Education: National College of Naturopathic Medicine (2004); additional training/certification in IV Therapy
In practice since: 2004
Clinic: Free Natural Doctors International (NDI) community clinic
Practice setting: Spanish-speaking, primary care health clinic in developing country, serves 40,000 patients.
Location: Island of Ometepe, Nicaragua, Central America
Areas of focus/specialties:
- Diseases of poverty and socio-economic status
- Parasites (giardia, entamaoeba coli, entamaeba histolytica, chilomax nana, amaebisis)
- Urinary tract infections
- Upper respiratory infections
- Women's health issues
Career highlights and contributions:
- Co-founder (with Drs. Laurent Chaix and Michael Owen), executive director and medical director of NDI
- Global justice medical activist and educator
- ND representative at World Health Organization (2006)
- Former secretary of California Naturopathic Doctors Association (CNDA), secretary, membership chair (2005)
- Founding member of Presidential Ambassador Leadership Society (2003-2004)
- Founder and former editor in chief of The Student Naturopath (2002-2004)
- Active member of the American Herbalist Guild (AHG)
Current professional endeavor: To obtain status for NDI with the United Nations (UN) as a non-governmental organization (NGO), and to grow and develop global naturopathic medicine
NDI Motto: Crossing borders to promote cross-cultural bonding, solidarity, respect, and global justice through natural medicine.
Favorite Quote: “Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
– Arundhati Roy
Alumni Career Spotlight
Tabatha Parker, ND
As a naturopathic doctor, Tabatha Parker feels it’s her duty and her mission to serve others. That mission has led her to co-create an organization called Natural Doctors International (NDI), which provides free health-care services to underserved communities. It does this by offering worldwide medical rotations for licensed naturopathic physicians and other complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) providers worldwide. Her practice is on the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua where she treats patients in NDI’s free community clinic. We caught up with Dr. Parker on a brief visit to the United States to find out more about her practice — and her mission ...
Creating Natural Doctors International
Living and working in Nicaragua
Challenges and rewards
Looking to the future
AANMC: What led you to becoming a naturopathic doctor?
TP: I herniated a disc when I was younger and kind of went through all the traditional routes of potentially getting surgery, which led me to decide to heal myself through natural medicine. I ended up working with a chiropractor and a physical therapist who worked together and that’s ultimately what cured me — or got me to a state of health that I could deal with.
I had decided to go back to school to finish my undergrad degree. I was really interested in herbal medicine and herbs, and I found that there was this profession — a doctor of naturopathic medicine, ND — and I knew that I had found my home.
AANMC: When did you decide to practice medicine overseas? Did you have any international experiences as an ND student that influenced you?
TP: I was interested in traveling and I had traveled a little bit. I had been to Europe and Thailand and China – but always visiting friends or traveling as a tourist. Then, when I was a second-year student I had the opportunity to go to Peru. That’s where I did my first actual medical work in a developing country. That experience really changed my life. I realized that I had no real understanding of what life meant in a developing country and especially in relation to health and health care. So after that trip I decided that I would incorporate some kind of international service into my life once I became a naturopathic doctor.
AANMC: And you found there weren’t a lot of opportunities for you to do that?
TP: The reality is that most of the large organizations like Doctors Without Borders don’t accept naturopathic licenses. So, if you want to legally practice medicine in another country, you have to obtain licenses with those individual governments. You can’t just go in and practice medicine. There are tons of opportunities to join medical missions because the churches do a lot of service work in developing countries. So if you can find an MD who says, ‘Okay, you can come work with me,’ then you have an opportunity. But if you want to actually work with a non-profit organization, it’s much more difficult.
AANMC: So you and two of your colleagues decided to form NDI. Tell us a little bit about your practice and the mission of NDI.
TP: I’ll start with the mission of NDI. In 2003, Dr. Laurant Chaix, Dr. Michael Owen and I founded NDI. Obviously we wanted to bring services to underserved communities internationally. But we also found that as naturopathic physicians trying to work internationally, there weren’t many opportunities for us. So we decided to start an organization like Doctors Without Borders, but specifically for naturopaths.
