans Death

This interview was originally published in The Edge, 2005

 There are at all times, on this blue, jeweled planet, those groups of peoples so unable to experience the majesty of life they turn to brutalizing and dominating others as a means of feeling themselves alive.   Struggles for ideology, food, clothing, and territory aside, such peoples torture, rape, and kill for the sheer release of it. 

 This describes the history of the Chinese in their takeover of the holy Himalayan kingdom of Tibet, where a systematic genocide grinds on and on, since 1959.   Horror stories are commonplace among those still imprisoned and suffering in their own country, as well as among those who have escaped and survive in exile.

 In March, 1959, the capture, at the Dalai Lama’s home, of his personal physician, Dr. Tenzin Choedrak, marked the beginning of a prolonged ordeal.  As the Dalai Lama’s physician, Dr. Choedrak was a special prize for the Chinese.  He was targeted for intense “studies,” and suffered a series of severe beatings and tortures during his interrogations, which left his mouth and left eye shattered.  Following that, years of starvation dragged on, piled upon excruciating hard labor, with thousands upon thousands of his fellow prisoners succumbing, ending at last dumped into common graves.

 With his deep knowledge and practice in Tibetan medicine,  which is intimately intertwined with the Tibetan Buddhist religion, Dr. Choedrak quietly endured for more than twenty years, armed with his daily practice of an advanced form of meditation–Tum-mo Bar Zar, meaning “Rising and Falling Heat.”  In this way, he visualized purifying energy, in the form of white light, suffusing him, ascending up through his tantric energy centers, then releasing a fountain of clear, nectar-filled light which returned, blissfully, down his body.  He would then experience all of his sufferings being washed away, and replaced by the ineffable joy embodied in the light. 

 Eventually, his great skill as a physician won his release and a restoration of his honored place in his culture.  Once free, Dr. Choedrak worked to save those ancient medical texts not yet destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and a research project in Tibetan medicine was begun.  Finally, he was awarded the public title “Master Teacher of Tibetan Doctors.”

 Now restored to his position as the Dalai Lama’s physician, Dr. Choedrak lives in Daramsala, India, where he also works at the Tibetan Medical Institute.  There, he has trained over 90 students, who carry on the unbroken line of the thousands-year-old tradition of Tibetan medicine.


Dr. Jan Thatcher Adams:  What sorts of thoughts sustained you all those years in prison?


Dr. Tenzin Choedrak:  I survived by accepting my fate.  Whatever positive or negative things happen, or happiness or suffering, is the fruit of past action.  So, this was my karma.


Were there particular practices that sustained you?


Choedrak:  The Chinese required me to read the communist book by Mao Tse-tung, but they couldn’t read my thoughts.  There are, in Chinese type, thirty characters in one line, so I would point at each character, pretending to be intensely reading.  But I was actually reciting one mantra (prayer) for each character. I accumulated 300,000 mantras from studying Mao’s book.  It gave me joy.

 Also, I was not alone in my suffering.  Not only were all my fellow prisoners suffering, the whole Tibetan nation was suffering.  In a sense, it was like a family thing.  So, each night, when I finished reciting my prayers in my mind, I would dedicate them to the benefit of all sentient beings, and to the world’s learning how the Chinese army was treating Tibetans.  Hopefully, one day the Tibetan people can be free again and can have peace.


In your observation of western medicine, do you see any strengths or weaknesses?


Choedrak:  The very good side is the very detailed and quick diagnosis from technology, and in the research.  The tools are very impressive, as is the surgery and the availability of medical care.  But the medicine given is often too harsh, and harms the body as well as cures.  So there is a contradiction between the well done diagnosis  and the treatment that often causes other problems.

 Tibetan medicine does not have the technology, but the medicine is very effective and doesn’t hurt the body in any way.  It doesn’t add more stress to it, because it is all medicinal plants and herbs.   Instead of concentrating on one area,  the whole being is cured. 


Are there things that Tibetan medicine does not heal?


Choedrak:  Tuberculosis, for example, although Tibetan medicine does work if in the early stages.  Also, many diseases present today are new, and Tibetan medicine is very old,  so the medicinal ingredients have to be revised for today’s problems.  Now, the medicine must take into account pollution, radiation, etc.  We have created fifteen new medicines, including one we’re trying for AIDS, as well as ones for diabetes, asthma, kidney problems, etc.   I am in charge of the pharmacy, the actual making of the medicine. 


