Penelope McDonnell

The Journey from Banker to Naturopath

After completing my undergraduate degree in Business, I started a career in investment banking which I enjoyed. But a variety of circumstances led me to take a break from that. My husband had a good career opportunity in Europe, and I thought that would be a great thing for our young family, so we moved to Brussels.

The Motivation

At the time of our move my eldest child, Paul, was very sick with severe chronic asthma. He had to use a nebulizer four times a day and was hospitalized about every six weeks. With the move to Brussels, Paul had gotten much worse because of near constant rain and the resulting mold. I frequently drove him to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night with a nebulizer hooked up to cigarette lighter in the car. I needed to find a doctor in Brussels, and a friend sent me to one who changed my son’s life and ultimately, mine.

This doctor was an MD, but he strictly used homeopathy, an alternative system of medicine based on treating disease with small doses of natural substances that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of disease. He prescribed a homeopathic powder to be administered orally in the morning and evening for ten days. After that, Paul never went to the hospital again.

All of my kids were allergic to the mold, so the doctor told me to get a stethoscope and an ear scope. He taught me how to examine them so that I could report to him over the phone. After working with him this way, he told me I needed to become a doctor. I said no: I had come from a family of doctors and didn’t want that life. I also did not want to be the person over-medicating people, as had happened with my son. Also, I really liked the business world.

At the time of my last pregnancy (with my fourth son), I was not working. It was a high- risk pregnancy, and my doctor told me I had to find a job because he thought I would never sit down if not at work. I got a job at IBM writing and editing which I did enjoy, and I think he was right about working being better for me at that time.

We moved back to the States and I tried several different areas of work from executive search to sales support, finance, small business support and volunteering. Nothing stuck. I discovered a Naturopathic medical school near home and, after putting it off for a few years when I was in the thick of child-rearing, I eventually decided to make the leap. Having never taken science in college, I had to start with prerequisites at a local college.

Back to School in her 40’s

It was scary-I hadn’t been in school in a long time, hadn’t taken science, and had four children at home! I started with Chemistry 101 in my 40’s and wondered if my brain would work! Lo and behold, I found I was in my element: I had always loved school. It felt decadent to have someone stand up in the front of the room and lecture so that I could learn. I went on to take Physics, more Chemistry and Anatomy. Eventually I went to the Naturopathic medical school and loved every minute of it.

Penelope McDonnell at the Union Square Farmer's Market in NYC
At the Union Square Farmer’s Market NYC

After those four years, the choice was to do a residency which would have involved moving my family, or to go straight into practice. I chose going directly into practice, which in retrospect was a somewhat more difficult path, but it has all worked out. I have now been in practice for 10 years and couldn’t be happier. What I love about the Naturopathic approach is that while we studied all the standard sciences and medical school courses that traditional, western MD’s take, we also learn other modalities, such as acupuncture, homeopathy and herbs. In fact, we are herbalists, first and foremost. One special area of knowledge is the interaction of herbs with medicines such as chemotherapy. As a result, I work with a lot of cancer patients to support their chemo treatment.

The main difference between conventional medicine and naturopathic medicine is that we treat the cause instead of the symptoms. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in western medicine—there are many times when I send people to Emergency Rooms or to someone to prescribe antibiotics, since we cannot prescribe those types of medicines. But what naturopaths do is work on a patient’s immune system to prevent illness. This can take longer of course and is not a quick fix for an acute situation—that is when I would refer someone to an MD. We also work very effectively with patients who have autoimmune and other chronic conditions.

Finding your Passion

I find in my practice that there are so many women ages 40+ who feel stuck in life. We’re going to live a long time now which makes it a long time to suffer. I encourage women to take the first step even though it may feel terrifying. Starting school was terrifying for me and it turned out to be thrilling. Often, women feel selfish when they take a step to create a new life: we are caregivers to children and aging parents and often forget to care for ourselves.

Finding one’s true self and passion is the road to happiness. You may know something is bothering you but identifying it is hard. Many patients come to my office and say they don’t know what to do. I encourage them: I recommend Johnson O’Connor tests that analyze aptitudes. We are all born with aptitudes and are happiest when expressing them. I urge people to take a course, to try something new, go to a life coach. We all need purpose and accountability because it is easy to languish, and the days float by with nothing changed. Life can be busy with all the responsibilities we have as women, but once you hit the 40’s self-care should include constant exploration of new ways to understand yourself. I have found my true passion and joy in helping others become their healthiest selves.



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