Walking out of Reagan National Airport and into the humid warmth of DC, I felt a bit…well…nervous about what I am about to experience. Would I be chased out of Capital Hill or welcomed with open arms? There’s only one way to find out. I take a deep breath and enjoy the beauty of DC from the cab ride. Heading toward the huge, angular buildings between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument, I suddenly feel comforted, remembering the many times I visited this area as a child. My dear great aunt lived just up the river a ways in a striking, colonial home in Bethesda and is now buried with my great uncle in Arlington National Cemetery. I tear up a bit thinking about how much I miss her (I never knew my great uncle as he passed when I was a baby), but then I smile thinking about her amazing laugh and Bacall-like beauty, slappin’ me on the backside with a “go get ‘em” grin.
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians has been doing the DC Federal Legislative Initiative (DC FLI) for the past nine years. It’s a time for naturopathic students and doctors to flood Capital Hill and educated our legislators on the benefits of our medicine. It’s a great way to bring awareness to what we have to offer, especially to those that can actually do something about our ailing healthcare system. This is my first time attending DC FLI, and now that I’m here and walking down the green grass between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument, gazing up at the Smithsonian Castle, I get a rush of inspiration and awe.
It’s my first day here in DC and arriving just before rush hour on a Friday afternoon, I decide to check out what I remembered about the National Mall. I walk through the rhododendron gardens of the Capital and make my way down to the long stretch of green that is now speckled with various construction machinery. Children of all ages are out in large groups, tourists are taking photographs and police are everywhere, though they manage to blend into the landscape making you feel safe rather than on guard. I wander down the butterfly garden at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and stroll in. I make my way through the sea animals and the mammals, feeling the avid science geek inside me bouncing off the walls. I look at my watch and it’s 4pm…I wonder how late the National Aquarium is open and more importantly if they have sharks (an obsession of mine)? I reach the Aquarium at 4:29 and lucky for me tickets are sold until 4:30. I purchase my ticket and wander through the various regional aquariums and finally arrive at the shark tank. I’m sad to see that the only sharks are the smaller leopard, cat and horn sharks, yet I stand there mesmerized until they start rounding people up to leave for closing. After an odd wrong turn meaning to see the White House, I end up halfway back to my hotel on Capital Hill. Hungry and tired, I decide to eat some supper and get to bed early in preparation for the weekend’s festivities.
We train all weekend, going over legislative updates by state, how general bills get passed, it’s lobbying 101. A whirlwind of information over 2 days and suddenly I feel like I’m back in school with the stiff legs and sore behind from sitting in a chair for 10 hours straight. Finally Monday comes, our day on the Hill. It must’ve been comical for tourists, lobbyists and congresspersons seeing all 80 of us in our obviously new power suits, walking in small packs, with our water bottles and various snacks to keep up our energy. Luckily, I’m not alone in this endeavor as I have 2 powerful, young naturopathic students with me, brimming with inspiration and enthusiasm. They both grew up in or near Maine and know how important our mission is.
The buildings on the Hill are breathtaking. Ornate wood trim around each doorway greets you as you walk along the long, thick marble floors. The smell of history is very present…and slightly musty. You can’t help but feel patriotic standing in these hallways, no matter how you feel about political affairs. The Senators offices are lavish and inviting, each decorated with various characteristics of the states they represent. South Carolina was a cool blue-green color with dark, wooden trim, taking me back to Charleston, sipping iced tea on a big front porch overlooking the Battery. Montana was masculine and natural. Maine was…home. Pictures of Portland Head Light helped calm our minds while we waited for Senator Snowe’s legislative assistant. She’s prompt and lovely, very passionate about learning more about our cause even though Senator Snowe is sadly retiring. The meeting went well and we beamed as we walked back out to the marble floors of the Russell Senate Building, our stage fright weaning and stomachs growling. We all were too nervous to eat or even get coffee, so we take a breath, regroup and prepare for the next visits.
Our next visit was incredible. Senator Susan Collins actually sat in on our meeting and was very receptive to our plight. Since she founded the Senate Diabetes Caucus, she marveled at the idea that naturopathic medicine not only excels in diabetes treatment, but also in the fiscal health of our state and nation by reducing ER visits, pharmaceutical costs and future surgical interventions. We were warned in our training that if a member of Congress actually sits in on a meeting, it would likely be 5 minutes or less. Senator Collins sat for 17.
The House offices are very different from the Senate. They are smaller and almost dorm-like with several people sharing little space. Even so, the pride is palpable. Trinkets on the walls representing each state and the passion coming from the young staff members is like an intoxicating perfume. The same marble floors pave the long hallways and it feels less intimidating and more comfortable. We meet with the Executive Assistant for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and are greeted with the same enthusiasm and warmth as our previous visits. Again, 20 minutes spent educating on naturopathic medicine and it feels like for once, someone is listening.
After the meetings we throw a reception, inviting all Senators, Congresspersons and their staff. The tables are set with various health concerns and tasty treats to show how we educate our patients on nutrition. Tables included Wild Pacific Salmon, fresh beets, crudité and greens, blueberries and, of course…dark chocolate. Anyone knows, where you find naturopathic students, you will find an endless supply of dark chocolate. It’s perfect timing because Congress is voting this afternoon, so the hallways are buzzing with hungry staff members. I mingle and speak with more students about their day, talk to a Congressman or two and oddly end up in a conversation with a pharmacist from the FDA. All in all, a perfect day.
The next morning I sit back at Reagan National, looking across the runway to the Hill and the Washington Monument. Rainstorms are making their way across the horizon and I feel sated. Almost wishing I could stay just a day or two more, but also excited to get home and share my experience. I am proud to be a naturopathic doctor. We are a solution to our healthcare crisis. We are trained as primary care physicians and just want to be given the opportunity do our part in this primary care shortage. Our medicine saves lives and money, and we will continue to flood the Capital until we are licensed as primary care physicians in every state.