(The following is an article that appeared in the University of Pittsburgh Medical School Alumnus magazine.)
Some people would describe Murray “Buz” Susser ’66 as one of “those California way-out doctors,” implying a physician who doles out a healthy dose of philosophy or mysticism along with his ministrations. It’s true that Susser treats some of his patients with nutritional approaches, consults a chiropractor for his own bad back, and personally cares for his share of the stars.
While Susser’s practice is clearly a non run-of-the-mill, neither is it particularly “far-out.” Rather, the Pitt-trained physician combines a firm foundation of traditional family practice (in which he is board certified) with those aspects of nutritional medicine that seem to be valid. In his comfortable, slightly cluttered office, a book on nutrition sits alongside Goodman and Gilman’s and the 1991 edition of the PDR. Susser himself still sounds astonished as he recounts the winding path by which his practice has developed.
Following a five-and-a-half year stint as an Air Force fighter pilot during what he calls “the hottest part of the cold war,” Susser, inspired by this brother who was in osteopathy school, decided to investigate a medical career. After completing his undergraduate work in English at Pitt, he applied to and was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “I was strapped for money,” he says, “so I only applied to one medical school. Fortunately, I got accepted.” Susser describes his medical school career as “fairly uneventful” until his senior year when he directed the annual Scope and Scalpel Society production, The Sordid Life of Wally PMSten. “That probably cost me about five or ten places in the class standing,” he quips.
Following a rotating internship at St. Margaret Memorial Hospital, Susser entered practice with James A. Ferrante ’65, who was one year ahead of him in medical school. Several years into his practice, Susser became disillusioned with the way drugs were used in medicine. “I listened to the patients and I heard them say, ‘I go on Dexedrine and I lose 20 or 30 pounds, and then I stop it and I gain back 40 pounds. I go on it again and I lose ten, and I stop it and gain 20.’ Everybody had the same kind of story,” he says. About the same time, several of Susser’s friends cajoled him into reading the books of Adele Davis and Wilford Shute, dealing , respectively, with nutrition and the therapeutic use of vitamin E. Susser reluctantly read the material. Then he encountered a patient with severe phlegmasia alba dolens (painful, white, swollen legs) and painful pitting edema, who had 30 years of failed medical treatment. After repeating some conventional treatments with no success, Susser, because he could do nothing else, reluctantly decided to try 800 units a day of vitamin E. “I was scared to death giving her vitamin E,” says Susser. “But it was providential because I got one of the best results I’ve ever had with vitamins….This woman, after 30 years of leg problems, showed dramatic improvement after two weeks and was completely better in six weeks. I went and told my colleagues at St. Margaret and they laughed at me.”
Over the next 14 years, Susser became more involved in nutritional therapy, as well as the still-controversial use of chelation to treat vascular disease. He joined organizations like the American College of Advancement in Medicine, the International Academy of Preventive Medicine, and the American Holistic Medical Association. He telephoned and eventually became acquainted with Adele Davis. “She was like a top sergeant,” says Susser, “and didn’t practice what she preached. She smoked, drank coffee, and was overweight.” Susser admits that his experiments with nutritional therapies were a source of amusement at St. Margaret Memorial Hospital. Pointing to a plaque on his wall, dated 1974, the “Ewell Gibbons Award for pioneering work in the use of IV grapenuts” from the residents at St. Margaret, Susser says, “I was kind of the joke of the hospital in a way.”
Susser also ventured into the medically suspect arena of chiropractic. He had injured his back in the Air Force and still had pain from his injury. A chiropractor who lived in his neighborhood offered to treat Susser and, in desperation, he accepted. “I’d been to everyone for my back…, and no one had helped; and this chiropractor got my back enormously better in about two months…. In those days, associating with a chiropractor was almost grounds for disbarment and losing your license.” Susser continues to use and to recommend chiropractic for certain conditions.
During his Air Force days, Susser had done temporary duty in the Los Angeles area and, from that time, yearned to move to California. By 1981, with his first marriage deteriorating, he said, “Well, what the hell. I’d rather live in California and give it a try.” Establishing a practice in Los Angeles wasn’t easy, but after a couple of false starts, he was finally able to settle in Santa Monica. One activity that helped him to become known in the area was his hosting of a radio talk show, during which people could call in and ask medical questions.
Today, Susser maintains a lively practice and is currently interested in chronic fatigue syndrome (many cases of which he believes are due to undiagnosed infections such as intestinal parasites), on which he has just published a book. Asked about his unusual medical practice, Susser says, “I position myself in what I call the ‘passionate middle.’ I came out of medical school thinking knowledge gained in that environment was the only medical knowledge. Then I went through a phase where I thought nothing in medical school was any good, and the pendulum finally settled in midpoint, where I use both equally. I love orthodox medicine but I look for its weaknesses, which I consider an important part of loyalty…. People think of moderates as being wishy-washy, not being able to choose one or the other. I choose both passionately, and I look for the best of both worlds.”