Former television executive Dr. Steve Milkis traded the sunny streets of Los Angeles for the cool beauty of the Pacific Northwest to follow his calling as a naturopath. Although his career has taken many twists and turns, he’s never once looked back. Today, he lives a balanced life aligned with his personal ideals and values as the sole practitioner and founder of Green Lake Natural Medicine, where he is dedicated to creating a holistic, patient-centric care experience and helping others find health and balance in their lives.
Did you always know you wanted to be a naturopath?
Surprisingly, naturopathy is a second career for me. I grew up in Los Angeles and did production work on network television shows until I was in my thirties. My father was in the same business; he was a television and movie producer. Growing up, I used to help him in the summers and decided I wanted to go into the entertainment industry. When I went to college at the University of California in Santa Barbara, I gravitated towards classes that interested me, which sort of oddly ended up being things like anatomy and physiology. I realized it was more important to do interesting things than it was to do a specific major in film.
After college I returned to Los Angeles and started work in the TV business. I worked on a number of different shows, trying to get on one with sustainability. Some of it was just luck. But I kept going from job to job, navigating labor strikes and experiencing the difficulty of getting a show going. It was a handful. The one successful show that I actually worked on was MacGyver.
Eventually, my career took me to New York, where Bruce Paltrow (Gwyneth Paltrow’s dad) had decided to produce a show. I had worked with him previously on the final year of a show called St. Elsewhere, and I ended up going to work with him to start yet another new show. Shortly after getting to New York, there was a writer strike that led to me being out of work for six months. It was during this time in my life that I realized the entertainment industry was losing some of its luster for me. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that “the business” wasn’t what I was put on the earth to do.
So, I took a step back and asked myself, “If you could do anything in the world, no holds barred, what would you do? Don’t worry about practicality or anything else. What would it be?”
For me, that’s when the idea of being a doctor appeared. I had a friend who was an osteopath and he fixed some tendonitis in my hand, purely through hands-on work. It made me think, “This is really cool. Maybe I can explore this.”
You realized medicine could be a path for you. How did you decide to specialize in naturopathic medicine?
When we talk about osteopaths (DO’s), they’ve become a lot like traditional medical doctors (MD’s). Their training is like that of a conventional medical doctor, and a lot of them do end up as your primary care physicians and specialists as well.
Without having a fully formed plan, I decided to start taking the general prerequisites for medical school: biology, chemistry, physics, etc. I figured I should just start with the necessary basics and depending on how that went, I would have my answer about whether this was the path for me or not. So, I took my first class – biology – and loved it. And I kept at it. Through the course of taking those classes I ended up reading a book called “Spontaneous Healing” by Andrew Weil. In it, he mentioned naturopathic medicine, with its emphasis on nutrition, herbs, homeopathy and other alternative drugless modalities, and I thought it was really intriguing. I started looking into naturopathic medicine a bit more and found out that the prerequisites were all the same—except that no MCAT test is required, which saved me a year of time. I had always been interested in natural health approaches on my own; I just didn’t know about naturopathic medicine really until that moment.
That’s quite a journey of self-discovery, moving from the TV business to becoming a naturopath. How did you make that change?
I thought naturopathy and the holistic, hands-on approach to healing was interesting. After researching naturopathic schools nationwide – and there weren’t many options at the time – I narrowed down the list to Natural College in Portland and Bastyr University in Seattle. So, I applied to both and went on to do visits and interviews, and ultimately, my wife and I decided that we wanted to live in Seattle and Bastyr was the right place for me.
As I was nearing my graduation in 2000, I had this inner feeling that I was supposed to teach, which led me to take up a residency position at Bastyr. I completed two years of residency, and from there just gravitated into being an adjunct faculty member, where I was supervising students as they cared for patients. During that time, I also started my own private practice out of the Bastyr Teaching Clinic while continuing to teach classes, as well.
For years, I enjoyed the dynamic of being a teacher and providing patient care. Teaching students as an adjunct faculty member while also gaining practical experience working with clients directly was really important to me. However, serving in both roles eventually led to me working full days, late evenings and too many weekends. At a point, I realized I was no longer having fun. I felt burnt out. And it occurred to me I really wasn’t living the self-care principles I was talking to my patients about. So, after a lot of soul-searching, I decided to step away from teaching and open a naturopathic medical practice in 2017 that was all my own, where I could use my knowledge as a doctor and a teacher to serve my patients holistically.
What does a ‘holistic’ practice entail, both for yourself and for your patients?
My practice is about treating the whole person and finding underlying causes for their conditions. Most medical doctors are quite adept at finding a patient’s diagnosis. But once they have that, their therapeutic choices tend to be rather limited, often boiling down to what pharmaceutical to prescribe. I try to look at patients holistically, which means recognizing that every person is a unique individual and then examining all parts of their life, not just their specific symptoms. That analysis helps me figure out how best to treat them.
All of us have the innate capacity to be in a state of balance and harmony, and when in that place, things are good. I ask, "Why is this person out of their natural state of balance? Why is this person manifesting these symptoms in this particular way? What is the dis-ease? And, what are the obstacles that are preventing them from being in that natural state of balance?" I want to be sure to address my patients’ underlying issues, going beyond temporarily treating the symptoms.
I’m like a detective, gathering all of the information and then figuring out what the problem is. I look at everything: what people are eating, how they're sleeping, what their lifestyle is like, what their stress levels are. I always start with those fundamentals.
