I’m not from Chestertown, I haven’t lived here very long, and I didn’t choose the place, and now I’m part of an amazing project. I came here because I had embarked on a journey that led me to a man who has lived here for a long time and is deeply tied to the area. When I first started spending time in Chestertown, I found it to be a place that revealed itself slowly, not like other rural communities where I have lived in California, Colorado and Alaska. But I was intrigued by the strange remoteness of this place that is in such close proximity to not one but three major urban centers. We have no cell phone service at our house, yet the lights of Baltimore glow on the night sky horizon, especially when clouds hang low, and we’ve set our sight on rowing there if we can build our strength and figure out how to time passage through the shipping lanes. This is a place of agriculture and mariculture, and a long, meandering, dialogue about how to accept the future while keeping a firm grasp of the past.
From the beginning, The Seed House was my favorite part of the Radcliffe Mill property. The proportions are pleasing, and it’s a welcoming place. When Benchworks moved away into a larger building, I tried to get Randy to move his business, Radcliffe Corporate Services, from the Mill into The Seed House. He wasn’t budging, and the building remained empty for awhile, waiting for the next incarnation. I coveted the space, but I didn’t yet imagine how dedicated to it I would become.
I started medical school in 1987, 30 years ago. I was enthralled by medical encounters and the promise of being able to help solve problems and be paid to do meaningful work. I was also critical of the medical paradigm and culture of modern medicine: seeing and treating patients as diseases rather than individuals; power struggles that all too often relegated female patients and nurses to subordinate roles; disillusionment and preoccupation with the financial aspect of compensation for care given. I also knew it was necessary to blend into this world in order to understand it, navigate it, and be trusted to graduate into increasing levels of responsibility and technical performance.
So many years slipped by in the hospital, in patient’s rooms and auditoriums and clinics and operating rooms. I learned to override fatigue, defer eating, and function on amazingly little sleep. I have worked in Alaska and New York City and a lot of places in between. I shaped and reshaped my career, starting in solo general surgery practice in Alaska and then retooling for 5 years in colon and rectal surgery with special training in complex rectal cancer management, sphincter preserving therapy, and minimally invasive surgical techniques. After 6 years as an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at The Medical College of Wisconsin, I found myself well into midlife at an impasse with my immediate boss, single with no kids, and steeped in an environment that seemed increasingly hostile and disempowering. I didn’t think it would be better in another place.
I took a long walk in April 2014, 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain, preparing for a wild leap into a future that would be less tied to clinical practice and refocus instead on addressing how to nourish compassion in the practice of medicine and build resource for physicians and other health care workers. I started to ask, “What would it look like if hospitals were places that supported the well-being of all who pass through the door?” I wondered if holistic medicine would offer a more comprehensive perception not only of patients but also providers and provide a better framework for doctoring. I was struck by the symmetry between patients’ sense of being powerless and invisible in hospitals and doctors’ diminished autonomy and stature, a widening alienation from the leadership of practice and care. I imagined a different kind of hospital and considered that it might be possible to reconfigure structures and services to achieve this.
Deborah Mizeur, a Chestertown resident, health policy analyst and medicinal herbalist visited the empty Seed House with an idea that it might make a good healing arts center. A healing arts center? I tracked her down to start a conversation that lasted over 6 months, soon included her Herbal Alchemy partner Krista Lamoreaux, and helped build momentum for the project. I met with other alternative care providers and yoga teachers to see what had been dreamt of and what might be supportable. Bonnie Keating helped with introductions and history. The Chester River Wellness Association started to coalesce. What became clear was that we could not include all practices and providers under The Seed House roof, but The Seed House could become a hub for wellness activities in Chestertown and help make this a destination for renewal as well as providing for our community. And this is what is happening, a little more each day.