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Natural healing: Doctor, midwife approaches healing and well-being quite naturally

Photo Illustration by David Samson / The Forum

One of the first seeds for her future life as a naturopathic doctor and midwife began to sprout in Molly Ferguson's heart at just 5 years of age.

She was at her home in Ames, Iowa, witnessing the home birth of the little sister who'd arrived a few hours ahead of schedule.

"She was a precipitous labor, so she was born right before the midwife got there," Ferguson said. "So while my dad was helping my mom ... I was laying around her to hold her. Then the midwife came, and I ran to the door saying, 'It's a girl, it's a girl!' "

The rush of new life arriving within in the comfy confines of home, while memorable, may have been more important to her parents at the time, she said, but it provided a springboard - along with her love of other living, growing things.

"When I started college, I'd never even heard of naturopathic medicine or thought about being a doctor," Ferguson said, "but I liked plants so I took a botany class."

Next thing she knew, she was hanging out with medical students, and through one of them, was introduced to naturopathy.

The approach resonated with her, given her own interests and the life philosophy her parents had introduced. Her mother, the leader of a local La Leche League chapter for breastfeeding support, always had been keen on good nutrition, natural therapy and avoiding medication when possible.

So Ferguson took up the study of pre-medicine at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, later completing her graduate work and practical experience at Bastyr University - one of only seven accredited naturopathic medical schools in North America.

The naturopathic approach tends to view health and wellness from a long-term lens. "That's not to say other doctors don't promote wellness," Ferguson said, "but their toolbox is more specific for disease treatment, and our toolbox is more specific for optimizing wellness."

Since the fall of 2007, she and her husband, Todd, also a naturopathic physician, have been living this out through their practice, Prairie Naturopathic Doctors, in Moorhead.

About 90 percent of their work centers on naturopathic care for patients from infants to the elderly.

Many come seeking new solutions to ongoing health issues that haven't been resolved through traditional doctoring. Hormonal or chemical imbalances, fatigue, digestive complaints and low-blood pressure or blood-sugar related issues are common, along with chemical insensitivity problems.

"People are looking for natural therapies, meaning herbs, vitamins and minerals," she said. "A lot of what we do is the basics like food and nutrition and exercise. They know those things make a difference, but they're looking for a plan and someone who can give professional, personal advice."

Often, patients seek naturopathic solutions as a complement to traditional doctoring. The other part of her practice, midwifery, accounts for about 10 percent of the work Ferguson does.

Among her patients are Fargo resident Lisa Gray and her family.

Gray said she's long been interested in natural practices of healing body, mind and soul. She studied organic agriculture in college and worked as a scientist prior to becoming a stay-at-home mother. But her love of nature really began during her childhood in western North Dakota.

"I grew up on a farm and was always interested in native plants," she said. "We also enjoy raising our own vegetables and other foods."

Gray believes in the body's capacity to heal itself through natural means, and is wary of some of the more synthetic forms of treatment associated with conventional medicine which can mask symptoms and cause other issues.

Though her first two children were born in hospitals, her youngest, Elijah, 9 months, was delivered in their home by Ferguson.

"It's not that I'd had bad experiences at the hospital, but we were looking to align the natural medicine aspect into the natural birthing process," Gray said. "She did a fantastic job."

In addition to Ferguson's professional expertise, she appreciated her perspective and the fact that she was going through a pregnancy herself at the time.

"She was in it with me as more than just a medical professional," Gray said. "And having that control of our surroundings down to the most minute thing, like knowing I could still consume food up until the end before I had my baby, was important because my labors have traditionally all been long."

Gray also noticed less pain and a quicker return to stamina following that third birth. Eight days postpartum, she attended her sister's out-of-town wedding, and a family reunion a few days later. "It was easy for me to say yes to those events ... and I really attribute that to the fact that I got to have our baby at home."

With her last pregnancy, Gray said, she relied on a regular family-practice doctor for much of her lab work, but Ferguson for the more practical, personal aspects of pregnancy that can be overlooked in a busy hospital or clinic setting. "And there was a great sharing between the hospital system and their practice."

Later, when Gray's husband, Brad, had a rotator-cuff shoulder injury from his carpentry work, he received laser therapy at Prairie Naturopathic. "He was able to go back to work after a couple weeks. It was a very effective way of helping him," Gray said.

Chronic conditions are another natural fit for naturopathic medicine.

"Cells are always dividing, growing, dying; there's a constant process going on," Ferguson said. "So we look at the factors that create healthier cells, and it often comes down to nutrition."

She's also helped couples hoping to achieve or avoid pregnancy through natural family planning and addressed other facets of hormonal imbalance.

Ferguson said natural means of solving health issues are being sought more in part because we're not as well nourished as in the past. Hurried eating and mass-produced foods have contributed.

"The chemical burden is also higher than it's ever been, whether you're talking about this generic cloud of environmental pollutants from factories or even what comes from right within our homes," she said. "Indoor air is 10 times worse for us than outdoor air."

Ferguson aims to slow things down a little, to listen to a patient's story in order to get at the root cause of health concerns.

Women who see her appreciate the female-to-female advice she offers.

"A certain number of women are definitely looking for someone who can relate to them and listen to their story in a way only a woman listens to another woman's story," she said. "We understand a little bit more the emotional space that encompasses any lifestyle change - things like time, emotion, energy."

As the mother of Lucia, 4, Clare, 2, and Kilian, 6 months, Ferguson certainly knows this well.

Gray said naturopathy has been a satisfying answer to her search for the best health and well-being options for her family.

"I think that's what complementary medicine does," she said. "It fills in the gaps and complements what's already in place, making it that much better."