Conversation About Strength

This issue, our Conversation participants are Erin Bahrenfus and Dr. Paula Bennett, M.D.. Each woman will respond to the same five questions, providing you an opportunity to hear different perspectives and continue the conversation with your circle of friends.

Erin owns a healthy lifestyle business, STRIVE Health + Wellness and operates it with her husband, Jeff. She is certified by OPTAVIA in partnership with The MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education (C.O.P.E.) in the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing at Villanova University.

Dr. Bennett has recently been working on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic in several states and has witnessed the devastation of the disease. She attended York College in the City University of New York (CUNY) where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a major in Chemistry while minoring in Spanish. She obtained her Medical Degree from the State University of New York’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Buffalo—now known as the Jacobs School of Medicine. She is one of the founding members of the American Board of Holistic Medicine.  

Siouxland Magazine (SM):  When you hear the word strength what comes to mind?

Erin Bahrenfuss (EB):  Strength to me is an inner grit and discipline to do the hard and heart work to break through barriers and embrace obstacles. It is identifying areas of weakness and pursuing the tools, people, or programs necessary to improve. Strength is the ability to move forward after a setback. 

We grow stronger by showing up every day and keeping the promises we make to ourselves.

Dr. Paula Bennett (PB):  My favorite definition of strength is ‘the capacity of an object, substance, or person to withstand great force or pressure, and with it, possessing the emotional and mental qualities necessary in dealing with situations or events that are distressing or difficult’ —like those we’ve just been through and continue to experience as a nation. It is the ability to adapt to both the brutal and the gentle situations in which we find ourselves, emerging transformed and improved because of it on the other side!

Strength is flexibility. If the reed will not bend, it will break. It is the ability to fight for what we perceive to be right—yet having the courage to realize we might be wrong, and the humility and strength of character to accept what is finally revealed to be truth. To understand that on our singular planet of 7.4-billion souls, we must learn to share, to compromise, and to appreciate the differences that surround us. 

Strength is asking for help when our pride would dictate otherwise, to endure with grace and dignity even whilst homeless and on the streets, or while transitioning on one’s deathbed with no family by your side. Strength is recognizing where we can make a difference with our unique gifts bequeathed to us by the Creator, and using them to make our cooperative lives better and more joy filled.

SM:  Why have you dedicated your life to the health profession?

PB:  I have known that I would become a physician since I was 8 years old, when my mother died. Perhaps this desire emerged out of not understanding why my mother left my sisters and I when we were so young. I had to be able to figure out why, and stop it from happening to anyone else. Even back then, I felt a strong tug within me to attend to those ill and suffering. 

In those days, growing up as a girl in Jamaica, the obvious career choice for a girl with my conviction was to become a nurse. However, some force compelled me to do more, to be more. Not even my father believed I could become a physician-healer, but I persevered, and I believed it was my destiny. 

EB:  There’s a fire in my belly that desperately desires to partner with women to create the very best version of themselves. We all have times when we feel knocked down, stuck, hopeless, and unhappy. In these times, we need someone to walk with us and to believe in us, until we believe in our own ability. 

It is my mission to be that HOPE in someone’s life. I want to prove to women it is possible to change the trajectory of your health and to create the life you desire.

SM:  What are the most difficult areas of life for you to maintain/display strength?

EB:  I struggle feeling strong when I’m experiencing something new or when I’m in a situation where I feel unqualified. When I’m not practicing positive self-talk, I all too quickly stop myself, or give myself a bailout plan before I even try. I know I have the strength to try and yet, the reality that I could fail can cripple me from even starting.

It’s also difficult to display strength in times of vulnerability. It’s challenging to show the world my imperfections and insecurities. However, I know there is incredible strength in vulnerability. It is in our vulnerability that we connect with others and prove our authenticity. With vulnerability comes true connection, and with true connection, growth is possible.

PB:  Changing and removing limiting beliefs has been the most difficult area of my life to master, until recently. When I completed Medical School and Residency, I was filled with a great passion and conviction that the world needed changing—and I was going to change it! People needed to be healthier, but organized medicine’s strong foundation is in a disease-based model. My fervent belief is that we should focus on total well-being, rather than one disease diagnosis after another. But it became clear that I could not move a mountain that did not want to be moved without help. Over time, I began to lose hope. I began to despair. 

Over the last three years, I have fully embraced the words of the 13-th century Persian poet Rumi, who wrote, “Yesterday—I was clever, so I wanted to change the World. Today—I am wise, so I want to change myself”. I have come to realize that I have been as much a victim of my own subconscious beliefs as my patients are of theirs. 

SM:  So many things in our world are polarized right now – including viewpoints on pharmaceuticals or  natural remedies. In your opinion, does it have to be an or thing?  Is there room for and in strong physical well-being?

PB:  I revere my practice in Integrative Medicine because it is truly the melding of two worlds. There are components of medicine that Western medicine has truly triumphed in achieving, while more ancient or natural modes of healing are unsurpassed in their ability to bring us into a place of balance. If you’ve just had a heart attack, modern medicine will save you acutely, more often than not. It possesses powerful drugs and interventions in its arsenal to bring you back from the dead—so to speak, and that is definitively called for in those circumstances. However, once  you’ve recovered from the heart attack, using combinations of prescription medications and herbal regimens including adopting healthy food choices and a cadre of vitamin supplements has been extremely successful at restoring one to full health. Then with time, one may transition to a purely holistic course of management. 

I have had patients who have refused any pharmaceutical drugs after their acute phase of recovery and done well and those who have done poorly. I do believe there is room for both pharmaceuticals and herbal regimens in today’s practice of medicine; however, even more crucial than starting and stopping drugs is truly engaging our patients in the process of securing their own optimal health. They must have knowledge and understanding of the dysfunctions and diseases that ail them and must be allowed to be active partners in their plan for health. Afterall, they are the true healers of themselves.

EB:  It starts with taking personal responsibility for your health and evaluating your current reality. Then, you must take action to choose healthy routines and habits that equip your body with the strongest armor of defense possible. There are also situations where medication is necessary and should be viewed accordingly.

Ultimately, you need to be willing to have an honest conversation with yourself and ask if changing daily habits would improve the situation. If yes, then do that. If not or even if for a season, medication is required to give your body the self-care it needs, you need to be willing to do that.

SM:  What else should our readers know about you?

EB:  I am not a health expert. (Yes, you read that correctly.) When you make a change, you don’t need an expert. You need someone you can trust who is a little further ahead on the journey to show you the way. I am a health advocate, a pioneer for healthy living and I am a work-in-progress. 

I am committed to my health journey and growing into the best version of myself so that I can authentically lead others to do the same.

PB:  I am Board Certified in Family Practice and will sit for the Board exam to the newly organized American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine-ABPS in May 2021. I am divorced and live in Sioux City as an empty nester with my two children migrating home and away to college as their busy lives allow.

I love travelling, the study of geography, and learning about other cultures. I have spent significant time in 46-states and in more than 20-countries around the world. I also enjoy cooking, singing, and dancing, as well as—writing poetry, short stories, and journaling, which I believe is one of the least expensive and most effective forms of self-psychotherapy. I am a life-long learner and truth seeker.

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