Growing up in Fairbanks, AK, Dr. Jen Ribar was surrounded by natural wonders, breathtaking landscapes and an adventuring spirit from a young age. The granddaughter of a Fairbanks physician, Dr. Ribar recalls hearing stories of the impact that the often-extreme elements of her home state could have on the way healthcare was accessed and delivered. Listening intently to those stories, gripped in wide-eyed fascination, it wasn’t long before she, too, decided to one day become a physician.
As she learned more about the profession, she discovered a health sciences university that aimed to educate the very type of doctor she one day dreamed of becoming. In 2015, she graduated from PNWU as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. Ever since, she has been using her experiences to change lives — not only as a physician in Fairbanks, but as the president of the American Fascial Distortion Model Association (AFDMA), and one of the only six certified FDM instructors in America.
On Friday, February 28, Dr. Ribar returned to PNWU (for the first time since graduating in 2015) to once again make an impact as she led the FDM Academy’s “FDM Module One.”
In anticipation of her return, Dr. Ribar joined us via phone from Fairbanks to discuss FDM, her early inspirations, the unique challenges facing Alaskan physicians, the power of osteopathic medicine and more.
What inspired you to go into medicine and, more specifically, osteopathic medicine?
My grandfather was a physician in Fairbanks, back when Fairbanks was a much smaller town, so I grew up hearing his stories of delivering care to the people of Fairbanks. I always knew that I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t know what a DO was until I went to college in a very rural part of Colorado. Most of the physicians there were DOs, and I was like, "what’s that?"
Most of the pre-med students I was around were thinking about going to DO schools, so I shadowed a doc there and, after learning more about it, decided that the holistic approach of osteopathic medicine was right up my alley.
I began researching osteopathic schools, and learned about a new school that offered the potential chance to spend third- and fourth-year in my hometown. Discovering a DO school that enabled me to study in my hometown and be near my family was a big deal, and a huge draw for me to go to PNWU.
How did you discover your passion for FDM?
Interestingly enough, I met Dr. Capistrant (former PNWU Associate Dean of Fairbanks) when I was a pre-med student in Fairbanks, and I joke that he turned me to "the dark side." I grew up in my career knowing this stuff since day one because of him, which I soon learned was very unique. I think that’s one thing that led me down this path.
I was the first graduate from PNWU, and I believe the only person until this year, to go into explicitly OMM as a specialty. When I look back, everything I did — even without realizing it — was trying to help people's health from the inside out. I call it the ultimate DO specialty. Taking the whole osteopathic approach and going to the extreme.
You are the current president of the American FDM Association's Board. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Yes, I took over the role formerly held by Dr. Capistrant. The AFDMA is a national association focused on spreading knowledge and information on the Fascial Distortion Model technique, which was developed by a DO throughout the ‘90s and 2000s. After he passed away, some of his contemporaries formed this organization to help spread the knowledge to as many people as possible.
We teach students at most of the DO schools in the country, as well as physical therapists, chiropractors, MDs, PAs… all different medical professionals, really. Our goal is to introduce new audiences to this additional osteopathic technique which aims to treat pain more holistically.
Did you envision being an OMM specialist early on?
No, I actually wanted to be an OB/GYN initially, but I found myself doing so many things involving the OPP (Osteopathic Principles and Practice) department. Dr. Melicien Tettambel (PNWU Chair of OPP and Director of Osteopathic Research and Development, 2008-2013) was a huge influence on me at PNWU. I immediately was drawn to her quirkiness.
When I was a first-year medical student, Dr. Tettambel wouldn’t allow us to go to the FDM modules. She wanted us to get our foundation first before we learned about this other stuff, but I snuck in to the FDM Module. I knew Dr. Capistrant, and I said: "Hey, can I just sit in the back?"
After going rogue, I went back and, the next week in classes, started telling all my classmates. I was like: "Guys, this is so cool, I learned it over the weekend!" My classmates starting getting hooked on it, and we went from there. From that point forward I was drawn to a lot of the OMM practices and principals, and ultimately decided to pursue that as my specialty.
What does an average day of work look like for an OMM specialist?
The most common thing I treat is pain — neck pain, back pain, joint pain, knee pain, ankle pain, headaches. We see anything from day-old newborns to people in their 90s, and treat anything from gut issues to anxiety, feeding problems in kids, growing pains, increasing the functional status of athletes, and we see a lot of pregnant women. I did want to be an OB/GYN, so pregnant women tend to be one of my favorite populations to treat.
Me and two of my colleagues do consults at a local hospital here as well.
Can you talk about some of the challenges that come along with caring for people in places like Fairbanks?
Fairbanks, and Alaska in general, is very interesting, because many people here don’t seek out anything until it’s super late.
In general, most people don’t like going to the doctor, but I feel like it’s a next-level thing in Fairbanks. We get a lot of people that live out in what we call "the bush." They live hours out of town, or a plane ride away, so they come and see us just so they can make themselves functional enough to go back out and continue living the rugged Alaskan lifestyle they love. It’s a very unique population up here.
How have you seen the tenets of osteopathy play a role in the care you deliver?
We offer a holistic way to get people off of pain medication; care that can sometimes prevent them from having surgery, or help them in the recovery process after a surgery. I’ve had people be able to cancel appointments with those hard-to-reach specialists because they’re so much improved they don’t feel like they need to pursue more of a workup. We use osteopathic manipulation to treat people, but also focus on lifestyle changes to improve overall quality of life.
It’s multifaceted. It’s really interesting, and I love coming to work everyday.
When was the last time you were at PNWU, and how does it feel to be returning?
The last time I was on campus was for my graduation in 2015. I’m very curious to see how much things have changed, because I know it has changed a lot.
I’m excited, but it’s definitely going to be weird and bittersweet. I’m sad that I’ll miss some of the people who were there when I was there — people that shaped what I am today.
What has it been like teaching these classes across the country?
It’s fun to go into a clinic or school and have people giving you these skeptical eyes from the back, saying: "Whatever, I’ve been in practice for long enough to know that nothing can be that exciting or that impressive." To have those same people by the end of the weekend tell me that the class has reignited their passion for work, or that they’re now more motivated to stay in practice, is very rewarding.
It’s incredible to witness those perspectives change, and to see the excitement that accompanies the possibility of putting what they’ve learned to use.
What do you hope to achieve by leading FDM Module 1?
I’m hoping to see lots of students attend, as well as people from the surrounding communities. It’s nice to have students, because they absorb everything, but it’s also nice to have people who have a lot of experience in the real world and have a chance to change their practices more imminently.
I’m hoping I can influence people to get them excited to learn more. And, I learn something new every time I teach, so that makes it even more fun for me.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.