"Outside-the-Box Medicine"

From: Coronodo Magazine

Sometimes in order to make a difference you have to take a leap of faith. Dr. Becky Kuhn's life and career might best be described as a series of such soul-stretching strides. Kuhn's most recent move has taken her into uncharted territory, both personally and medically, and as a result the Coronado High School graduate (1979) is reaching, educating and healing thousands of people in the battle against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Since she was 12 years old, Kuhn always wanted to be a doctor. “My dad bought me a chemistry set for my birthday and on Saturday mornings when the other kids were outside playing, I was building rockets.” But Kuhn never felt she was smart enough to pursue her dream. Instead, after graduating from University of California, Santa Barbara in 1983 with a degree in physiological psychology, Kuhn pursued a career in mental health as a behavior management specialist. From there Kuhn became a health educator for the American Red Cross and ended up doing some missionary work in Guatemala.

Her dream of becoming a doctor refused to die. In 1992, at the age of 32, Kuhn took the first scary step and decided to apply to medical school. Four years later she graduated from Creighton University Medical School in Omaha, Neb. with a doctorate in internal medicine.

After completing her residency at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, Kuhn was hired as an HIV/AIDS physician at the hospital's affiliated clinic. Over the next six years Kuhn treated more than 300 patients. “At first I was completely overwhelmed and then I began to feel despair. I felt that I wasn't making the difference I had committed to make in medical school,” she recalled.

Kuhn was particularly challenged by one of her patients, a heroin addict named Charlie Johnson. Through that relationship she began to realize that the boundaries of conventional medicine were limiting her ability to really make the difference she passionately wanted to make. Kuhn's patient roster at the time was predominantly from the homosexual and substance abuse communities, which in itself became a catalyst for her next leap. “I love working with all communities. And even though the face of HIV/AIDS has changed to women, especially women of color, we are still facing the stereotypes that HIV/AIDS is a gay disease. It really isn't. I realized I wanted to educate and inform people in order to break down barriers and bridge diverse communities, as well as treat patients,” she said.

While her desire was to help and heal those in her care, Kuhn instead experienced a revolving door of diagnosis and treatment. “I was showing up every day to make a difference and yet, when I was with my patient, at times it seemed I was the only one participating in the process,” she said.

Kuhn began to see that the flaw in the conventional approach was in doing to, rather than identifying with, her patients. “I realized I had a lot more in common with them that I just didn't see. At the core it is the desire for connection and the longing for self worth,” she explained. Last year, Kuhn had a moment of epiphany when she realized that her frustration had reached a breaking point. “I felt closed in, boxed in. I was at a seminar and I thought to myself, ‘How sad to have a goal and not attain it,' ” she said.

A devout Christian, Kuhn felt that God impressed on her heart that if she was willing to surrender her idea of what she thought doctoring should look like, he would take her to a higher place. “It was a scary thought but I decided to make the jump. I love to leap,” said Kuhn. “One of my favorite sayings by Mother Teresa is, ‘I know that God won't give me more than I can handle, I just wish he didn't trust me so much.' ”

That leap into the future resulted in Kuhn leaving a six-figure salary and thriving practice as a respected doctor in Long Beach, to moving back in with her parents, living off an income that is a quarter of her former pay and launching a non-profit organization that has taken Kuhn into the heart of the African HIV/AIDS crisis as well as the pulpits of some of the biggest churches in the country.

Together with Daniel Tocchini, director of Discovery Training Seminars, Kuhn co-founded Global Lifeworks which, according to the organization's Web site, is dedicated “to pioneering new and unique methods for HIV/AIDS awareness, education, and care for the purpose of improving the quality of life of those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.”

“We were talking about really making a difference in the HIV/AIDS community amongst those groups such as drug addicts and gays that were being neglected by the formal church,” said Tocchini who is also an ordained minister. “I brought the training curriculum to the project and Becky contributed her medical knowledge and our other partner Charlie Johnson brought in the missionary touch.”

Since the project's launch, Kuhn has traveled to Rwanda, Zambia and South Africa in order to educate and help treat those affected by AIDS. Kuhn's team has delivered medicines, partnered with local non-profit organizations in Kayamandi, South Africa to provide food and nutritional supplementation, established a support network among local churches, as well as medical and governmental constituencies for the purpose of addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa. They participated in the launch of a clinic that serves over 500 patients diagnosed with HIV and co-sponsored four Home Health Care workers.

Lifeworks has also brought in Tocchini's Discovery Seminar series which have provided the communication tools needed to bring together ethnically diverse individuals. As a result, possibilities were opened up for collaboration in finding solutions for those individuals infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

The organization has conducted educational programs regarding HIV/AIDS transmission, treatment and prevention in churches, educational institutions, and secular venues, using unique methods to introduce controversial topics and create open discussions.

“The results are that we are building a unified community despite our cultural and theological differences. It's gotten more people into care. It has created a community in South Africa of HIV-positive women who meet on a weekly basis. We have fed hundreds of families. The training has radically challenged the existing prejudices inherent in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. We are also dismantling cultural myths, such as having sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS,” she explained.

Kuhn has also become acquainted with the founder of Saddleback Church and author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” Pastor Rick Warren and is friends with his wife Kay who is leading a global initiative for the churches to step up in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. She has spoken in Warren's church as well as such nationally known mega-churches as Willow Creek in South Barrington, Ill, and Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, Mich. But the prominence and associations that have come her way since Kuhn began Global Lifeworks are almost incidental. She sees them as just a part of the vehicle that can help her achieve her vision of healing and helping the helpless. She remains focused on alleviating the suffering of others.

“When I first met Becky five years ago she stood up and introduced herself as a doctor. The thought that came into my mind was, ‘Yeah, you'll get over it,' ” said Tocchini. “Since then she has developed this incredible bedside manner. Her ability to be human with her patients is really inspiring. She will reach out to patients that others won't even touch. She stays in the conversation. She doesn't give up on them. She always holds out hope for them.”