In 2011, Kristin Volkman started to feel bad. At first, she just felt kind of bad — an upset stomach here, some lung pain there. It was a little odd because she was in her early 20s and otherwise healthy, but it wasn’t alarming. Maybe it was indigestion? Or the start of a cold?
But the symptoms stuck around — and they got worse. Soon, her GI pain was severe and, more than once, her lung pain landed her in the ER. She saw doctor after doctor, hunting for a diagnosis, eventually seeing 15 MDs in all. None of them had answers or, more importantly, effective strategies for feeling better.
“At first, each new doctor offered hope that they knew what to do with me,” says Volkman, now 27. “But then it was always the same story: ‘We don’t really know what’s wrong. We can treat symptoms, but we don’t know what is causing them.’ ” She braced herself for a future of feeling crummy.
Then a friend recommended Dr. Gregory Plotnikoff. An internist and pediatrician by training, and a graduate of Harvard Divinity School by way of his interest in alleviating human suffering, Plotnikoff consults with people who have complex, chronic illnesses. He’s made it his life’s mission to bring hope to people who experience physical suffering.
He’s like the Dr. House of the Twin Cities, solving medical mysteries that confound other professionals — though where the fictional House traded in sarcasm and verbal abuse, Plotnikoff’s currency is deep kindness, vast knowledge, and an almost otherworldly ability to listen. Initial appointments with him are a minimum of two hours, and usually run closer to three or four. He spends the vast majority of that time simply listening.
Time for care
Plotnikoff didn’t always have the luxury of spending several hours with patients. After finishing his medical training at the University of Minnesota, he helped establish the U’s Center for Spirituality and Healing, where he served as its first medical director. From there, he went to Japan, where he taught Greek, Latin, bioethics and traditional herbal medicine to Japanese medical students.
When he returned to Minnesota, he began practicing as an integrative medicine physician at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, where his desire to dig deeply into patients’ histories ran counter to the 10 to 15 minute doctor’s visits mandated by the conventional medical system.
He eventually got permission to spend an hour with patients during their initial visit, but he was still compensated based on the old model. Combined with the time spent after-hours doing reviews of medical literature (to find clues for patients with complex problems) and the hours of charting, and he quickly realized that forcing a healthcare model that emphasized listening into a medical system that prioritized efficiency wasn’t sustainable.
So two years ago he founded Minnesota Personalized Medicine, where “we’re intentionally inefficient,” he says of the hours he devotes to each patient. The clinic’s mission is to help patients, like Volkman, with symptoms that have stumped other clinicians.
“We’re here to be of service to those who, despite great effort, have not had their health goals met,” says Plotnikoff. “In a town with a lot of great practitioners, that’s where I add value. There was no need to duplicate other practitioners’ efforts.” Patients from across the country have visited the clinic; his waiting list can range from three to six months.
The way he and his staff talk about health and healing also sets the clinic apart from other practices. He’s as rigid about the use of language as he is expansive about holding time and space for patients.
“We avoid all violent language,” he says. “And we don’t ‘take a history.’ We help ‘foster history.’ We ‘gather supplements,’ we don’t ‘prescribe supplements.’ ” The difference is a matter of co-communication versus a top-down, do-as-I-say approach. It’s a vernacular that encourages working together rather than passively accepting advice.
To the observer, these distinctions might seem like six of one, half a dozen of the other. But “so often people who have these chronic or poorly understood conditions, they feel dismissed,” says Dr. Henry Emmons, Twin Cities-based psychiatrist and author of “The Chemistry of Calm.” “They’re often told that their symptoms are ‘just in their heads.’ They feel as if their suffering is not really understood. But when they feel listened to and understood in a deeper way? That gives them a great sense of hope. Just being taken seriously is a huge thing.”
What sets the clinic apart culturally is notable, but so is the keen medical mind that Plotnikoff brings to each visit. Which is to say, it is not just the listening and the language that make the difference.
“He’s helping analyze genetic profiles, which is still pretty unusual for health professionals to have the skill to do that,” says Emmons. “And he combines that with a knowledge of functional medicine and with a good understanding of gut health — and just to be able to pull all those threads together and really honor a person’s story and inner life, that’s a unique combination.”
For some potential patients, however, cost may be a barrier. It is not inexpensive to visit the clinic, which, as a consultative care practice, does not take insurance.
And even if money is no object, it’s still worth considering whether a particular ailment is a right fit for the clinic. Plotnikoff and his team specialize in helping people with complex and mysterious illnesses, and they frequently consider lifestyle and environmental changes that can ease symptoms. If you’ve come down with the flu, or you’ve sprained your ankle, you’re going to be best served elsewhere.
Piecing together clues
Visits to Minnesota Personalized Medicine involve more than just talking and listening. The space has a lab for drawing blood and running other tests, though like everything else at the clinic, it’s unusual. The chair where patients sit to have blood drawn faces a large window with a view of Loring Park.
“When I first saw Dr. Plotnikoff, we did a lot of testing,” says Volkman. “And he was very thorough with my history.” He pieced together the clues of her symptoms and her history and finally gave Volkman what the 15 previous doctors could not: a diagnosis (mast cell activation disorder) and a plan for feeling better (including drugs, alternative medicine, and changes in diet and lifestyle).
And, for the first time in a long time, she does feel better. “Since treatment, I’ve had no lung pain and my GI symptoms are improving immensely,” says Volkman. “A lot of things that other people would just do used to be twice as hard for me, but now I’m less tired and can think clearer. I can engage better with people.”
“He’s given me hope for my health,” she says.
“Doing this work is why I’m on the planet,” says Plotnikoff, who also researches and writes extensively as a way to expand the body of knowledge available to all practitioners and help even more people with complex conditions.
What makes him so good at his job? Why did he become the local Sherlock Holmes of medical mysteries? He credits a lesson he learned as an undergraduate at Carleton College. “One day my favorite biology professor said to me, ‘Greg, you got here because you’re always able to give the right answer. But the real rewards in life come from asking the right questions.’”