A Talk With
Dr. Steven N. MacDonald
An Interview by Dr. Michael Thomas
(this interview originally published in NUCCA News)
Dr. Steven MacDonald is one of the hardest working people in the NUCCA organization. He is currently the Chairman of the Education Committee. Dr. MacDonald went to Gonzaga University and graduated with a degree in biology. Graduating from Palmer (Davenport) in 1978, He worked for a few months with Dr. Harold Farris before opening a practice in Pacific Grove, California on the Monterey peninsula. He is still in private practice there. Dr. MacDonald became certified in the NUCCA work in 1993.
Dr. MacDonald told me that he feels very close to his daughter, Emily. She is nineteen years old and lives in Seattle, studying ballet. Emily has drawn some of the illustrations for the articles Dr. MacDonald has published. When he is out of the office and away from his professional work, he sails and writes poetry. He also remarked that it is important to him to maintain a balance, spending some time by himself, some with family and some with friends.
MDT: How did you find out about chiropractic?
SNM: I found out about chiropractic through my college counselor. I went to a Jesuit, Catholic school and we had a priest that was a counselor for all the pre-med students. I was in pre-med, and I was actually going to try to become a medical physician. But after a while, I became disenchanted. There was so much competition and back-stabbing going on with the students trying to get into medical school that I soon became very frustrated. That was not why I wanted to be a doctor. It seemed like the students who got the positions in medical school were the very ones I respected the least. So I dropped out and went into counseling.
But then I had a friend that went to chiropractic school at Palmer, and he came back really excited. He said I really ought to look into it. I still had about five years to complete a masterâ€™s in counseling, so I decided that I would try it for six months or a year at chiropractic school and see if I liked it. My counselor at the University really encouraged me. He went to a chiropractor in Spokane, Washington and believed it to be a good profession. He also thought Iâ€™d be good at it. I fell in love with chiropractic in Dr. Galen Priceâ€™s philosophy classes, and after three months I realized I was in the right place. It just fit like a glove.
MDT: When did you start at Palmer?
SNM: I started in 1974 and I graduated in 1978. I was supposed to graduate in 1977 but I dropped out to get married. A lot of my teachers tried to talk me out of it. They said Iâ€™d never come back. I went home and worked in a hospital for a while as a lab tech and I knew that all I really wanted was to come back to Palmer, and I did. I came back and finished with my wife.
MDT: What did you do after graduation?
SNM: First I went to California and interned with Dr. Harold Farris in Fresno. He was doing NUCCA and he gave me a chance to work in his office. I did his x-rays for him. He would see a hundred patients a day and have them scheduled till 6 at night, but he would sometimes leave at five oâ€™clock and turn the rest over to me. It scared the heck out of me. I would just kind of go in there and hope for the best. (laughter) Back then, the teaching didnâ€™t seem as good for NUCCA. When we came out of school we had to go and intern with someone to really learn to do the work properly. It allowed us to spend more time in x-ray, more time in the adjusting, gathering more experience.
MDT: How did you find out about NUCCA?
SNM: I found out about NUCCA because of Sherry Dickholtz, Dr. Dickholtz, Sr.â€™s daughter. She was in my classes with me and we became friends. I can remember being in Splanchnology class, asking her what her dad did. I knew he was in chiropractic and I asked her what kind of technique he practiced. She told me,
â€œWell he uses the NUCCA method which is adjusting the atlas only.â€
I looked at her and asked, â€œDoes he make any money?â€ (laughter)
She said, â€œWell yeah, he bought me a new stereo for Christmas! He must be doing okay!â€
So then she invited me to a lecture that Friday night that Dr. Dickholtz was coming to give at the school. I almost didnâ€™t go. I thought I would just go and stand at the back so I could leave early. I went to the x-ray department, and he was up in the front of the room, talking. You know how energetic he gets. He was talking about how important the brainstem was; how important the upper cervical region was, the atlas and axis; that it was the most important neurological area and all the nerves of the body had to pass through this area. He told how many of the brain control centers were there and that weâ€™d better have the skill of a brain surgeon if we were going to work with this area. If we were going to try to adjust this area, he said that weâ€™d better know the biomechanics of the cervical spine, backwards and forwards. That really caught my interest because at school, biomechanics was hardly even taught. We were being taught different techniques but nobody could really explain why things worked the way they did. And he really grabbed my attention and made me realize that I really wanted to learn more about this area.
