<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=799546403794687&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Erica Elliott memoir

Alumna Erica Elliott, MD, Chronicles Her Search for Life’s Purpose in New Memoir

The CU School of Medicine graduate published “From Mountains to Medicine: Scaling the Heights in Search of My Calling” in February.

minute read

Written by Greg Glasgow on April 19, 2024

Erica Elliott, MD, had already lived a rich life by the time she enrolled at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1979, at age 31, and she writes about it all in vivid, unflinching detail in her new memoir, “From Mountains to Medicine: Scaling the Heights in Search of My Calling,” which came out in February.

There was the existential depression she fell into as a sophomore at Antioch College in the late 1960s, and the life-changing revelations that came from the psychotherapy that followed. 

There was the summer she spent in Switzerland with an eccentric uncle — a gifted healer who treated disease through fasting, coffee enemas, and a raw-food diet.

And then there were the years Elliott spent serving in the Peace Corps in Ecuador in her 20s, where she lived among the locals in the small town of Guayllabamba and developed a love of snow- and ice-climbing in the towering Andes range.

Erica Eilliott
Erica Elliott, MD, author of "From Mountains to Medicine."

“I wanted to share with people. I wanted to inspire people,” with the book, says Elliott, who graduated from the CU School of Medicine in 1983 and is now a practicing physician in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Some of my patients have had challenging experiences, and it ruined their lives. I had a rough childhood, I picked the wrong college, I had a breakdown, I was forced to see a psychiatrist. I want to show people that, in my case, those bad things that happened to me turned out to be some of the best things that could have ever happened. 

“If I didn’t have a breakdown, and if I wasn’t forced to see this wonderful psychiatrist, I would never have felt like I’d found my true life purpose,” she continues. “I’d have all the external trappings of success, but I would be miserable.”

International journey

“From Mountains to Medicine” chronicles Elliott’s journey to finding her true life’s purpose. It begins on the snowy peak of a volcano in Ecuador, where Elliott, battling hypoxia and extreme exhaustion, asks herself:

Why have I put myself in this precarious situation? Why in the world do I want to climb these mountains so badly? What is the point of all this? Am I going to get out of here alive? And if I do get out alive, what is it I am really supposed to be doing with my life?

The book presses on to answer that question, continuing through Elliott’s experiences at Antioch — a hotbed of the counterculture in the late 1960s — where she met her husband, who she married at age 19. (They later divorced.) It covers her emotional breakdown and subsequent self-awakening, her childhood years spent as part of a military family that lived for short periods in Kansas, England, Germany, and Texas, her summer in Switzerland with her Uncle Ernst, her time spent as a schoolteacher on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, and her Peace Corps experience in Ecuador, which is where climbing mountains began to reveal to her a glimpse of her future.

“It was difficult to fully convey to my compatriots in the Peace Corps what had happened on the mountain,” Elliott writes of how she felt after completing her first climb of the Cotopaxi volcano near Quito. “I’d experienced a rarefied world high in the sky that few people knew about in those days.”

Landing in Colorado

As she chronicles in the book, Elliott’s love of mountain climbing and outdoor adventures eventually led her to Colorado to enroll in a master’s degree program in experiential education at CU Boulder. The program was founded by Joe Nold, founding director of the Colorado Outward Bound School. 

Elliott subsequently worked as an Outward Bound instructor during the summers, leading students in outdoor leadership education. Training as an EMT so she could deal with any emergencies that might arise on an Outward Bound trip opened her eyes to the world of medicine, a field she at one point felt unqualified to enter.

“A wave of excitement washed over me as I realized I could indeed become a doctor without having to be a genius, like my Uncle Ernst in Switzerland,” she writes in the book. “A slumbering force deep within me awakened with the clear recognition that I had finally stumbled upon the path that would lead me to my true calling in life.”

Getting accepted to the CU School of Medicine was another step on the path that led Elliott to her current role as a sought-after “health detective” in Santa Fe, where she draws from a wide range of disciplines, both mainstream and alternative, to diagnose and treat chronic illnesses.

“My real purpose in life is about service,” she says. “I have a specific gift for helping people get well.”

The best policy

As a medical student, Elliott spent a summer in an Athabascan Indian clinic on the Yukon River in Alaska, did rotations in cardiology and neurology in London, and did two months of general surgery in a mission hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India, followed by an additional two months observing public health in Nepal while on a mountaineering expedition. 

All are experiences she plans to write about in her next memoir, which she intends to write with as much honesty as she did “From Mountains to Medicine."

“It was very painful being that honest,” she says. “I thought, ‘My God, my son’s going to read this.’ But the reason I forced myself to do it is so all the people I am writing this for would know this is incredibly truthful. Being honest makes it more believable. There’s nothing airbrushed in there." 

Topics: Community, Alumni