The short version:
Hi, I’m Dr. Jenny Elwell-Gerken. I’m a holistic veterinarian, certified veterinary acupuncturist, and certified Primal Health Coach. Several years ago I went through a few major things all at once. I was depressed and hating life. I was sick- I had full body hives for 1.5 years that no doctor could figure out (I tried at least 8 or 9 before I gave up). My dog was sick- he had diarrhea for 2 years, and neither myself nor the other 7 doctors I worked with at the time could figure out a solution for him. And he was only 2 years old when it started!
I started looking outside the box for solutions for both of us. And I was led down a long path into the alternative modalities and holistic healing. After I regained my health (and this path also helped to turn around my happiness too), I realized that I was just as passionate about the people as the animals! No, I don’t treat human medical diseases. Yuck! But I love helping people dig themselves out of holes and to create their best possible lives.
Hence my work here. I’m creating things like the Happy Vet Mastermind and Happy Vet Retreats with the specific purpose of creating support systems for veterinarians like me. Veterinarians who have decided that they’re ready for a change, and who want some support while they do it.
So welcome. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a message here.
And if you want the longer version of the story (some people like all the details!), you can read on…
The long version:
In reality, my story doesn’t have a very clear starting point.
I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was 8 years old. I’m not sure what led up to that decision, but I stayed on that track other than a brief period towards the end of high school when I was going to be an author. By the middle of my freshman year of college, however, I was back on the vet track.
I graduated from veterinary school 8 years later.
College and veterinary school were extremely rough for me. I fought depression and severe lethargy. During my first year of college, I would get so exhausted that I literally couldn’t stay awake. I would fall asleep at the computer, on top of the keyboard, while at work right after lunch.
I struggled with my weight all during those years. Some of it was the freshman 15+, some of it was not having a clear knowledge of health so when I quit my competitive swimming career, I didn’t know how to compensate. A lot of it was using food to feel better when I didn’t know what else to turn to, I had no other coping skills.
During vet school, I struggled with such severe depression that I was on antidepressants and seeing the school counselor a minimum of once a week just to get through. Unfortunately I have massive side effects from medications, including those ones. I was also on birth control my entire vet school career, which we later learned contributes massively to my depression level. However, since I was in vet school and newly married, I didn’t know of any other option.
Life started to get a little better once I graduated, except that I didn’t end up in a great first job. We moved to a state I’d never been to, that I didn’t love, to a little tiny town (400 people!) where I didn’t know anyone, and my husband was an over-the-road truck driver. So I was lonely and bored. And I had my first miscarriage there. Cue more depression.
We moved to Montana and I took a job at a much larger clinic. Things got better… kinda. I had 2 more miscarriages. The doctors kept telling me it was normal for women to have miscarriages, and the only reason I even knew about them was because I was tracking my cycles so closely that I knew when I was pregnant earlier than the average women. Not exactly reassuring, and really, it made me flat-out angry to be dismissed that casually.
This was the period of time when I discovered Primal eating.
My freshman year of college, when I had been so lethargic and falling asleep, doctors were stumped. They checked my thyroid (hypothyroidism runs in my family), they checked me for mono. Everything they could think of. One doctor finally narrowed it down to Peripheral Insulin Resistance. This wasn’t a well known term back then. They actually tested me for diabetes- and my readings weren’t normal but they weren’t diabetic. My first reading was about 120, which is higher than a fasted reading should be but not severe. After that disgustingly gross orange drink, I felt like shit but my sugar only went up to 170. Which is also not normal, but not diabetic levels. However, as a treatment, she told me to go on the Atkins diet. Cut all carbs.
Unfortunately at that time I was a freshman living in a tiny dorm room with 2 other people and living out of the cafeteria and one tiny fridge we had in the room. And I didn’t know anything about how to balance a diet or cook. So I ate nothing but string cheese and lunch meet, because that was what was easy and what I understood. And it lasted for approximately 3 weeks. Not even long enough to truly start feeling better. I then understandably started binging on cookies.
So fast forward to 2010 when I discovered Primal living. My dad had found the lifestyle and was encouraging me to try it for weight loss. At this point I was at my highest weight ever and miserable with it. I was very reluctant to try again given my previous low-carb experience, but what the hell? Weight Watchers sure wasn’t working for me (honestly, no wonder when you use all your points to eat cake because you’re still depressed, as well as fat).
Within just a few weeks of eating Primally, I was losing weight and feeling great. More importantly, however, I got pregnant again. My new doctor started running tests right away so that we could try to figure out why I was losing pregnancies, but I will never forget the day she called me and said “Congratulations, Jenny, you’re sticking.” I cried, ugly sobbing cries. And my son was born 9 months later.
If anything could have convinced me to become more fascinated with health and diet, it was that.