Are there body techniques that are part of Tibetan medicine, like massage or exercise?


Choedrak:  The Tibetan medical texts have specific instructions in massage, as well as for applying heat to the stomach for indigestion and for exercise.  We don’t do aerobics.  What the medical texts require for a healthy body is to keep in movement but not to the point of sweating.  There are different prescribed movements for each illness.  The overall general instruction is not to overexert your physical body and to watch what you eat and not to overeat one particular flavor like sweets.  Also, overeating prevents the wind energy  from circulating properly and, therefore, food doesn’t digest.  Diet, behavior, and positive mental thinking contribute to a healthy body.

 When we talk about being healthy, Tibetans are talking about the physical, biological,  and also the conscious or mental self.  They are not separate.  For instance, if we won the lottery and are very excited, we get tense, tight, and emotional.  So, our mental state manifests itself in a physical form.  Whether one is in a positive or negative mental state affects health in some way.

 When I was in prison, my accepting my fate allowed me to have a tolerance for the Chinese army and a certain sense of peace and tranquillity.   Other inmates, who lost their mental tranquillity had a lot of hate and anger toward the Chinese.  All this very strong negative mental thought had dramatic physical effects on their bodies.  Most often, it affected the heart.  At its maximum,  it caused heart attacks.  Before the Chinese arrived, Tibetans never died of heart attacks.


Do you have any advice for the peoples of the world?


Choedrak:   Remember how precious a human life is.  The cause of suffering is desire, hatred, and ignorance. If we work together in dispelling ignorance, practicing tolerance and patience, helping others, and releasing thoughts of revenge and self-pity, the world will be a healthier place.



 No matter the crushing grief, burdens, and loss they have endured, Tibetans, with the shining light of their beliefs intact, manage to survive and transmit the beauty of that inner light around the world. And Dr. Choedrak survived, in order to lead us all into understanding more fully just what it means to be alive.




Joseph was 89 years old, and had a very  fragile heart.  I had hospitalized him for yet another heart attack.  He suffered with heart failure and shortness of breath, and already  had all the arterial surgery possible on his heart.  He knew perfectly well his days were running short.
His intense words for me were ” I have to be discharged on Friday.  Saturday, there is a family reunion with all the kids, grandkids, sisters, brothers- from both sides of the family.  It is the first time all are gathering. “
As gently as I could, I explained today was Thursday, and he wouldn’t be in good enough shape for discharge until at least Sunday.  His face fell, and tears glittered in his eyes.  
He had a difficult day that day, with his heart threatening disaster- we all watched his monitor with anxiety.
In the evening, he asked to speak with me again.  I approached his room, knowing what the conversation would hold.  Once again, he pleaded to be discharged the next day.   I explained at length again the fragile and dangerous situation with his heart.
With tears again, he said- ” I’d rather die of a heart attack then a broken heart.”
These words touched me to the core.  i told him I would spend the night thinking about it.
The next morning, Friday, I told him To think about my idea.  If he would stay till Saturday morning, which still gave him plenty of time to get to his reunion, ( and I would be off duty after Friday night), he could sign out AMA ( against medical advice) and go to his reunion. ” Of course, I can’t recommend you do this”- wink, wink.   He broke into a wide smile.
When I returned 2 weeks later to the same job, I called his house, hoping he would answer the phone.  He did, and regaled me with the glorious time he had with his family.  He knew it was the last time, and so did I.  I am so glad I listened to his heart plea.

For Her Family

            One day in my daily practice as a family physician I entered the exam room to find a delightful woman I had cared for over the past 20 years.  She had born 12 children, and  raised them all on the salary of her husband, a teacher.  Now she was 65 years old, and we laughed and reminisced as I completed her exam.  Then she stunned me with the following:

            “You know you saved my life fifteen years ago?”

            I didn’t remember any critical event, and there was none recorded in her chart, so I just looked at her, puzzled.

            “I came to see you when I was 50.  You could tell I was depressed, and asked me what was troubling me.  I felt like my life was over because the kids were all gone, and especially I felt worthless, like I had never accomplished anything.”