So I went home and ordered all the Monographs and read them cover to cover. Then Sherry invited me to her fatherâ€™s office. I showed up one Saturday morning and he wasnâ€™t even expecting me. But he let me spend the day there and I became really sold on it. I knew that that was what I really wanted to do. It was the only thing in chiropractic that really caught my interest.
MDT: Were you able to practice NUCCA in clinic?
SNM: Yes, â€¦actually in some ways we probably werenâ€™t really supposed to. We were supposed to do Grostic, I think. NUCCA wasnâ€™t really an accepted technique. But the instructors in clinic didnâ€™t really knowâ€¦.
MDT: They couldnâ€™t tell the difference.
SNM: Right. Then I became a â€œGold Coatâ€ after so many adjustments and passing an exam. That made it possible for me to adjust unsupervised. I could then supervise other NUCCA student doctors as they adjusted their patients.
I can remember that Dr. John D. Grostic was there then too. He had just come out of a marriage, and had come over to Palmer to teach for a while. I remember him coming into the clinic. I took my first Grostic class from him at Palmer. I got introduced to Grostic that way, through him. But I think he was in a kind of transitional period in his life then. He wasnâ€™t sure what he wanted to do, and there wasnâ€™t a lot of energy in the class. I had to go back to the NUCCA seminars to get the real details. Sherry and I would go up to Dr. Grosticâ€™s office and ask him a lot of questions. She knew him better than I did.
MDT: Was there anybody else at Palmer that was an influence for you?
SNM: Not really. We were kind of on our own. We were kind of an island there, and no body else was that interested in NUCCA. It was just our own interest reallyâ€¦
MDT: So after Palmer you went to Fresno.
SNM: Yes, I went to work with Dr. Harold Farris. He is still practicing there. He had bought Dr. George Wentlandâ€™s practice. Dr. Wentland had opened up the San Juaquin valley and Fresno area to NUCCA, and been very successful. He had broken his back and had to sell his practice. So Harold Farris came in and bought it. Dr. Farris had a huge practice there in Fresno and he needed somebody to help take x-rays. After I graduated from Palmer, I went down and made an appointment with him. We talked. He made an offer to me and I took it. I was only there for about six months. I didnâ€™t really like Fresno. I decided that if I was going to move to California then I was going to live by the ocean. We moved over to Monterrey peninsula and decided to open up an office in Pacific Grove and start from scratch. I have always loved this area. Itâ€™s so beautiful, I always felt like I was on vacation. It gave me a chance to really build a practice here.
MDT: How did you build your practice?
SNM: It was hard in the beginning because in 1979, nobody knew anything about NUCCA here. Everybody pretty much accepted full spine practice as chiropractic here. In fact, some of the full spine doctors said I would never make it. They said that there was already too much competition. I think those statements made it even more of a challenge to me because it made me want to show them that I could make it. Basically, the practice built by word of mouth.
I would go out and talk to different organizations like the Rotary club, and the Lions. That wasnâ€™t very successful because I wasnâ€™t a very dynamic speaker. I would look out into the audiences and see people sleeping.!(laughter) I joined the Chamber of Commerce and got to know people. Pretty soon, people were getting the message. Slowly but surely, word was getting out about what I was doing, and people were telling others that there is a better way to do chiropractic in a more gentle and scientific way. It slowly built up.
MDT: When did you begin going to the NUCCA seminars?
SNM: I started going to the NUCCA seminars when I was a sophomore, around 6th or 7th quarter, with Sherry Dickholtz. Weâ€™d get in the car and all go together. None of us had any money. We just did the best we could, getting back there, going real cheap.
