I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robert Zembroski, DC, DACNB, MS, author of REBUILD, is a specialist in functional medicine, a clinical nutritionist, and a board-certified chiropractic neurologist with 24 years of experience in rebuilding people from chronic health issues and disease back to excellent health. Dr. Z is committed to providing answers in a confusing world of medical opinions and poor results. He is the founder of the Cancer Victor Protocol®, and Director of the Darien Center for Functional Medicine in Darien, Connecticut.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path as a doctor or healer?
I have always been excited and passionate about health and fitness.
As a kid, I was the one who would run home to get Band-Aids when someone got hurt playing football. Even then, I knew I was destined to help people somehow, in some way related to health.
My fascination with the human form and body made it easy to read and collect comic books where god-like muscular super-heroes pummeled villains. Submerging myself into comics for hours on end was also a great escape from reality.
In addition to being the neighborhood EMS, I was also taking different medications to treat chronic upper-respiratory and sinus infections and allergies. My parents, not knowing any better, rather than looking for the reasons behind my faulty health, brought me to doctors for the latest and greatest antihistamines, antibiotics, and an assortment of anti-inflammatories that momentarily smothered my symptoms but gave me a slew of miserable side effects.
Improving my diet at the time would have been too easy.
Fast forward to my pre-med studies and the University of Connecticut. While working as an electrician’s apprentice and going to school full time, I came to a crossroad during my schooling where I needed to decide what type of healing (health care) I was going to pursue.
My father was a dentist, and my brother was studying to be one. Although dentistry was interesting, it was not the direction I wanted to go in. During my studies, I decided to take a business-writing class to obtain more credits, and it seemed like the right thing to do during the summer rather than party with my friends and classmates.
The professor of the course had mentioned that her daughter was in school studying to be a chiropractic physician; with an elated voice, she said her daughter loved it! I was familiar with this type of health care but had no personal experience with it. So, as always, I needed to know more. I read, researched, and visited the top chiropractic schools to learn more. Both medicine and chiropractic schools entailed four years of intense study, offering great courses in anatomy, physiology, neurology, and more.
My decision had come down to two choices: medicine or chiropractic. I was excited about the possibilities of both; however, medicine had created a host of health issues for me back when I battled upper-respiratory issues. Pharmaceuticals had done their job at alleviating symptoms, but never got to the root cause of my health issues.
As I considered this decision in my mind, I realized medicine did not resonate with me. I wanted to be more involved with corrective healing rather than a path of treating symptoms. I realize this is an over simplification, but the reality was simple.
On a personal and upsetting side note, my mother battled mental illness as long as I can remember. She too was treated with a cocktail of mind meds that left her overweight, bloated, swollen, and mentally zombified. That experience provided more assurance that I needed to take a non-pharmaceutical direction for my future.
Excitedly, I pursued a career as a chiropractic physician.
I also got rid of my chronic immune problems by eliminating grains with gluten, milk products, white refined sugars, and any artificial food-like substances.
I started and grew a thriving practice. It really was enjoyable for me to help people resolve their chronic health issues. Individuals with migraines, dizziness, pain, and weakness were not getting results with what medicine offered.
To be able to help them when nothing else worked was really exciting.
However, as years passed, my brain — not my body — got tired of treating just people with musculoskeletal — muscle and joint — issues. I needed a renewal, a revival of excitement for helping others. I wanted to know more and learn how to help more “advanced” cases, or individuals with seemingly unresolvable health issues.
I then discovered chiropractic neurology or functional neurology (FN). Yes! I had a renewed passion for turning on the lights in my office. The study of FN was so exciting, even addictive, as a deeper understanding of brain-based and neurological health issues became clearer.
I learned how to treat the more “difficult” cases using different methods, not just manipulative therapy, although that is still the most effective way to improve the nervous system. Over the next few years, I focused on neurology and began attracting patients from all over — Maine, Florida, the Midwest. The more I learned, the more I applied, and seemingly impossible issues were getting better.
I had finally found my niche.
How have your personal challenges informed your career path?