            “And here’s what you said” –

 ‘”Are you nuts?  You have raised 12 wonderful children, and they’re all professionals now, contributing to the world in so many ways.  You had to be unbelievably creative to hold that all together in such a good way.  How can you ever think yourself worthless?’”

            “Well,” she said, “I realized it was true, I did have value, and creativity as well.  So I went home and started to write the first of my 4 books,  teach classes on creative chaos in the home, and learn to paint in oils.  My life is a blast, it’s been such fun.  Thanks so much for reminding me that my life had value and wasn’t over just because my kids were gone from the nest, and to believe in myself.  You really did save my life.””

            She couldn’t have known this, but I was at that time having great challenges in my own life, and her story absolutely lit up my otherwise difficult day, caused me to smile, and sustained me.  And so it goes with gratitude—it’s circular.  The more you feel and radiate yourself, the more you receive, and all are healed.


Tornado Homecoming

A few days ago we arrived home from a one month stay at our retreat in Washington State. It was a challenge to get up our winding driveway, which had gone unplowed through several snowfalls. But we had quite a surprise waiting for us when we finally got in our door. There had been a tornado in our house, a whole party of ripping, burying, turding, and eating. In short, the turd tornado of a very busy squirrel had changed our home into one large nest.

Papers were strewn everywhere, turds covered every surface – not polite little mouse turds – oh, no – these were nickle size piles. What happened – did this critter get into some ex lax? Food from an open pantry not only lay about – it was tucked into all cushions, nooks, and crannies, as well as firmly buried in the convenient turf of our carpet. Obviously the odor was not good.

Our mouser cat went on high alert when she came in to this disaster, searched high and low, but found no intruder. We have no idea how the squirrel got in, or where it went.

We had to clean our duvet before we could take our road weary bones to bed. And Deemster, my husband, would keep the vacuum cleaner in hand for the next several days.

This is what it means to live among nature. Those critters view our nice warm house as a very juicy addition to their freezing environment. We have had mice and chipmunks for years – lately cleard out by our vigilant kitty. We get a pretty good idea of her catch profile, because she usually leaves us the back end of her catches. Picky eater, I guess. But even she was flummoxed by a very fearless opposum who made its way through our cat door one night. We were all awakened by a ruckuss in the dining room. All 3 cats stood by as this creature helped itself to their cat food bowls.

I am guessing the squirrel came through this very same cat door – but it still doesn’t exlain where it went, and why it left such a winter paradise – must have felt like a Bahamas vacation.

I have a live and let live attitude toward all this – even this rather massive tornado turd mess. After all, we built our house right in the middle of their forest, right beside their lake. Where did we expect them to go? It was never our intention to move them all out, including the deer who so appreciate any nursery items we might plant, or the woodchuck who nips off any fresh buds she can get her hands on, to feed her annual production of little ones. The woodchuck and wild turkeys enjoy sunning on our deck or pounding on our mirrored windows, and we get a lot of enjoyment from their antics. In fact all the varied wildlife delights us.

So, the house smells better, but the carpet, already on its last legs, is now ruined completely. So, our busy squirrel has forced us to get off our butts and get to the flooring store to refresh everything – as needed to be done anyway. So, off to the store tomorrow. I don’t relish the work it will take – moving everything, etc. But it is really just another adventure. And we will keep that cat door locked from now on. Our mouser has grown chunky in the midsection, anyway, and really can’t force her body through it anymore.

As for nature – once again we are reminded that the idea of humans having dominion over the rest of nature is extreme hubris. Even the smallest of nature can create big trouble.

Breast feeding – Blessing or Disaster?

I have been a womb to tomb physician since 1972.  As such, I witnessed and helped the transition from bottle feeding to breast feeding babies.  Medical personel, lactation nurses, and all manner of support organizations cropped up to assist all new moms in the art and technique of breastfeeding.  We told mothers “it’s natural, human milk provides better immune protection, milk allergies are less, childhood obesity will be less”, and a host of other reasons why bottle feeding should not be the way to go.  I certainly was deeply involved in this shift to breast feeding, as I delivered thousands of babies.  By the end of the 70s, breastfeeding had become the norm.

