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Laurel mechanical engineer adds Western herbalist to her resume

Donna Koczaja held up an index finger as she walked by a visitor to signal that she'd be back in a minute after checking on her order of passionflower at the dispensary down the hall.

After returning to the lobby of the Maryland University of Integrative Health, she described how she would use the dried herb at the North Laurel graduate school to make a tea to calm a client's nerves.

When the 10-gram packet arrived, she asked if $2 would cover the cost and was told that a dollar would be more than enough. The dispensary intern gently tugged one of the dollar bills from Koczaja's hand and plunked down three pennies in change.

Formulating teas, tinctures, powders and creams will become routine for Koczaja by summer's end. That's when her classes end and she begins her practice as a Western herbalist — on top of holding down her day job, that is.

The Laurel resident has worked as a mechanical engineer for 18 years at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which is located next door to the former Tai Sophia Institute. The accredited school, on Montpelier Road, became MUIH in March 2013.

Hers will be an unusual combination of careers, she admits, and one that requires energy and time management skills.

But she sees a commonality between the analytical approaches that each job demands and "likes putting together the pieces to figure out what's going in," she said.

MUIH describes its mission as the integration of healing traditions and contemporary science to promote whole person, relationship-centered health care. Aside from herbal medicine, the university also offers academic programs in acupuncture, Oriental medicine, nutrition, health philosophy and promotion and yoga therapy.

Koczaja will combine the passionflower with other herbs from the school's dispensary to create a formula, which is similar to a prescription, for a client in the Natural Care Center, which is the school's teaching clinic.

Scientists believe passionflower works by increasing levels of a chemical in the brain that lowers the activity of some brain cells, making a person feel more relaxed, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center website.

The UM site also states that the use of herbs "is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease."

But not everyone agrees with that assertion, and health insurance companies rarely cover any of the cost of the formulas an herbal practitioner recommends, Koczaja said. That's why the school's student interns are planning a fundraiser on June 20.

All money raised at the event will benefit a fund called Herbal Clinic for All, which provides low- or no-cost herbal consultations through the Natural Care Center to people who can't afford to pay out-of-pocket fees.

The HCFA fund was started seven years ago by Bevin Clare, an associate professor at MUIH and manager of the clinical herbalism program.

"We provide lifestyle care by listening to people to find out what's standing in the way of their goals," she said.

Clare explained that $170 covers three visits to the clinic for one individual. Funds available this year allowed each of the program's 12 student interns to help one client, but the school wants to help more people.

It would take between $15,000 and $20,000 to be able to offer unlimited free visits to all clients in need, she estimated.

"We are really good with people who have reached a clinical dead-end," Clare said. "It's important that people have access to this program."

'Where I'm supposed to be'

Yoga and meditation were Koczaja's sole objective when she first enrolled three years ago in classes held at MUIH.

"I was really trying to quiet my mind," she said.

But life for the civic-minded engineer, who helped establish the Laurel Community Garden last year, took a detour after she casually picked up a brochure on the school's herbal certificate program while waiting for class to begin.

Now, after earning that certificate as well as a master's degree in therapeutic herbalism, she is working on a post-master's certificate in clinical herbalism that she hopes to complete by August. After completing her internship, which is akin to a medical residency, she will officially launch her practice.

"It just all came together, and I feel like I'm right where I'm supposed to be," she said.

All herbalists use medicinal plants, such as chamomile and echinacea, "to help your body do what it's supposed to do, better," Koczaja said. "Herbs kick your body into gear and bring it back into balance."

The healing qualities of plants have long held an interest for her.

"The programs are a natural extension of my interest in gardening," said Koczaja, who is 42 and grew up in Pittsburgh.

She likes the combination of hard science and tradition that Western herbalism entails, and even grows 25 varieties of herbs at home with her husband of 10 years, Nicolas Tardif.

In 2008, the couple expanded their shared interest in plants by becoming Master Gardeners, which are trained volunteers who provide horticultural education.

As much as Koczaja loves her day job, working as an herbal practitioner will offer something that she said was lacking in her professional life: the opportunity to help people on a one-on-one basis.

Two-hour intake visits are the norm for a first appointment. This allows the clinician to get to know the client, and prepares the herbalist to better recommend formulas that can be life-changing, especially for people who've had little success with traditional medical treatment, she said.

One client that Koczaja has come to know through Herbal Clinic for All is Bianca McDonnell, who works as lead concierge at a spa down the street from the university.

"Bianca, who is knowledgeable about herbs, really blossomed during our visits," she said.

McDonnell said Koczaja has helped her with her ongoing struggles with stomach ulcers by recommending marshmallow root combined with milky oats, meadowsweet and holy basil. They have also worked together on herbal remedies for anxiety and wakefulness.

"I feel more confident and more comfortable, and I'm at a nice, stable point," said McDonnell, who is 23 and a Columbia resident. "We've made so much progress."

Koczaja is gratified by such success stories.

When another client told her on his first follow-up visit that "whatever you gave me, I want more of it," she said she was stunned that he'd found relief so quickly.

"I feel like I am making a difference, and people are starting to rely on me," she said. "It would be great to raise more money to help people continue their care."

Open to the public, the Herbal Clinic for All fundraiser will be held June 20 at MUIH, 7750 Montpelier Road, from 4 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. The event will feature an educational lecture titled "Only 5 Herbs," silent auction, herb and nature-related art, massage and yoga services, and demonstrations of products. For more information, go to

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