We often didnâ€™t even understand what Dr. Gregory was saying in the seminars. It was going right over our heads. But we knew that we wanted to learn it. One idea would come through once in a while and the light bulb would go off in our heads. We knew we were in the right place learning the right work. It was like listening to a Nobel Prize science scholar. We would just be in awe as he talked. We couldnâ€™t get enough of it.
I remember seeing Dr. McClelland, with his handlebar mustache. He looked like some old famous westerner, with his cowboy hat on. He talked about how heâ€™d had to carry a gun back home in Texas. He came to Monroe every time. He and Dr. Nakano, they showed up at every seminar and were always an inspiration to all of us. They just knew this was the best work, and even as old as they were, they would just keep coming and coming and inspired the rest of us, I think.
Back then, Dr. Gregory did pretty much the only instructing. He did almost everything. When you look at the seminars today, weâ€™ve become more sophisticated, and broken down the information down into parts. Dr. Gregory would be rambling through three days of talks, and was practically falling over bythe end. Heâ€™d be doing professional services at the beginning and then trying to give every talk. A few times he would be so exhausted that he would start to fall over and Dr. Pond or Dr. Berti would have to catch him. He gave it everythinghehad and hewould be so worn out.
MDT: Do you remember talking much with Dr. Gregory?
SNM: Oh yes. I actually tried to intern with him, but he never had the room. I remember asking him who I should intern with and he really didnâ€™t want me to intern with anybody. He wanted me to just go out on my own because he thought if I interned with somebody else that I would learn their bad habits. He just wanted me to constantly stay in direct touch with him, write him and call him and ask him questions, study the Monographs and come to the seminars. He wanted me to try to be pure in my approach to the work. He felt like there was too much going on in other offices and that we students would learn too many bad habits.
MDT: So it may be easier if you donâ€™t have to unlearn the errors youâ€™ve been taught. Samuel Clemens used to say that it wasnâ€™t what people didnâ€™t know that worried him, it was what they â€œknewâ€ that wasnâ€™t true.
SNM: Yeah, so I took that to heart. I went out and struggled on my own and built my own practice. It was well worth it.
I remember trying to understand torque. I remember several of the doctors kept asking questions about how torque worked and nobody seemed to know the answer. Everybody was just kind of going clockwise or counter-clockwise with the elbows and nobody really knewâ€¦ It just frustrated us all. It made me determined to figure it out on my own and understand. I think Dr. Berti was the only person who finally explained it at one of his workshops in Seattle. He explained how torque worked as far as the anterior and posterior columns go and that really helped me.
I remember that many doctors were really helpful back then. I remember Dr. Elliott, Sr. used to be really extremely helpful. He would come up to the rooms and spend hours working with us on the biomechanics and on adjusting at the seminar He was a real inspiration. Everybody seemed to really give one hundred percent to try to get us to really learn to become good doctors and good adjusters
MDT: There is a deep feeling of connection among NUCCA doctors.
SNM: Yeah, I think that feeling of connection is one of the things that attracted me to NUCCA. When I went to other technique seminars, it was a different story. I remember one in which the doctor spent the first two hours showing slides of his home, and his Mercedes, and his huge practice with its conference room where he would bring doctors and insurance adjustors, to intimidate them. There was just so much talk at all of these seminars about money. NUCCA was the only place I found that really talked about chiropractic, and about adjusting, and correcting the atlas subluxation complex. There was a real dedication to the work in evidence. Money was not primary, it was about learning this work. Everybody had a real spirit. The love of the work is where the success and wealth came from. And, everybody seemed to be making enough money because their commitment was to doing good work for their patients.
We are like a family in NUCCA , too. When we go back to the seminars its like a reunion. Even though we have our spats and fights we are family doing this work and trying to bring it to the world and trying to learn it and do the best we can.
MDT:I really felt that this last seminar in an intense way.
SNM: Yeah. I did too, especially in the planning session. The group of doctors who cared enough to stay, were committed to making NUCCA last into the future and become more successful and presentable to the world. We were all there to help each other. Nobody was there to undermine anyone.
