BELFAST, Maine — When Elizabeth Yori was growing up on her family’s dairy farm in Brooks, she always knew she wanted to be a doctor one day.
But her path to becoming a doctor featured several unusual twists and turns, which sounds about right for a woman who is used to doing things a little bit differently. That has been clear ever since she was one of the first high school girls in the state to participate in the sport of wrestling and again when she was the first woman in the state to be a varsity wrestling coach and again when she attended a challenging alternative medical school in Washington state.
Now that Yori, 36, a newly minted doctor of naturopathic medicine, finally has hung up her shingle at Belfast Natural Medicine, she said her winding journey has led her to the right place.
“I came back to Maine to work with the people here,” she said. “I always knew I wanted to come back. This is home. These are the people I love, and these are the folks I want to work with.”
Yori, a down-to-earth woman with bright eyes and a direct manner, said that to her naturopathic doctors are “doctors who listen.” In Maine, which has licensed naturopathic doctors as primary care doctors since 1996, NDs must hold a doctorate in naturopathic medicine from one of five accredited naturopathic medical schools in North America, according to the Maine Association of Naturopathic Doctors. They also must pass the national naturopathic licensing exam and earn an additional state license. Under a clearly defined scope of practice, licensed naturopathic doctors in Maine can prescribe antibiotics, give vaccinations, offer holistic and natural remedies and do wellness examinations, among other medical procedures.
There are more than 30 licensed naturopathic doctors practicing in the state and more than 4,000 nationwide. Steady growth within the industry since the mid-1990s reflects a “rising public interest in holistic treatments and natural methods of health care that are outside the scope of conventional medicine,” according to the association.
Gordon Smith of the Maine Medical Association, the Brunswick-based group that advocates for physicians, their patients and public health, said medical doctors do not equate naturopathic schools with medical schools and opposed their licensing in Maine. He acknowledged, however, that many patients are interested in alternative health options, including naturopaths.
“I do think, going forward, that many patients would like to see the various health professionals work more closely together,” he said. “We are in a time now where patients expect to be treated by a team of health professionals. Many hospitals even have alternative practitioners on staff. We know a lot of patients go to nonmedical alternatives. That’s their choice … and it is likely we’ll see more collaboration [between medical doctors and alternative practitioners, including naturopaths] in the future.”
Yori said one of the things that appeals to her about naturopathy is the idea of proactively supporting a person’s health. Back when she was a student at Mount View High School in Thorndike, a medical doctor at the small clinic in her hometown of Brooks made a big impression because of the positive way she treated Yori.
“She talked to me,” Yori remembered. “That was something I’ve never experienced before with a doctor. That experience was really great. She talked to me like a human being, which at 16 is so important. And she was really interested in what was going on with me — as a person, not as disease maintenance.”
High school was an interesting time for Yori because that is when she got intrigued by the sport of wrestling. She had joined the basketball team at Mount View but was spending a lot of time on the bench.
“I realized I’d have to look elsewhere to be active,” she said.
In 1996, a Title IX decision officially allowed girls to wrestle in Maine. After an informational session at her school, Yori went home and told her parents she wanted to try the sport.
“They were both confused, but my mother said, ‘You should try this, because if you can do this, you can do anything,’” she said. “I didn’t know much about it. I knew absolutely diddly. But I went out, and I loved it. What I ended up loving was the individual talent. It’s really you against yourself.”
After high school, Yori was a pre-med student at St. Joseph’s College in Standish and graduated cum laude in 2002. After that, she looked around at medical schools but didn’t like what she found.
“The phrase that went through my mind was ‘McDonald’s medicine,’” she said. “Get them in and get them out.”
So she waited, working at an animal shelter in Rockland and then moving back to the farm in Brooks after a family crisis. That’s when she got into coaching wrestling with the junior high school team at Mount View and then picked up the high school varsity team when its coach was deployed with the military.
“I fell in love all over again,” Yori said of wrestling.
She worked as an educational technician at Mount View, then as the full-time alternative education teacher. But although she loved her students, by 2008 she decided she wanted a change and cast her gaze back to medicine. Yori trained as an emergency medical technician, volunteered with an ambulance service and then wondered, “What else could I do in the field of medicine?”
She went to the website for Maine’s state licensing division and saw the letters “ND.” She didn’t know what they meant and looked it up online. That’s when she saw that others out there thought about medicine in the same way she always had.
“It gave me goosebumps,” Yori said. “I said to myself, this is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”
She decided to attend Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, and graduated last June. In her training, she covered anatomy, physiology, herbs, the principles of naturopathy and much more.
“I really think this medicine is for everybody,” Yori said. “I don’t see the medical field as an us versus them. I feel that naturopaths address the person and that MDs manage disease. The training is different.”
Medical doctors are really good at acute care, she said, while naturopaths have a holistic approach to health that she feels makes them particularly good at treating pain management or chronic diseases, such as diabetes or Lyme.
“That’s where we really shine,” Yori said. “I feel that my role is to really support the person going through the medical treatment.”
Toward that end, the first visit with a new patient usually lasts at least 90 minutes, as she listens and finds out what is happening in that person’s health and life.
Yori loves her work, even though she is saddled with a large student loan from Bastyr University. And while there is an idea that all doctors are well reimbursed for their skills, it is a little bit more complicated for naturopaths. The Affordable Care Act prohibited insurance carriers from discriminating against licensed providers, including licensed naturopathic doctors, but several insurance companies in Maine are balking at complying, she said. So Yori’s practice is cash-based, and she aims to keep her services accessible to regular Mainers — the people she has long wanted to help.
“I think Mainers are really independent. They don’t like being told what to do, and they really don’t like going to the doctor,” Yori said. “I think there is a self-reliance and independence here that really fits with naturopathic medicine.”
Dr. Elizabeth Yori, naturopathic doctor, is practicing at Belfast Natural Medicine at 38 Spring St. in Belfast.