Mindfulness in medicine: A couple’s journey in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Meet Dr. Michelle Davila and Dr. Hugo Davila-Grijalva, partners not only in marriage but in a shared mission to bring presence to healthcare and educate others in healing.

photo of Michelle and Hugo standing in front of a tree

In the demanding world of healthcare, where burnout looms large and patient-centered care often gets overshadowed by endless tasks, a husband and wife team of physicians have embraced mindfulness to cast a new light on healing.

For Dr. Michelle Davila, an experienced naturopathic doctor and Dr. Hugo Davila-Grijalva, a dedicated internal medicine hospitalist, mindfulness provides a path to reconnect with their core values as caregivers.

From their varied individual journeys — Michelle’s teen years spent turning the well-thumbed pages of "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" to Hugo's happenstance introduction into Reiki and a transformative Vipassana retreat  — mindfulness meditation practice emerged as a calming companion in both of their lives. 

As serendipity would have it, their mutual interest in the mind-body connection led them to each other within the halls of the very same integrative medicine department, marking the start of their shared path.


A transformative experience of self-discovery

In 2020, amidst the global pandemic, Michelle and Hugo chose to formally engage with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an 8-week evidenced-based mindfulness program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to address chronic pain, anxiety, depression and general stress reduction.

At the time like many on the frontlines, Hugo was struggling with stress and burnout. He hoped MBSR could guide him through that.

Michelle also felt called to deepen her mindfulness practice due to the intensity of her work as a clinician.

Often, those devoted to caring professions prioritize the needs of others over their personal well-being. But mindfulness offers the opportunity to focus on their self-care.

“During MBSR, I became acutely aware of my own pain and suffering that I never acknowledged or gave myself the opportunity to experience,” Michelle reflects. “The practice offers support for that — it helps us learn how to sit with suffering.”

During MBSR, I became acutely aware of my own pain and suffering that I never acknowledged or gave myself the opportunity to experience. The practice offers support for that — it helps us learn how to sit with suffering.

photo of michelle davila

Motivated by the impact of mindfulness on their own lives, Michelle and Hugo felt inspired to share its benefits with others by teaching the practice. This led them to pursue training through Brown University’s Certificate in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Teaching.


Enriching patient care with mindful presence

Since enrolling in MBSR teacher training, the couple has woven mindfulness into every aspect of their lives.

Hugo believes it’s important to fully embody mindfulness himself before he can effectively teach it to others. "When we're in class, it's basically a practice session,” he says. “As teachers, we need to cultivate mindfulness daily. Teaching it comes from a place of deep personal practice.”

He also reflects on how mindfulness enhances his patient interactions and reminds him to stay present even among constant demands on his time and energy.

“Mindfulness really permeates everything that I do in healthcare,” Hugo explains. Taking a mindful approach when he’s in the hospital seeing patients helps him engage with the full experience of caretaking and being present in each encounter, rather than feeling scattered from one patient to the next. He says, “Mindfulness has truly helped me be in touch with what brings the most fulfillment and joy in practicing medicine.”

Mindfulness has truly helped me be in touch with what brings the most fulfillment and joy in practicing medicine. It has helped me connect with my patients and with the full experience of taking care of people.

photo of hugo davila grijalva

Michelle echoed the idea of mindfulness improving bedside manner and quality of care. "A lot of the way we benefit patients is just how we are with them — being attentive, self-regulating so we’re not caught up in our own experience, having comfort with discomfort and suffering, and really bearing witness to what the patient is going through," she says.


Bringing mindfulness to medical education

As Qualified Teachers, the pair has taught a few MBSR programs in English and Spanish, and a mindfulness in nature course. They look forward to teaching more programs and short courses, and bringing mindfulness education into healthcare settings, including their own. 

Hugo is also working with the American College of Physicians to offer mindfulness programs for its members, while Michelle has already instructed medical students at their affiliated university.

As they continue their journey towards certification at Brown, Michelle and Hugo remain committed to their own mindfulness practice and the wellbeing of those around them.

Hugo says, "There's an understanding in mindfulness that one practices for oneself, and as a consequence, everybody else benefits."

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