A couple of years after an avalanche of stress, I was told I had a 5-inch tumor in my chest. With no time to look at alternatives, I had to have chemo to start destroying the cancer. After a combined 7 months of toxic chemotherapy and 4 weeks of radiation, a surgeon cracked open my chest to remove a 5-inch tumor consisting of scar tissue and cancer cells — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
While getting the “strongest stuff,” I never lost sight of victory. I kept my eye on the finish line. I knew I would live and rebuild myself back to excellent health.
I knew the moment I woke up from surgery was a new beginning for me.
I had pushed the oncologist, surgeon, and nurses to think about me as an individual, to think “outside the box” when devising my treatments. Finally, I had convinced them to do surgery they never would have considered if I had not insisted.
It took a tremendous amount of personal research, initiative, and effort to get them to listen to me, and to try something that was not part of the usual protocol for my diagnosis. Perhaps the reason I finally was able to get through to them is because I am a doctor; I can speak their language.
In a powerful realization, it then hit me how difficult, if not impossible, it must be for someone who isn’t a health professional, or doesn’t have the knowledge to suggest something different, to challenge the current system.
If I hadn’t challenged my cancer team and pushed for the surgery to remove the mass in my chest, I would have followed the “standards of care”; most likely, I wouldn’t be here to tell my story.
My quest for something better than just reactive medicine — something requiring more critical thought and a plan — began after my personal experience. During my cancer care, and certainly after it was finished, I wanted to rebuild myself, not only to prevent a recurrence. I wanted to see if I could take my health and fitness to a new level.
Sadly, there are no standard-of-care guidelines to help you rebuild from and prevent recurrence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and other chronic ailments. The standards of care for treating chronic health issues is really about crisis care — medical intervention to reduce symptoms and suffering and to keep you living a little longer. The current healthcare system is not about finding and fixing the reasons that caused the health issue or disease.
Enter functional medicine.
Functional medicine is a method of uncovering why disease happens and how to reverse conditions while, at the same time, restoring health. Like an archaeologist digs for fossils, a specialist in functional medicine digs for physical clues to understand the origins of your disease.
Using the principles of functional medicine alongside countless hours, weeks, and months of research, I mapped out a plan to quickly rebuild my body back to excellent health. It was also this new model of health care that helped me restore and rebuild others with chronic unresolved health issues. In addition to neurology, and based on my personal experience using functional medicine, my practice quickly evolved into a functional medicine model, giving me the ability to help people where other methods have failed.
Can you share five pieces of advice to other doctors/clinicians/healers to help their patients to thrive?
Being both a doctor and a patient gives me a both perspectives. I have experienced the emotional anguish and physical pain that countless people deal with when diagnosed and treated. Being on the “other side,” I have also experienced typical healthcare, which is — sad to say — insufficient. Many patients I see have developed what I call medical apathy — a learned helplessness from seeing doctors who haven’t helped them. This is due to the limited time many doctors spend with patients. So, here are my five pieces of advice to better serve your patients.
- Listen, and then listen again. I get it, you’re allotted 7–20 minutes with each person. Clearly this is not enough time to serve your patients well. Certainly during the first consultation it’s important to listen to what the patient has to say and taking a genuine interest in your patients builds trust. When we, as healthcare providers, are rushed, we can miss important verbal clues that can direct the next step of proper evaluation and treatment.
- Never dismiss your patients. Years ago, when we sat across from a doctor who lit up a cigarette to discuss our ailments, we were taught to never question the doctor. We were also taught that we were not part of the solution to our health issues. Sadly, this prehistoric and self-serving mindset still exists today. It’s important that we not dismiss our patients’ opinions, thoughts, and concerns.
- Collaborate with your patients. As you strive to serve them fully, be open-minded; they may have inside knowledge about their condition. People are more educated now about health than in years passed. The Internet has given people access to detailed information, making them extremely knowledgeable. When people are trying to resolve chronic health issues, they can become experts in what the best resolution is for their own issues.