Our mission is to serve people in underserved communities worldwide. The clinic that I work in, in Nicaragua, is a general practice. We see and treat everyone from pregnant women and newborns all the way to the elderly — my oldest patient is 104 years old — and everyone in between.
Creating Natural Doctors International
AANMC: When it came to establishing NDI and getting permission to start your clinic in Nicaragua, there was a lot involved, including obtaining 501(c)3 nonprofit status. How did you go about gaining that status and getting NDI started?
TP: We started discussions with the Nicaraguan government at the same time that we started writing the 501(c)3 application to become a nonprofit organization. The three of us wrote the 501(c)3. We just bought books and figured it out because to file a 501(c)3 application costs $500. To hire a lawyer to do it costs about $5,000. We just didn’t have that kind of money.
When you do a 501(c)3, they want projections for three years, including your mission and everything, so we started building what we thought NDI would look like. Then we filed the application in August of 2004, at the same time we were securing the contracts in Nicaragua. To finalize the contracts, they needed the 501(c)3 status paperwork. Everything was kind of happening simultaneously.
So we were doing everything at once and just hoping. We weren’t quite sure, ‘If we don’t get this 501(c)3 status then what are we going to do? We’re not going to be able to start the clinic. It’s really going to set us back.’ But ultimately we did receive the status. And this all happened during our last year of medical school. We were studying for board exams and in our downtime we would work on the 501(c)3 documents.
AANMC: Your trip to Peru, and a year later to Nicaragua, helped you determine how you wanted NDI to function. How did you want it to be different from what you’d experienced?
TP: Many international medical groups will go down on brigades for two or three weeks, which were the two experiences I had. And there are many things that are problematic about that. When you’re working in service in that capacity you wonder, ‘What’s going to happen to all these people when I leave? What if the patients have questions, where will they go?’ There are all these questions because you’re just kind of in and out. It’s really a medical tourist kind of model, and there’s not really a relationship that develops.
We decided that if we were going to do this we were going to set up sites in countries that we wanted to be in — permanent sites where we would place doctors for one or two years. Then we would bring groups down there to work at those sites, so that there would always be someone there. All the patients that you see on a brigade you can refer back to the clinic and to the doctors stationed there. So the model has been amazing.
Living and working in Nicaragua
AANMC: How well have you found that naturopathic medicine is received in Nicaragua compared to here in the US?
TP: We have been greatly received by all of our patients. First of all, I’m working in a population that’s 80 percent agricultural, so most of them are farmers. They’re working on the land. They know the land. They know all the plants. Most of them have used some sort of natural medicine, whether it’s herbal medicine or different forms of bodywork. They still use bone setters on the island where I live. Through naturopathic medicine, we have a language to kind of bridge the two worlds and that has been really helpful. We work with the herbal medicine women in the town and we’ve also been trying to work with the community health workers there.
We actually work in the only health center on the island – a 24-hour facility. For all intents and purposes it’s the hospital of the island, and serves 40,000 people. We see up to 30 patients daily – newborn babies, pregnant women, children, adults, seniors. We practice our full scope, using all the tools we have as naturopathic physicians.
Western medicine has made it to many developing countries, clearly, but it hasn’t totally. The cost factor has kept it from reaching the majority of people. So we really offer a cost-effective model, and a model of medicine that people here are already are familiar with. So it’s been working well.
AANMC: Can you share an especially rewarding experience that you’ve had in your practice?
TP: I have a patient who is nine years old and he has epilepsy and most likely either autism or some developmental disability. He’s this really wonderful kid. He whistles a lot and makes a lot of different noises, but when I started seeing him, he had never spoken before. So his mother had come in and we had been talking and I said, ‘Well, let’s try this homeopathic combination that I’ve heard can really help kids with epilepsy, especially if they have had head trauma,’ which he had – he had fallen into a cement sink when he was a child and hit his head. So we gave him the remedy and he started talking. Now he’s singing! She brings him in and he sings! He lives near a church, so he’s learned all of the chorus songs that they sing because he can hear them when he’s in his house.
