Susan Weeks was working as a physician assistant (PA) in emergency rooms, first in New York City and later in Kingston, when she realized she didn’t want to practice what she calls “fast-food” medicine. The pressure to see patients quickly and not having enough time to talk to them, to review their histories and to find out what was really going on with them, just didn’t feel responsible to her, Weeks says. “I took a vow to do no harm, and I can’t abide by that if I’m just writing one ‘scrip after another. That’s not what I signed up for.”
So she began studying homeopathy, becoming ever more convinced that good patient care was not being practiced in the standard healthcare system. “We know that many of our ills are caused by stress, but in Western medicine, we wait until someone really gets sick before we treat them,” she says. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could prevent people from getting sick by taking care of them holistically before they get to the point where they’re so stressed that it manifests in physical illness?”
Most health insurance plans don’t cover visits to holistic practitioners, however, and Weeks says she realized that for people without means, alternative treatments like craniosacral therapy or massage are “a rich person’s luxury.” In order to alleviate that problem, Weeks left the practice of standard medicine behind and co-founded Healthcare is a Human Right in 2003, a grassroots organization committed to providing holistic healthcare for all people, regardless of their ability to pay for it. “We call ourselves Healthcare is a Human Right because that’s what we believe,” she says, “and even if you don’t, you at least have to say it to refer to us.”
Healthcare is a Human Right (HCHR) operates through the nonprofit Family of Woodstock, a United Way agency. HCHR holds monthly clinics in Woodstock, Kingston and Phoenicia, where volunteer professional practitioners offer a number of alternative healing treatments free of charge, from chiropractic and acupuncture to various forms of massage, nutritional counseling, hypnotherapy and energy healing techniques. No proof of income is required to avail oneself of the services (in the same way that when your house is burning down, the fire department doesn’t ask about your income, says Weeks) but the cost of running the clinics is defrayed in part by any contributions clients are able to make for a treatment. The remainder of the funding for the clinics comes from donations from the community, fundraisers and a small amount in grants.
Weeks says that she doesn’t like to use the term “complementary” medicine in speaking about the treatments offered at the clinics because that implies something added on to standard medical practices, even though many of these healing disciplines, like acupuncture, have been around for centuries, far longer than allopathic, or Western medicine. “We use the word holistic because we’re looking at the whole person, and that whole person’s story or being involves not just their body, but their mind, their spirit, their environment, their community—and all of those things make a difference in not just their health but what their attitude toward their health is,” she says. “That can be even more important than the state of their physical health.
“And a healing presence can be any of us,” she adds. “It could be a doctor, a holistic practitioner or just a friend. I think what a true healer does, is to listen with an open heart, and fully, to someone’s story, and by listening to that story you enter into it and thereby change it. And changing the story, changing the narrative, is what we want to do as healers. The outcome is just another part of the process.”
Susan Weeks grew up in Orono, Maine along the coast in Penobscot County, where many generations of her family have lived. Around the time she entered seventh grade, her family moved to Potsdam, New York. Her interest in music—Weeks was lead alto sax player in the high school dance band, invited to play at the World’s Fair in 1964—led her first to SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music and then to the University of Rochester Eastman School of Music (graduating with a degree in English lit) where she met her husband, Peter Solow, on the first day of music theory class. He was already making a living playing drums at the time, she says, and would go on to work with a series of bands for 25 years afterward until he switched careers and taught himself computer programming. Solow is currently chief engineer for a company he co-founded that created a program used in nursing homes that Weeks says is now the industry standard and has improved patient care and working conditions for their nurses.