Martha Rivera, MD, ABOIM, FAAP describes the AIHM Fellowship as a stepping stone along her integrative medicine journey
AIHM Fellow Martha Rivera, MD, ABOIM, FAAP is a triple-board certified integrative pediatrician based in Los Angeles. She sees her life as a journey to practicing integrative medicine along a path of “stepping stones.” Stepping stones, as Martha describes, are opportunities to reinvent or propel ourselves forward.
Mid-career, Martha transformed her life by leaning into her passion for integrative medicine. She left a conventional setting to start a clinic where she has been partnering with her patients. She embraces her role as a teacher, training others and sharing data and her story with her medical colleagues. She has become an advocate for preventive, integrative and holistic medicine.
A major stepping stone in Martha’s transformation was connecting with her mentor, Tieraona Low Dog, MD. She is now part of the inaugural AIHM Fellowship class, where she continues to grow and evolve.
Journey to Pediatrics and Integrative Health & Medicine
Martha always knew she was going to be a healer, a doctor. “It’s in my blood.” Growing up, she had two healers as her role models. The first was her aunt, who knew how to soothe and heal Martha with traditional medicines like yerba buena and warm lard on the belly. The second was a house call doctor who took care of Martha after she suffered a childhood concussion.
She became a pediatrician certified in Pediatric Infectious Diseases because she loves the honesty of children and the complexity of the specialty. In her work as a doctor, Martha thrives because she engages the whole family and their communities. She speaks from a place of profound respect for the stories and cultures of her patients. Her journey includes 23 years in a conventional practice. During that time, Martha continued to study integrative medicine, collecting a library of books. The idea of fully applying the integrative approach was first planted in 1998 at a conference at Stanford University. As a single mother with a young son and a demanding workplace, she didn’t think that she could “break away” until years later when she met Dr. Tieraona Low Dog.
“I just suddenly knew. It was one of those moments, and I listened.” After speaking with Dr. Low Dog, Martha pursued a fellowship in Integrative Medicine that changed her life. Emboldened and connected to a network of like-minded peers, she set up her practice, Optimal Healthcare Center, in Boyle Heights.
"I am a student again and I am growing every day."
In 2015, Dr. Low Dog joined AIHM to launch the Interprofessional Fellowship in Integrative Health & Medicine. Martha knew that she would continue her training. “Tieraona is the teacher, the healer, who I need to get the wisdom from. She teaches in a way that no one else does. So, I continue the journey. I am a student again and I am growing every day.”
Martha is taking what she is learning now in the AIHM Fellowship and sharing it with broader audiences. She trains Physician Assistant students from the University of Southern California and family practice residents from White Memorial Medical Center. This fall, Martha presented a keynote on integrative medicine at the Los Angeles Pediatrics Society. She was honored and surprised by the invitation to present to her conventionally-trained peers. “I have to show them that this is the way. Maybe they will open their eyes to something they are missing.” She is collaborating with academic institutions across California. “I tell them: I have the research and patients. You have the power. Let’s move forward together. We can create change.”
Martha’s Integrative Practice in Boyle Heights
Martha is absolutely committed to providing the best care and supporting positive clinical outcomes in Boyle Heights. She is linked into her community in a way that spans generations. Her father, a Bronze Medal-decorated WW II veteran, was raised in Boyle Heights. Her mother, an RN and parasitologist, also worked at White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights, where Martha returned after training at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The Optimal Healthcare Center is a healing space. Martha designed the office herself, pulling in help from friends who are also artisans. Sometimes people first walk into the office and think they are in the wrong place. “They’ll ask, is this a clinic?” There is light and air. There is balance and green. She uses aromatherapy in the halls and has a library for the children. The photography on the walls shows real patients and their stories of healing and joy. The staff offer wellness and cooking classes and work with the county to connect their clients to free yoga, nutrition, and diabetes management classes.
She believes in education and partners with her patients. Using her EMR system, Martha can trace the positive impact of her collaboration with patients. She sees many children, especially adolescents, overcome anxiety, ADD, and depression through food and exercise. “Sometimes when the kids return, they are unrecognizable for a moment. They have glowing skin and seem exuberant. It’s so empowering. The parents follow suit and get more involved. [laughing] I love getting questions from parents about buying quality turmeric from Costco.”
The Joy of Medicine, Self-Care and the Role of the AIHM Fellowship
Martha directly addresses physician burnout in some of her public lectures. She emphasizes the importance of self-care, “How can we heal others if we don’t take care of ourselves? Too many of us are leaving practice. We can’t lose the passion.” Through the AIHM Fellowship, Martha continues to fortify her knowledge and experiences a deep sense of healing.
For those ready to reconnect to their passion, Martha’s advice is to go to a major conference like the AIHM Annual Conference where “you network with like-minded clinicians and experience an awakening.” For a more immersive journey, she recommends the AIHM Fellowship. She loves the self-care components, is close with her classmates, and is astounded by how much she is learning. She describes the program as “ground-breaking.”