Health Ahead of Time
By Sophie Nelson
Photographs by Sean Alonzo Harris
Susan Fekety, RN, MSN, CNM, begins our conversation with an analogy: Sometimes health issues appear like a check-engine light on your dashboard.
Some people just want to snip the wire. Others are willing to get under the hood and see what’s going on. But unlike a car engine, the human body—rather, a person—is rarely in need of just a quick fix. Susan Fekety’s patients want to investigate what’s wrong. They’re people who want to feel better. Period. And Fekety is committed to helping them understand what that takes.
For one thing it takes time, a rare commodity in Susan Fekety’s line of work. At her practice, Healthy Living Health Care in Falmouth, she carves out the time to provide her patients with expert clinical care, but also a listening ear and livable solutions to feeling better. She recognizes the roles that stress, habit, hurt, and fear, play in our lives, and that relief from physical pain or illness does not necessarily equal health. She reminds patients that “how [they] eat matters as much as what [they] eat,” that “human connection is a vitamin,” and that “activity should feel good.” Throughout her career, Fekety has sought to expand and improve the health-care equation. Since moving to Maine nearly two decades ago, she’s joined like-minded practitioners from the Portland area and helped usher holistic care into the mainstream consciousness.
As the daughter of a doctor and nurse, dinner table talk in the Fekety household in Ann Arbor, Michigan, often revolved around health care. She grew to understand, more than most, the obstacles involved in both administering and receiving quality health care and felt inspired to improve the system. First, she went the policy route. She studied political science as an undergraduate, but found that many of her colleagues knew frustratingly little about what is actually involved in caring for a patient. Eventually she shifted her focus to clinical work, and followed her bachelor’s degree from Yale University with a master’s degree in nursing and nurse-midwifery from the same institution. As a result of her winding path and varied interests, Fekety is equally comfortable talking about market trends in health care and gritty medical issues. She has the emotional capacity to make a person feel cared for, a writer’s inclination to mine everyday experience for meaning, and a teacher’s talent for translating complicated medical jargon into plain, understandable English. Out of college, she brought her multitude of skills to Houston, Texas, before joining the Maine-based alternative health care center Women to Women in 1995. Later she found a group of philosophically compatible providers at True North before founding Healthy Living Health Care in January.
Fekety has been working hard for years, but starting her own business has meant an extraordinary number of late nights and early mornings. Though she tells me she’s tired, her evident vigor overwhelms my first impression of her. “This is definitely the hardest I’ve ever worked,” she explains without a hint of complaint. “But that’s okay. I’m sort of a person who really likes that by nature.” Yet not just any kind of work would keep Fekety up at all hours. And no practitioner of her caliber would condone a frantically paced work life that did not resonate with her health and happiness. “For a lot of people there’s a distinct separation between work and personal life, and for me that’s pretty integrated. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had a series of work situations that let me learn what I do best and do more of it,” she says.
Fekety also recognizes that periods of change offer opportunities for assessing what’s working and what’s not, and then making lifestyle adjustments accordingly. She meets with roadblocks to wellness as much as the rest of us, but her openness about her own health-care journey makes her relatable. Throughout her years in women’s health, she has ushered thousands through physical changes like pregnancy and menopause, and has found that physical recalibration is only ever part of the solution. Fekety offers a hypothetical example to illustrate the complexity: “There’s a 55-year-old woman who’s perimenopausal, gaining weight, depressed, tired, not interested in sex, and maybe her cholesterol is out of whack. That is a complex set of problems that is extremely common, and you can’t fix it with a pill. You have to look at what’s going on in someone’s life. You have to ask: What’s your relationship like? What’s your work life like? How are you feeding yourself? Are you getting out in the sunshine? That takes time.”
So we circle back to discussing the importance of time. We also arrive at the familiar but ever-relevant conclusion: health is a complicated, ever-shifting target. But Fekety is remarkably focused. Regardless of the patient and the problem, Fekety tries to take the scary out of health care. She encourages people to listen to their bodies and take action before the light appears on the dashboard. She iterates that action doesn’t mean a 180-degree lifestyle shift—in some cases, it’s something as simple as purchasing a pair of walking shoes or sitting down to eat dinner. “I think that people are getting it,” she tells me. “They need to empower themselves about their health.”
Fekety reminds me of something wonderfully obvious and somehow easy to forget: “It’s fun to feel good.” With that in mind, it’s a little easier to start putting in the work at getting better.