MDT: Have you seen change in the way the work is taught?
SNM: I think the biggest thing is that it is taught better today. When I was a student we would listen to Dr. Gregory and he would try to show us as best he could, but learning the work was almost a process of osmosis back then. Some people had a natural gift for it but it was very difficult for most of us.
MDT: It was difficult to put words to the experience?
SNM: Yeah, It was a bit of a closed group back then. But today I notice weâ€™ve gotten more oriented to educating the students. I think Dr. Denton really started bringing some more educational process to the seminars, having more modules, more one-on-one work. And weâ€™ve really tried to break down the work into smaller pieces and try to explain it to people in the best possible way instead of just throwing it out there and hoping for the best.
MDT: NUCCA has gone through an extensive maturational process in terms of its teaching of the adjustment.
SNM: Dr. Gregory was always trying to tell us that the adjustment was simple. The triceps pull was extremely difficult to learn at first. And there was a lot of criticism about it. But now it has matured, and has a life of its own. Weâ€™re making it simpler, and easier, and doctors are learning it much more quickly. The learning curve is much better now. I think that anytime a new idea is presented to a group there are difficulties in teaching it at first. At this point, weâ€™ve had a chance to simplify it more, and understand it better, so I think the shift has probably already occurred.
When I write an article on the triceps pull, I try to simplify the process and make it more understandable, because for too long itâ€™s been too complicated, and too difficult. Weâ€™ve lost a lot of people to this work that have felt that it is too difficult. But to me, the key is to do your homework, learn the anatomy and think it through in your head. It probably isnâ€™t possible to learn this work if you just want to be spoon fed the answers. There is no alternative to self-motivation and perseverance. Even so, I always try to bring more clarity to the work, not more difficulty.
MDT: You are the chairman of the Educational Committee, so you are able to have great input into how the work is taught.
SNM: When we put the seminars together, we try to construct them in such a way that will enhance more one-on-one instruction. We want to give more instruction on adjusting, biomechanics, and x-ray too. We may be trying to do too much in three days. But itâ€™s hard for people to get away from their practices for longer than three days even though, in the old days, the seminars lasted five days. Weâ€™re trying to bring in more neurology, more one-on-one help. Weâ€™re trying to get more people to bring in their x-rays, so we can look them over. There is just so much to include. The good news is that we are getting more help from all the doctors and we have more doctors teaching today than ever before. Weâ€™re spreading it out a lot more. I think the baton has been passed down to a lot of doctors. Everyone wants to help now. We have Dr. John Dunn wanting to do all the headpiece placement instruction, Dr. Denton doing the biomechanics instruction, Dr. Schrock helps with adjusting, and Dr. Cockwill teaching neurology. Everybody wants to help. We have all these people who have gone through part two certification that want to help too. I have part two people calling me asking to help with the teaching.
MDT: Thatâ€™s great.
SNM: Yeah, everybody wants to be part of the progress of the work. So weâ€™re spreading it out a lot more now, not just leaving it up to a few top dogs. Weâ€™re spreading it out to more certified doctors and more part two certified doctors that have a real expertise in a given area.
People are learning more quickly. We donâ€™t have the same drop-out rate we had in the past. I notice it in the Palmer NUCCA classes. We used to have a big drop-out rate at Palmer but it was only because we didnâ€™t have the instruction arranged correctly. We were teaching the x-ray first and people were getting blown away, so we changed it around and now we teach biomechanics first â€“the â€œwhyâ€ weâ€™re doing what weâ€™re doing. Then people want to learn to analyze x-ray. We have an almost 95% completion rate in the Palmer NUCCA course now. Before, we only had about 50% of the class complete the course. We are now trying to bring that rationale to the seminars too. We still have to figure out some wrinkles, we havenâ€™t matured completely yet, but it is an ongoing evolutionary process. If we can make the instruction more step by step, weâ€™ll get more people to stick with it in the beginning classes.
MDT: What do you enjoy the most about practicing?