- Choose your words wisely. Statistics regarding health issues are about groups of unhealthy people, not the individual sitting in front of you. Just discussing statistics does nothing to empower patients to take charge of their health. I know this first-hand. Focusing on survival percentages is destructive. It sets in motion a chronic stress response that pushes the patient further into poor health. Telling someone they have ABC condition can be stressful. However, how we approach the topic can give the person hope. I always encourage my patients to stay focused on good health even when facing a serious health challenge, as this sets the mental stage for healing. Encouragement and positive words are healing.
- Lose the ego. As clinicians/healers/doctors, we let our egos get in the way of helping our patients. Doctors often think they are right, thus fail to get a second or third opinion and/or to work with other healthcare providers. Doctors have also been notorious for being offended or irritated when a patient challenges a diagnosis or treatment and/or asks a lot of questions. Don’t patients have a right to challenge or criticize treatment? Ask Questions? While ego is part of the human psyche, your ego should be checked at the door to prevent or interfere with a patient’s pursuit of improved health.
Social media and reality TV create a venue for people to share their personal stories. Do you think more transparency about your personal story can help or harm your field of work? Can you explain?
I feel sharing my personal story is a major benefit. Why? I’ve been through a serious health crisis, just like countless other people. Being a doctor doesn’t make me immune to a life-depleting condition or serious disease. Patients feel like they’re in good hands with me because they know I’ve been through it. I can relate to them and speak their language. My personal story gives me instant connection. Often times, patients will do their own investigation of me to see if I’m a good fit for them regarding their health needs. When they read my story, it seems as though a cloud is lifted. They see that I’ve gotten through my personal hell, which empowers them to feel they can overcome their challenges.
Sharing my story also creates comfort; people feel immediately understood as I’ve walked in their shoes. I’m compassionate and have a way of challenging my patients when they say “It’s hard” or “You don’t know what it’s like.” I can relate to what they are feeling, while bringing humor by sharing my story. That gives me a little credibility advantage over practitioners who haven’t faced serious health challenges.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant to your life?
I live by a mindset, rather than an inspirational life lesson or quotation. Regarding health, I don’t buy into the defeating statements like “This is just who you are” or “These are the cards you’ve been dealt” or “These things just happen.” These negative statements leave people deflated and powerless to dig deep and really be proactive in rebuilding their health.
During my personal health crisis, I wanted to hear that I would beat disease and come out victorious. My mantra was “Don’t tell me I can’t” . . . I wanted to control my destiny.
There are two quotations I do like: “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve” by Napoleon Hill, and “You become what you think about.” by Earl Nightingale.
OK, and one more: “Git ‘er done!” by the comedian Larry the Cable Guy. I love laughing and humor, and I find myself laughing each time I hear or say that. For me, it has actually become a call to action — a statement to take action; to make something happen.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Besides a major push to eliminate soda, Doritos, and glow-in-the-dark Jell-O as hospital food, the movement that needs to happen is not another food-fad concept, or a diet, or even a new exercise from a box. It’s also not a named movement. Yet.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country; cancer trails behind it, and medical errors come in third. Chronic disease is on the rise. Medical apathy is at an all-time high.
Countless people are not only suffering; they are looking for real answers to health issues in a world of ineffective medical options. There is also an enormous amount of confusing and conflicting information on health and disease, food, diets, supplements, and countless other natural “remedies.”
Too many people don’t take positive actions to improve their health until they experience three types of pain: emotional, spiritual, or physical. All three are motivating factors that usually get people taking actions to enhance their health. With the right tools, I believe people can rebuild themselves mentally and physically. The stumbling block seems to be getting the right information to them in a digestible and manageable way.
The “Rebuild” movement is really about helping people reframe the way they think about their health issues — getting them motivated to take control instead of leaving their health outcome in someone else’s hands. This movement would be a great way to revolutionize the way people experience real health care and teach them the principles of functional medicine.
If we realize that we have the power to improve our own health and rebuild from disease, the world would be a better place. I get shivers just thinking about this power.
As I tell my patients, and as I’ve written in Rebuild, your diagnosis is not your destiny. You have the power to transform your choices and create a path toward optimal health. You have a say in whether you focus your energies on getting ‘rid’ of what caused your diagnosis, or set your sights on not just surviving, but thriving.
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Originally published at medium.com