That, to me, was amazing – and I didn’t do anything. I just gave him some medicine that allowed his body to do what it needed to do. To me, there’s really nothing better than that.
Challenges and rewards
AANMC: This article will be read by a lot of students. What would you tell them are the rewards of working in an underserved community as you do?
TP: I really believe in a social justice model of medicine. Originally doctors became doctors to serve the population, and that has changed dramatically in our country and in the world, really. There’s a movement with doctors such as Paul Farmer (founder of Partners in Health) to get people to go back to that model – to realize that we’re servants to the people of the world.
United States and working in a clinic that wasn’t for underserved populations. It is really, really fulfilling.
AANMC: What are the challenges of a practice like yours?
TP: The challenges of living in another culture are many. You have to be willing to just accept that some people live in very different ways. The rules and morays and beliefs of another culture are theirs and they have every right to that. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy if you’re coming from a culture that functions in a very different way.
One clear example of this is the pace of life in the United States versus that in a developing country, where things happen much more slowly. In the US we’re very used to efficiency and being able to multi-task and do many things at once. I live in a very rural community on the island where often there’s no electricity or water for days. So you just have to surrender to that. And really, ultimately it’s about acceptance and learning how to live on this planet together and respect everyone’s beliefs and culture.
Looking to the future
AANMC: What are your future hopes and plans, both personally and for NDI?
TP: For NDI, we definitely will gain non-governmental organization (NGO) status with the United Nations (UN). We will apply this year, and will continue to apply if necessary, until we get it. This is a big goal of mine. I feel that I am a representative of my profession, and I want this profession to grow internationally and to gain the recognition that it deserves, because it can help people. The global health system is in a huge crisis right now and naturopathic medicine definitely can help solve that crisis. We might not be able to change everything, but we can surely contribute on a very powerful level.
Ultimately, our goal is to open NDI sites in as many countries as they have a need and as we have a desire. So we’re working now with schools, and to find out which countries need sites the most, and we are starting the initial processes in these countries. We want this to be a global organization that can serve people all over the world.
Personally, I want to be the best doctor I can be. I want to continue to learn from the people who have really taught me how to be humble and how to learn patience. I have learned so much from the community that I live with. I could never give back in my services what they’ve given to me. So I just hope that I can continue to develop these relationships and help give to my brothers and sisters who are in developing countries — to be able to help and work with them in any way so that they can better their lives.
AANMC: What advice would you give to a student who is thinking about becoming a naturopathic doctor?
TP: I would tell them that they should be prepared to be an activist. Right now we are on the edge of naturopathic medicine really becoming accepted on a greater scale in the United States, and also internationally. We are really at this point where we need every person to be an activist for this medicine and to be willing to really speak out for it. If you want to join the medical profession and not get involved in this political aspect, then I would think again about being a naturopathic physician because I think it’s totally integral.
I’d also tell them to learn another language. I speak Spanish, and it helps so much. Wherever you are, if you know the language they use, then you’ll be able to reach out to underserved communities in a way that you would otherwise not be able to do. This really makes a huge difference.
There are so many immigrants in the US who need health care as well, and learning their language and their culture can really help you to show these patients that you really want to understand them. You’re not just, ‘Okay, I’m a doctor and you have to do this.’ It really helps to form a bond with your patients because it means a lot to people when you can speak their language – even if you don’t speak it well.
Dr. Parker’s words radiate her passion for practicing international medicine, for global health, and for people. The slow pace of life on the island doesn’t seem to have hampered her ambitions by any means, but rather to have fueled her desire to continue and to expand what she’s begun. Her plans for the future may seem daunting to some, but when spoken from Dr. Parker herself, not much seems unfathomable.