The other thing we discovered during this period was that I was extremely intolerant of wheat. No one ever tested me for celiac, but it didn’t matter. When I was eating wheat regularly, my body was in a state of numbness. It was so inflamed and angry that it didn’t notice a bite here and there. But when I cleaned up my diet and that inflammation started to go down, a single bite would make me incredibly sick! Massive stomach cramps and constipation. A similar thing started happening with dairy. No one before this had ever looked at diet as a possible cause of my problems, beyond just fluctuating blood sugars.
At this point the story moved to my dog. I was doing pretty well, sick as hell with pregnancy but stable and happy. However, my dog developed diarrhea around this time. That’s really fun to clean up when you have severe morning sickness!
Being a veterinarian, I knew what to do. I started him on antibiotics. And… nothing. No improvement at all. So I switched antibiotics. Still nothing. I switched diets. I added steroids in case it was inflammatory bowel disease. Nothing. Nothing worked. I was working with 7 other doctors at the time, and they didn’t have any ideas that worked either.
He had diarrhea for 2 years. Literally.
Finally, out of sheer desperation, I started him on a raw diet. This was extremely taboo in my world at that time. I was still very much in the Western box of medicine, although I was starting to realize that it didn’t always work. I had been feeding him Science Diet and Purina, as those are what I got free from vet school and cheap from my clinic. I had tried switching to grain free and it hadn’t worked, so I had ignored diet once more.
I don’t remember why I decided to try raw. But his diarrhea started improving within 2 days.
That wasn’t the end of his story. It took us another year to stabilize his gut and heal it enough that he didn’t relapse from any small trigger. It took almost another year beyond that when I could feed him anything but raw again. But the interesting thing was, as we got his body healed and the diarrhea resolved, I noticed other things. Suddenly the constant ear infections weren’t as constant. He wasn’t licking his wrists constantly like he had since he was about 2 years old. (I had even taken x-rays once to make sure he wasn’t already getting arthritis in his wrists!) His skin and coat were much healthier. He looked better all around.
This was the start of the change of my career.
I started to realize how much diet impacts our canine friends as well.
Veterinarians get very little training in nutrition. When I went through school, I got a 4 hour lecture on dog and cat diets that was sponsored by one of the big food companies (and therefore more than a little biased). That was literally the only conversation we had on nutrition in four years.
When I started researching, most of the studies we had on nutrition were paid for by those same food companies. I found an article that said that corn was a great protein source for dogs. (I can’t argue that, but are you really trying to convince me that’s a better protein source than meat?) That article was the start of a new journey.
I started experimenting. First with my own dog but then with client dogs (with the owner’s permission!). Most of these dogs had similar stories to Boomer. The owners had tried everything else so what was there to lose? We experimented with their diets. We saw improvement in everything from diarrhea to vomiting to seizures to ear infections to skin conditions.
I’d started down the alternative healing tunnel.
Around this time, I got pregnant with my daughter. Unfortunately, I had severe morning sickness again, and the only thing I could keep down and seemed to want to eat were cinnamon rolls. My stomach was already angry. Now my skin started to get angry too. I developed a huge patch of eczema in the crook of my left elbow- bad enough that I had to wear long sleeves to work so my clients didn’t think I had ringworm or something!
That was a time of survival. I knew what I needed to eat for both of our sakes, but I could barely eat anything. I kept working on my dog and myself as possible, but that was it. I got through it.
During this particular time period, right as I was getting one dog better, my other dog was having troubles. He had started acting painful when he was two years old, but around three it was getting really bad. We took xrays of him, and he literally had the worst hip dysplasia I’d ever seen. He was a rottweiler, so already he had a short life expectancy, and I really didn’t want to put him on pain medications for his whole life. (As a side note, I have had knee pain since I was 16 years old. Severe, crippling if I don’t take pain meds, usually only in the evenings. And no doctor has ever figured it out, despite all the tests they’ve run. They told me once to take 800 mg of ibuprofen three times a day- a huge dose! And I fully believe that is part of why my gut is messed up, since we know now how much those drugs mess with the lining of the intestinal system. So I didn’t want to do the same to my dog.)
Once again I started my research. And this time I got drawn towards acupuncture. I asked my boss if I could get certified, but he wasn’t thrilled with the idea. He was an older Western vet, not always open to new concepts (even if they’re thousands of years old).
It was time to start looking for a new job anyway. So we relocated.
My next job was the pivot of my story. It should have been the ideal job. Great boss, awesome location, no on-call hours. My husband was home more so we had a better family life.
Except I was miserable. Due to a multitude of reasons, I fell further and further into depression. The worst I’ve ever been. And probably severely aggravated by the presence of postpartum depression.
I started that job in November. I was regretting it by January. By March, I was getting these little bumps on my body, extremely itchy. I thought they were bed bug bites, but even with a microscope I couldn’t see any bed bugs. They started out mostly on my arms and head, and would resolve if I left them alone for a few hours.
