Herbalist-Turned-Medical Student Melds Two Traditions of Healing

Not many parents can say they have never given their kids an antibiotic or a pharmaceutical pain-relief medication for an ear infection or sore throat, but first-year medical resident Dr. Aviva Romm can.

Not many parents can say they have never given their kids an antibiotic or a pharmaceutical pain-relief medication for an ear infection or sore throat, but first-year medical resident Dr. Aviva Romm can.

In fact, when her son, a second-year medical student at Boston University, was accidently cut by a classmate while performing an autopsy on a pig during a college biology lab, he assumed his mom would advise an herbal remedy — her standard treatment for her children’s ailments.

“I told him he needed an antibiotic right away,” laughs Romm, who practiced as a certified midwife and herbalist for more than 20 years before enrolling — at the age of 39 — at the Yale School of Medicine, from which she graduated last spring.

For nearly a decade, she has been president of the American Herbalists Guild, an organization that sets standards for and educates professional herbalists.

The Yale resident believes there is much to be gained by bridging the alternative and traditional medical communities, and she aspires to do so in her own career.

Romm recently spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about her experience with both natural and conventional medicine. Here is what we learned.

The girl at the science fair: Romm, who grew up in a New York City housing project, says she has been a “science geek” for as long as she can remember.

She enrolled at the age of 15 at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts, which allows exceptional students to enter college without finishing high school. There, she was exposed to Eastern philosophy and was transformed, she says, “from urban girl to hippie girl.” At the age of 16, she began an apprenticeship with a Muslim midwife, who practiced mainly in an African-American community in Roxbury, Massachusetts.

One of the first: After completing her apprenticeship in Atlanta, Romm became one of the nation’s first certified professional midwives when she was just 20 years old.

Early on, she began using herbs to treat pregnant women and their young children for ordinary ailments.

“One of my first herbal treatments was for a family with head lice,” recalls the Yale resident. “At that time, the only thing on the market was the insecticide Kwell®. So I found some old recipes using green soap and lavender, and it worked.”

Little by little, Romm learned about other herbs and added them to her repertoire of gentle treatments for common afflictions.

“When I started studying herbal medicine in 1981, there were just a few books available on the market on the subject along with old, turn-of-the-century botanicals. But as a home-birth midwife, what I did have was a clientele which was kind of ‘back-to the land’ — a population of people who were trying to stay out of the doctor’s office and were interested in finding other ways to treat themselves or treat their families.”

Back then, a radical: Before the term “alternative medicine” became commonplace, those who practiced herbal medicine and home-birth midwifery were viewed by many as radicals, Romm says. In fact, even today, home-birth midwifery is illegal in many states.

Romm, however, gained wide recognition in the past decade with the publication of her books: “The Natural Pregnancy Book: Herbs, Nutrition and Other Holistic Choices,” “Naturally Healthy Babies and Children,” “Vaccinations: A Thoughtful Parent’s Guide,” and “ADHD Alternatives: A Natural Approach To Treating Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (written with her husband, Tracy Romm). Her textbook, “Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health,” was published last year by Elsevier.

She completed most of her books while homeschooling (with her husband) her four (now mostly grown) children and maintaining her midwifery practice, first in Georgia and, later, in Michigan.

Promoting safe use: Romm was invited to apply to join the American Herbalists Guild after she took a professional training course in herbal medicine taught by Michael Tierra, who founded the professional organization in 1989.

“I fell into an extended family of people who shared a passion for herbal medicine but wanted to see it done with a level of excellence and integrity,” recalls Romm.

The organization, which had less than 300 members when Romm joined, now boasts a worldwide membership of about 1,400 professional herbalists. As president, she plays an active role in setting standards for botanical medicine practice and education in the United States.

The Yale resident also founded her own distance-learning certification program, “Herbal Medicine for Women.”

Her path to Yale: While she has never taken the SAT, Romm qualified for a post-baccalaureate program with the goal of becoming a doctor.

She decided to study conventional medicine, in part, because she felt she could better help her patients if she had more formal credentials.

“While there has been growing public interest in alternative medicine, there is a lack of recognized credentials for herbal medicine,” Romm explains. “The standards are extremely variable. When the public hears about marketing scams for herbal supplements, for example, any of us who practice using herbs get lumped into that; we are judged by the lowest common denominator.”

At the medical school and at Yale-New Haven Hospital, her colleagues have been very open to her unconventional experience, and sometimes ask for her advice.

“One of the reasons I wanted to come to Yale is because I thought it was the place where I could best retain my own authenticity,” says the medical resident.

Her opinions about medicine, she contends, are anything but radical.

“My view is that for trauma, Western [or conventional] medicine is the best,” she explains. “But for mild and some chronic illnesses, I think we sometimes do more harm by using conventional medical treatments. We sometimes don’t have enough trust in the body’s ability to cure itself.”

Integrative care: While a medical student, Romm proposed that a formal integrative medicine class (blending conventional and alternative medicine philosophies) be added to the School of Medicine curriculum. Her proposal was accepted, and Romm helped design a course that is now required for second-year students.

She has also been invited to create the first Women’s Health Internal Medicine Residency Program at Yale for internists who want to specialize in women’s health. In addition, faculty members in the Pediatric Residency Program have asked Romm to create a pediatric integrative medicine component for that program.

“I think there is a lot that practitioners of Western medicine can learn from well-trained alternative medicine practitioners who have integrity,” says Romm. “At the same time, there’s a lot that the alternative medicine community can gain from some of the critical-thinking skills that are acquired at the medical school.”

After completing her residency, Romm intends to focus on primary care.

“My goal is to bridge the gap between women’s health and primary care,” she says. “Women in their 20s and 30s often only see a gynecologist, but when they reach their 40s, they need to see a primary care physician. I’d like to be able to offer them that continuity of care.”

She maintains that one of the best ways to stay healthy is “to stay — when possible — out of the doctor’s office. That was my belief before I came to medical school, and it hasn’t greatly changed,” she adds. “I still believe in natural healing — with a balanced perspective and a good dose of common sense.”

— By Susan Gonzalez

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