SNM: I enjoy my patients. Weâ€™re like a family. Some doctors just want to go into the room, adjust, and go out of the room. Iâ€™m not that way. I like the whole person. And when that person comes into my office, I see them as a human being that I enjoy meeting. I enjoy getting to know them. And I want to help them. They are bringing their problems to me. Iâ€™m going to analyze these problems according to the NUCCA method and give them the best adjustment I can.
There are so many wonderful things about practice. The adjustment, the biomechanics, understanding the problem of each person who comes in, all of this is a challenge that I enjoy. I am trying to get the best correction I can, and at the same time, acknowledging the personal part of them, getting to know them, talking with them, hearing about their family, and building a rapport with that person.
When I broke my leg a couple of years ago, so many people from my practice came to see me in the hospital. Others sent notes and packages. When I came back, they wanted to help me. They would move my table for me when I needed it moved. People were really there for me. It was really inspiring.
MDT: That is real validation of the impact you have with your patients. And, of the relationships you have established.
SNM: It showed we really are a family
MDT: When did you get certified?
SNM: I think it was 1993. It was a tough process. I got denied several times by Dr. Gregory and Dr. Berti. I just kept going because I felt like if I just kept knocking at the door that eventually somebody would answer it! (laughter) I would get the x-rays back with red lines all over them and I just kept trying. I really liked it because it kept encouraging me to be better. It kept challenging me to bring my work to a higher level. That was exciting. It was almost like being in a masters or a doctoral program again. It forced me to improve myself. I especially like the work questions that were given in part three of the certification process. You had to give examples of types 1,2, 3, and 4 and why you did what you did in each particular case, and what you would do differently next time. The questions asked me how I would improve the reduction, and it was exciting working in that context. It made me use my brain, and I was kind of sad when the process ended.
MDT: Where do you see NUCCA going in the future?
SNM: Well NUCCA has a life of its own. I think itâ€™ll go where ever it decides to go. We are just trying to steer the ship the best we can and keep the course that Dr. Gregory set. Itâ€™s important to reduce the subluxation, to educate ourselves as completely as possible about the biomechanics, to visualize the adjustment more clearly and completely, and to give better and better adjustments, to have good x-rays. Thatâ€™s the core, thatâ€™s the vision weâ€™re trying to protect, and trying to encourage. I think itâ€™ll go where it needs to go. Where ever that is, I am not so much concerned with how widely spread it becomes. I am more concerned with the quality of the work, and that we keep the quality of the work. We have good doctors out there doing good quality, conscientious adjusting. We canâ€™t take shortcuts.
MDT: Any advice for the new student?
SNM: Well, I think they shouldnâ€™t get too discouraged. I mean, in the beginning, I got very discouraged. There were nights when I just a couple years into practice that I would look at those post x-rays, and sometimes they would look worse. I would get so upset I would just slam the door closed at night when I would walk away from my office and I would question myself, â€œWhy am I doing this? Whatâ€™s going on here?â€ But because I loved the work so much, and because there wasnâ€™t any other kind of chiropractic I wanted to do, I knew I had to just stick it out. I had to keep on learning and hope that eventually, it would come together. I believed that the more I persevered, and the harder I worked, the more it would begin to come together. If this is work you really want to do, and you stick with it, the rewards are tremendous.
Down the road, your patients and your practice will prosper according to your abilities in the NUCCA work. And, your patients will thank you forever. I have people that come in every day that thank me for helping them through doing this work. I have people who were able to have children today because of the adjustment, and they couldnâ€™t have children before being adjusted. Some people were suicidal because they couldnâ€™t find any relief. Now they are happily married and have children. I know Iâ€™m doing the right thing. I just try to do the best I can. I know the healing doesnâ€™t come from me, but I am trying to do good work.
I am just happy to be one of the five percent of the worldâ€™s population that does something they love. I love going to my office. My patients even tell me that they can really tell I love my work. I am really blessed to have a work in my life that is challenging and enjoyable and rewarding.
MDT: Thank you Doctor.