This approach can be hard work for patients because healing their issues typically ends up being more complicated than taking a pill to make it all better. I'll tell patients from the start, "Look, I'm going to give you the benefit of my knowledge. I'm going to tell you what I think is going on. I'm going to tell you what I think we can do about it, and what the options are." Then I say, "Okay, here's what an allopathic (or conventional) medical doctor would do and here’s what I propose from a naturopathic approach. So, what do you want to do?"
It seems like naturopathy allows you to share a vast array of knowledge. What are some of the conditions you specialize in?
My interests and focus are fairly eclectic. I do a lot of hands-on, physical medicine to work with pain management – for both acute and chronic issues. I do naturopathic joint manipulations, similar to what a chiropractor does, and I add ancillary work to the muscles and fascia that help make those adjustments more effective. Ultimately, my goal is just to get people fixed in the best way possible.
In addition to patients who require physical treatments, I treat people across a range of practice areas, such as infectious disease, immune system issues, allergies, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, gastroenterology and endocrinology.
I see a lot of gastroenterology patients for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). I have a diet that I recommend to patients with ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s, and 65% see improvements. It’s not 100%, but it’s something, just from making some diet changes. To me, that’s what naturopathic medicine is: the least forceful intervention that’s appropriate for the patient’s needs and supports long-term improvement.
I can tell helping your patients as holistically and efficiently as possible is important to you. Has anything changed about the way you work as a result of social distancing regulations from COVID-19?
Like most businesses, I’ve pivoted to offer remote Telemedicine appointments for both existing and new patients. I’m lucky to still be able to serve my patients, even if the format is different than the norm. My previous experience working with infectious diseases such as HIV, Lyme Disease and chronic Epstein-Barr virus has provided me with a lot of insight into the nature of building immunity and promoting wellness, something that I’m finding lately comes in handy with higher stress levels and health concerns from COVID-19.
As many people now find themselves at home with new routines and potentially dealing with new stressors, it’s more important than ever to consider all factors that contribute to a healthy immune system to keep yourself safe and sane as well as those around you. That’s where holistic medicine comes in, and I’m happy to still be able to provide my expertise and advice even in such difficult times.
What hobbies do you have outside of work?
My main hobby is sailing. My friend and I love to go racing on his boat. We have gone to Whidbey Island Race Week, and we do other organized races through Corinthian Yacht club. We participate in various racing nights, like Wednesday nights on Shilshole, Monday nights at Sloop Tavern and other events on the weekends. Last fall we did a race called Around the County, where you literally race all around the San Juan Islands over two days in November. It’s quite a challenge both physically and mentally.
I’ve always been passionate about sailing—when I was young, my family had a little eight-foot sailboat. My brothers and I would put this boat in the back of my mom’s station wagon. She would drive us down to the beach at Marina Del Rey and we would drag the boat down to the water, rig it, and then just take off and go sailing all around the marina while she stayed at the beach and waited for us. Parents don’t let little kids do that sort of thing any more.
My other hobby is guitar. I love guitars. I have a number of vintage guitars, and I just love really cool guitars. I was eight when I learned how to play, and I took lessons for a while. Then, as an adult, I started taking weekly lessons again.
I was in a band for a while, and we did some performing. I have some friends that I jam with now and then, but nothing more formal than that. Playing the guitar is a creative outlet for me, and I love learning how to be better at it.
At CWM, we talk about living richly. What does that mean to you?
Living richly is about living in a way that's authentic to your ideals and doing things that are meaningful to you. It is about doing work that is in congruence with your values. My brother had the opportunity to live and work in Italy for a couple of years, and he realized that the people there work to live. Their work facilitates their lives. And here in the U.S., I think we may have it backwards – we live to work.
Everything is wrapped up around our work, and we are lucky to find time off wherever we can. I think that our values may be a little confused here. That's this evolution I've gone through and I’m frankly still a work in progress. Back when I was in the TV business, I had this realization that all I was doing was working at something that wasn’t ultimately fulfilling for me and I had to make a change; I had to do something differently because the television industry was not congruent with my values. I wasn't walking my talk, and I needed to make some changes that brought things more into alignment.
I look back at when I left MacGyver and remember thinking, “Here's the first show I ever worked on that is a real success, and I'm quitting. What is the matter with me?” It was like jumping off a cliff without a parachute… or maybe with a parachute, but with no clue if it was going to open.
I took this leap. And I did not know what was going to happen or where it was going to go. But the funny thing is that every time I've made decisions like that in my life, it's always worked out. And I don't know how or why, but it has. And it happened again with my recent move away from Bastyr to my solo practice. So I continue to be a work in progress.
Taking a leap like that can be scary, especially with finances at play. How did financial planning factor into your goals?
It actually didn't initially. I just didn't worry about money, and I figured it was going to be okay. And I had enough in an investment account that I could loan myself some money to get started here.
Comprehensive Wealth Management interested me from the moment I heard Brian Lockett speak at an event. He made me think about my investments and the way I viewed the market. I never used to worry about market changes because I could always ride it out. I figured, “It’s going to come back.” But at that point, I recognized that I was getting older.
And so I talked to Brian and said, “I've got these stocks and this money, but I don't have the perspective to know when to get out. I need someone to help me protect what I have because if it all goes south, I can’t wait another 10 years for it to come back.”
The sudden and dramatic changes we are seeing in the investment markets and economy amidst the current COVID-19 situation leaves me extremely thankful that I made the decision to get help from Brian and his team when I did.
Now I’m 63 and I'm not going to work forever, at least not at this pace. Equally, I don't see myself retiring at 65. I’m not going to stop being a doctor completely, but perhaps I won’t always be working five days a week. I want my next step to be my choice and on my terms.
Article written by Annie Alley, partner at Firmani + Associates, with photographs by Keith Brofsky, Brofsky Productions.
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