Most of the information we provided about the need for breastfeeding was, as it turns out, based on assumptions, and very little research.  Now an organization called Pollution Action ( is sounding the alarm with some very disturbing figures and research regarding breastfeeding.  It turns out that all the medical reasons for breastfeeding (beyond the bonding and nurturing aspects) have not turned out quite right.  The predicted decrease in childhood obesity has actually been a disastrous increase.  The incidence of autism has skyrocketed.  Ditto childhood cancers, infectious diseases, and attention deficit disorders, to name a few.  Why would any of these be related to breast milk?

So here’s some statistics – life expectancy is longer in low breastfeeding countries than most high breast-feeding cuntries.

Various childhood diseases – cancers, salmonella, diabetes type 1, and whooping cough, among others, are a whopping 23%-5,000% higher in the higher breast-feeding cuntries of Europe,  compared to the lower breast feeding countries.



Autism rates are less than half in the low breastfeeding countries or Europe and states of America.

Why should this be? Well, it turns out that the natural physiological response to toxins in the body is to find ways to either dump them, or store them in fat. In the breast feeding mom, toxins are dumped into breast milk at an alarming rate, especially for the firstborn. Each subsequent child gets a lower dose of toxins, because mom has detoxified considerably in the first child’s breastmilk. I won’t go into great detail here, but here’s a few examples. Dioxins, a neurodevelopmental and cancer causing toxin, is 86 times higher in brestfed infants in their first year, than the highest safe levels stated by the EPA. For a much more complete listing of the toxins ingested at very high and dangerous levels from breast milk, and what they are likely causing, do go and explore

We have to accept that even the most fastidious, organic vegetarian among us is receiving a daily dose of toxins, already in the environment. And those toxins are being concentrated in breast milk and fed to our children at an alarming level, with apparent disastrous results. I don’t pretend to have an answer here, but it may be that new parents will one day be counselled to avoid breast feeding for just all of the above reasons. This is and would be a tragedy, but the facts are getting critical that we must not allow this high level of toxins in our precious babies.

Again, if this issue concerns you, do checkout for further reading and much more detail, as well as a thorough listing of all the research papers that supports this information.

Dances on High

Writer’s block has been my problem for 2 years, since I finished my book Football Wives: Coming of Age with the NFL.  Everyone says blog, so here I am.   Today I am thinking about trees.  My kind neighbor stopped over and warned of disaster looming from the giant old growth trees that surround my house.  It’s very true – any of them would crush quite a bit of my little piece of heaven if they fell.  But their upright presence – ah, now there’s another point.  The gentle giant surround of these green havens is calming.  They have survived more than I will in an entire 2 lifetimes.  They do eventually fall, but not before reaching the sky and harboring colorful, noisy life cycles of all kinds of creatures.  The endless birds – from eagles to nuthatches.  /the squirrels – flying, gray, and pine – and the occasional albino – all of their antics and freedom to fly between the branches.  Reminds me of a quote once told me by a prominent Canadian author/priest – “The flyer must fly, and the catcher must catch”.  These birds and squirrels know the catcher is there when they  take off, free of fear.  The yard ful of wild turkeys – no, I don’t feed them – and their crazy, wobbly, clumsy flight each night up into the oaks, to roost there for the night, safe from predators.  The noisy rascal raccoons, who, with families, have a favorite branch to meet upon for their nightly gossip fests and quarrels.  Oh, the storms do come, have come, and will come again.  Some favorite old trees have plowed the ground with thunder as they fell – always away from the house.  And always continuing their great gift – in the form of firewood, beautiful wood art from our friend, and boards and wood trim for our vacation home – also surrounded by giant trees.  I have lived most of my life surrounded by these positive forces of nature.  When I was a child, a thunderstorm came through Sioux City and dropped a gigantic cottonwood tree on our back porch.  We weren’t home – no one was hurt.  I was awed that nature, which created this giant, could also fell it in a second.  It is a lesson I haven’t forgotten – makes for easier living in the moment.  If you aren’t buried by winter’s fury, plant a tree today and cherish it for the reminder of the great continuum of life.  The tree doesn’t worry about the future – living the moment is all it knows.  I may get dropped on one day by one of these guys, but I will have treasured it every day for it’s gifts to me and to the planet.