When William Pettis decided he wanted to study acupuncture and Oriental medicine in 1998, he had no idea of the high-profile endeavors he would soon undertake. All he knew was that he was interested in Chinese herbs. Had he been told that he would one day provide health care to six professional athletes en route to the Beijing 2008 Olympics, surely he would have laughed in disbelief. Had you told him he would be the co-owner of two different clinics and travel around the world treating members of athletic teams as well as cancer patients, he would have thought that sounded nice — but implausible.
Yet Pettis, a graduate of Bastyr's acupuncture program who was elected "Acupuncturist of the Year" by the American Association of Oriental Medicine in 2005, has done all of this and more. A combination of an entrepreneurial spirit, a love of Chinese herbs, and a few ounces of persistence and personality has landed him a career beyond his wildest dreams.
"I am blessed, because I have this really dynamic group of clients," he says. "The athletes are genetic anomalies you don't get to see that kind of patient very often, to see that kind of discipline."
He explains that working with professional athletes, who regularly push their bodies to their limits, requires specific problem-solving skills. And Pettis relishes the challenge. "Every behavior, everything they eat and the way they respond to the environment and medications it's all unusual," he says. "You don't get to the Olympics by living a normal life. They all started at age nine or 10." Luckily, he says, "Oriental medicine is an adaptive model. It helps people be able to adapt to individual and environmental changes."
Similarly, Pettis didn't end up treating professional athletes by resting on his laurels. Having a chance to work with these unique clients required a lifetime of study and work as well as a bit of good fortune. Shortly after graduating from Bastyr, Pettis was treating cancer patients in both Arkansas and Tennessee when a fateful turn of events occurred. A friend of his, who just happened to be an agent for one of the cyclists on Lance Armstrong's professional cycling team, asked Pettis if he could treat the team members. Pettis gladly did. After that, Pettis' career took off and he started working with other pro cyclists.
Pettis never guessed he would become so involved in sports medicine. "I was always an amateur sports person, but I never knew I'd be talking to Lance Armstrong," he muses.
Although coincidences helped shape his career, Pettis was destined to become a medical trailblazer. He grew up in rural Mississippi, where his family used natural remedies at home. He became a paramedic at age 19 and worked in that field for 10 years. Later, he taught in the field of allied health and completed a physician's assistant (PA) immersion during one summer in Africa.
During his time in Africa, where he was involved with a church-related program, Pettis used his medical knowledge to diagnose patients, while African physicians delivered the remedies usually herbs, often antimicrobials that were sometimes in the Chinese herb family. Pettis became fascinated with the herbs and wanted to know more about how they worked. "I came home and said, 'This is what I want to do,'" he says.
He started searching for just the right profession and the perfect school. He decided to study Chinese herbal medicine since it is a credentialed field. "Chinese herbal medicine is the only profession with a specific board certification for herbs," Pettis explains.
Although he lived in Mississippi, Pettis chose Bastyr University in the Northwest, because he wanted to have opportunities to learn other disciplines beyond Oriental medicine. "Bastyr is unique in that you learn a lot from those around you and from the other disciplines," he says. "You have the freedom to explore — to learn more about homeopathy, to take advantage of the library's holdings. Most other Oriental medicine programs probably are not the best for me." Also, since Pettis had a strong Western medical background, he wanted to be in an environment where people "used microscopes as well as tongue diagnosis," he explains.
During his education at Bastyr, Pettis became interested in trying to incorporate Oriental medicine services into local cancer-treatment centers. He took the initiative to help establish Oriental medicine services at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center before he graduated. That center is now a model integrative cancer-treatment facility.
Foreign travel continued to be part of his education. Pettis flew to Korea during Bastyr school breaks to study Korean constitutional medicine through an internship. More recently, he traveled to China to study with an oncologist.
After he graduated from Bastyr with an MS in Acupuncture and a Certificate in Chinese Herbal Medicine, Pettis moved back to Tennessee and developed a strong base of cancer patients and then opened another practice in Arkansas, which was right across the river. At the same time, he began treating athletes from around the world, and he acquired many clients from Vancouver, Canada. Because of this, he decided to move back to Seattle and recruit other Bastyr graduates to work with him there. He closed his Tennessee practice, but continued traveling back and forth between Seattle and Arkansas, and in 2005 the two clinics became part of a larger entity which the three co-owners named the Institute of New Medicine (INewMed).
Today, Pettis practices Chinese herbal medicine in Seattle most of the time and sees patients in Arkansas for seven to 10 days each month. He travels to Europe to consult with other physicians about four times a year. A new branch of INewMed will open in Spain in 2008, offering alternative sports medicine and injury care.
The INewMed clinics offer an integrative medical model that is one of the first of its kind. In this model, each patient's health is assessed first from an Oriental medicine perspective, and from there the treatment plan branches out into other needed services. The consultants on-site include a nurse, a naturopathic physician, a core fitness strength trainer, a conventional medical doctor, a physical therapist and a sports psychologist. Pettis also contracts with many Western medical specialists off-site.
The Seattle branch is a high-end, modern sports center offering integrative services to athletes, although he treats chronic illnesses and other health problems as well. Pettis has been able to transform the health of professional athletes such as George Hincapie, a cyclist on Lance Armstrong's team in the 1990s. Hincapie, whose career was threatened in 2003 by his declining health after several infections and numerous rounds of antibiotics, recovered under Pettis' care. The clinic put him on a regimen that included a macrobiotic diet, Chinese medicine, and Western medical services, including care by a hematologist, a pathologist and a cardiologist. Pettis now has six clients who will be going to the Beijing Olympics, including a cyclist, a runner, a paddler and a mountain biker.
Not only has he had tremendous results with athletes, but Pettis has also helped many obese patients achieve a normal weight and helped diabetes patients return to normal blood-sugar levels. "It's very effective," he says. "I mean, there are very few cases of type 2 diabetes we can't turn around."
In the Arkansas INewMed clinic, Pettis specializes in oncology treatment and chronic diseases. Although he is paid generously by most clients in his Seattle office, much of his work in Arkansas is pro bono or offered on a sliding scale. Sometimes people pay him with a hog from their farm. He feels that it all balances out and he derives a lot of satisfaction from giving hope to late-stage cancer patients. "To actually see a Chinese herbal formula written three thousand years ago shrink someone's tumor is pretty exciting," he says, "and it happens more than one would think."
He still considers Chinese herbs to be his specialty and he constantly studies and researches Chinese herbs in his spare time. "There are thousands of plants yet to be explored," he explains.
He credits his success to persistence and hard work, as well as knowing his own strengths and being able to identify and utilize the strengths of others. "We've surrounded ourselves with people who have talents and knowledge that we don't," he says. "We all do very specific things, and we are very selective about who we work with." Also, being outgoing and "having personality" helps, he says.
But when it comes right down to it, it's quite a simple formula, he says, and one that's as old as the medicine itself. "Oriental medicine is definitely an art. If you show up and paint a halfway decent picture for people, they will start showing up. If you can shrink someone's tumor or help them get their job back — if you're getting good results — word of mouth will travel."
Interviewed November 2007