By May they were getting worse. By June, I scheduled a consult with an allergy doctor. He took one look and said they were hives and I needed to be allergy tested.
I tested positive for EVERYTHING. Almost literally. I think white fish was the one thing that didn’t react, out of something like 50 spots. That right there should have been a red flag. No one should be allergic to that much stuff. My body was just so full of inflammation that it was reacting to everything.
Unfortunately, the level of inflammation that was already present in my body was also so high that the inflammation they cause in the allergy test (histamine release) pushed me over the edge. I ended up in urgent care that night with full body huge hives (we’re talking 2-3 inches in diameter, red and angry, raised, and literally everywhere, from my eyelids to the bottoms of my feet). They gave me a dose epinephrine and started me on steroids. I went back to the allergy doctor the next day, who changed the protocol around and gave me some more medications. I think I was prescribed 2 or 3 meds by that point.
A couple days later, I had to call my boss in to cover so my husband could take me back to the doctor as the hives were flaring so badly I was worried about my breathing. He prescribed more meds. I was up to 5 or 6, multiple times a day.
All those meds made me feel like absolute crap, I was a complete zombie, and you can bet they weren’t helping my stomach since they included steroids, antacids, etc. And here’s the worst part…
They didn’t help!
Nothing helped. Even on all those meds, I still had the hives.
For a year and a half.
I started going to doctor after doctor. I tried western meds, I tried homeopathics, I tried Chinese herbs and acupuncture. Nothing made the hives go away. Nothing.
Finally, I started using my own medical training to dig deeper. I finally decided it had to be autoimmune, there was no other explanation (and not all autoimmune diseases respond well to steroids). So I researched alternative ways to treat autoimmune disease. I started looking for everything I could find that could help. Energetic work, more acupuncture, more herbs. I started with stress management, I began meditating every single day. (I went on one weekend retreat with some girlfriends, and whether it was eating clean or the lack of stress, the hives disappeared more than they had in months. That was the first clue it could truly have a stress component to it).
I started looking for a new job situation. I’d wanted to buy a clinic before, and now this seemed like a good time. I’d be able to have more control over everything from my staff to my schedule to how I practiced my medicine. I’d be able to be a holistic veterinarian, which was very firmly in my thought process at this point. I’d actually already started the acupuncture course and was becoming more and more convinced that I needed to go down that path.
That next January, we moved back to Montana. I had bought a practice, because if I could practice the way I wanted and be in complete control, I’d be happier. Right?
Um, wrong. Well, I mean, I was happier for about 6 months. Then I realized I had to deal with staff issues, and I hate dealing with staff issues. I realized I couldn’t take a day off without shutting down the clinic (which meant I didn’t get paid and we didn’t bring in any money to cover staff expenses).
I discovered through this process that I don’t mind being the vet, and I truly like being the boss, but I hate when I have to be both at the same time. It feels like it pulls my brain in 20 different directions.
And I realized I absolutely disliked where we were living.
When we bought a practice, we were 30 minutes outside of my favorite city. I thought that would be close enough. Turns out it was a whole other world, and with kids, being in the middle of nowhere wasn’t my favorite time.
Once again, I was depressed. The hives had started going away a few months into buying the practice, they were now coming back again. I had to become very diligent with my eating and my stress management again.
And around this time, I happened to pick up a book in the personal development world. I had never been interested in that area before, but this time, something drew me to the book.
I read it, and my world changed again.
I got drawn into the world of personal development. Into concepts like the fact that you create your own life, what you focus your attention on expands (including your misery, if that’s what you’re focusing on).
Over the next 3 years, I healed. I learned. I devoured every book I could get my hands on, then I started on online courses and retreats.
And I realized that I was more passionate about helping people to learn and heal than I was about being a veterinarian. (Don’t get me wrong, I love being a vet, I love healing animals. But I realized my passion was more in the teaching!)
I learned that I love teaching owners what they can do to heal their own pets or, even better, keep them from getting sick! That led to my work over at Empowered Pet Parents.
I learned that I love helping veterinarians learn to love their lives again, just like I’ve learned to love mine again. And that by learning to love their lives, they can actually create the life they want! I moved to my dream town only about two years after starting down this road! Hence my work here on this website.
And I learned that I love helping beings of all species heal from chronic diseases, especially gut and autoimmune diseases. Hence why I’m now a certified Primal Health Coach. I was using those concepts in my veterinary practice anyway, now I can use them on the humans as well.
Really, it all ties together. We have to learn to heal ourselves (mentally and physically), and we have to learn to enjoy our lives. Wherever we are, right at this moment. Because only then can you actually start to create the life of your dreams.
But it is 100% possible. I’ve done it, and I want to help you do it too.