“We believe the body can heal itself if you give the body what it needs and take away what it doesn’t need,” she said.
After spending years clawing her way into the film and television industry in Hollywood and ultimately finding success, Sparks made the difficult decision to go to medical school. She could have easily become a traditional medical physician but her mother’s story inspired her to become a naturopathic doctor — a challenging yet rewarding career.
Sparks was 8 years old when her mom started falling down and ended up being confined to a wheelchair.
“No one knew what was wrong with her. She went through so much testing — even electroshock — but none of it helped. Doctors said there was no help for her and that it was in her head,” she said.
Three years later a family friend advised the family to take their mother to a manipulative osteopath doctor in Maine. They drove four hours for this doctor to perform spinal manipulations on her mom. They weren’t very hopeful after so many years without a diagnosis.
“Mom and dad were crying when they came out of his office,” Sparks recalled. “He discovered she had scoliosis — it was hitting her sciatic nerve and making her legs jump, which was causing the falls.”
It seemed like such an easy answer, but it was one that no other medical doctor was able to determine.
“It made me realize something was missing with this system,” Sparks said. “My mom went to a manipulative osteopath, a naturopath and did yoga and she eventually walked again. My mom wouldn’t have danced at my brother’s wedding without that alternative doctor.”
Long before she became a naturopathic doctor with her own blossoming practice in Waynesville, Sparks thought she was destined to work in show business.
“I wanted to be an actress — I was really into musical theater and dance — so I attended an arts and college prep high school,” she said.
After high school, Sparks decided she didn’t want to “sell herself” in Hollywood to be an actress so she decided that working behind the scenes would be a better fit. She attended the University of Miami where she earned a degree in theater design and production.
“I went for palm trees and sun and ended up spending 90 percent of my time in a dark theater,” Sparks joked. “But Miami didn’t have a large theater community and there weren’t many internships available so I minored in film to get an internship.”
In addition to interning as a set dresser for a B movie for a month, Sparks said she did plenty of other free work during her senior year in college.
The only way she knew how to land jobs after graduation was to just show up to commercial sets, start helping and hope they’d pay her when it was all said and done.
“I didn’t have any connections — I just kept showing up and helping people until they paid me,” she said.
That strategy did work out for her though — it wasn’t long before she was hired to work on a movie set as a prop assistant in the Caribbean for six weeks. While the movie — “Life’s A Beach” — wasn’t a box office smash, it did star Christopher Walken, Morgan Fairchild and Robert Wagner and helped Sparks make new connections that would ultimately lead her to Los Angeles.
Without much of a plan, Sparks moved to L.A. and lived with the art director of “Life’s A Beach” while she looked for work.
“I moved out with two suitcases and I lived in a closet under the stairs like Harry Potter,” she said.
Looking for work proved to be more challenging that she thought — and in 2000 she was still carrying around a pager and the internet wasn’t what it is today.
“I had a big book of names of people who worked in the industry — I literally just started calling and got to the middle of the B’s when I finally got an interview and a job on the first action series ‘The Tick’ — that lasted for six weeks,” she said.
It was while attending a Tom Jones show that Sparks’ career really turned around. The men she was chatting with at the table next to hers during the show turned out to work for ABC and knew film director JJ Abrams. She gushed about how she’d love to work with Abrams, never thinking it would lead to an interview and then a job working with him on the hit show “Alias.” She was a production assistant for a year and then was the assistant to the executive producer/director.
“It changed my life. I worked right next to JJ — he and Ken (Olin) are just crazy geniuses. They are inspiring and giving and talented,” she said. “He was the kind of guy you wanted to work 15 hours a day for because he was working 18 hours. He would be playing guitar, sculpting and editing the next episode all at the same time.”
While working on “Alias,” she also went back to school to become a massage therapist — it seemed like a good back up plan if work dried up again or for when she was ready to get out of the film business. She was working on ABC’s hit show “Brothers & Sisters” in 2007 when the writers’ strike happened and she had a chance to try her hand at massage therapy.
“It was hard to get clients and it was taxing because people just wanted you to make them feel good,” Sparks said. “And I realized I don’t want to just help people feel good — if I’m really going to help people, I need an education.”
Back to school
Sparks swore she’d never go back to school — she squeaked by in high school and college — but the need to help people in a real way kept nagging at her. She now knows her hesitancy to go back to school was because she never believed in herself — never thought she was smart enough to succeed academically.
Maybe she had more to prove when she went back to massage school. Still working full-time on “Alias,” her employers sponsored her tuition and she aced the program.
However, taking pre-med courses was going to be her greatest challenge yet. While working on “Brothers & Sisters” during the day, she attended classes at night. She aced physics and her first-ever chemistry classes.
“That was the first time I thought I may be smart after all,” she said.
“Brothers & Sisters” was unexpectedly canceled, which allowed Sparks to go to school full time to finish her pre-med classes. Then she had to decide what path she would take next — stay in Hollywood or pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
“My soul felt so squashed in L.A. with the whole keeping up with Jones mentality — even though I worked with great people,” Sparks said. “The idea of becoming an MD was so worthy, but the system is so broken and I didn’t think I could handle it.”
Then she thought back to her mother’s medical issues when she was younger and how an alternative doctor saved her quality of life.
Sparks was admitted to Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Phoenix and completed four years of graduate school with clinical training. With a 4.0 grade average after her first year, she set her sights on becoming a naturopathic resident, but residencies are few and far between in that field. She also realized that being a resident would once again box her into the mainstream thinking that failed her mother and so many others.
“There’s a split in our profession — one side wants to be treated like an MD so they’re changing the way they practice, but the problem is, our philosophy of health is a lot different than the standard way of looking at health right now so being a resident just wouldn’t work for me,” Sparks said.
Naturopathic medicine involves taking a long-range holistic approach to health and that involves a much deeper look at a patient’s life than the standard 30-minute physical exam once a year. It involves getting to the root of a person’s medical issue and using natural remedies that will help a patient heal themselves. It also involves working with a patient to change their unhealthy behaviors.
Being from Massachusetts, Sparks was always drawn to more warm and sunny locations — Miami, Los Angeles, Phoenix — but a visit to see a friend in Waynesville would soon bring her back to a place with four seasons and a much slower pace. At first she thought opening her own naturopathic practice in Asheville would be the best plan, but she kept being drawn back to Waynesville.
“I met doctors in Asheville but I quickly realized I wanted to be in Waynesville — a smaller community where people know each other and look out for each other,” she said. “There’s a lot of history and beautiful hills — I wanted a higher tree-to-person ratio.”
Sparks moved to Waynesville in 2015 and started Blue Ridge Natural Health inside of Waynesville Wellness, but being a naturopathic doctor in North Carolina has its disadvantages. There is currently no certification process for naturopathic doctors in North Carolina, which means they are limited in how they can operate a practice and what services they can perform.
“If I still lived in Phoenix, I would be considered a primary care physician and could have a full scope practice — chiropractic, minor surgery, gynecological issues, IV therapy, phlebotomy, men’s health and physical exams,” Sparks said. “But in this state I have to work as more of a health coach helping people with lifestyle choices and natural remedies.”
Besides not being able to practice all the skills she acquired during four years of medical school, the state laws also keep her from being able to accept insurance payments from her patients. However, patients with a Health Savings Account plan can choose to use HSA savings toward naturopathic visits and treatments. Sparks also offers special annual memberships that allow patients to pay a reasonable monthly fee.
“I can hands down tell you the people who join the membership program see better results,” she said. “They’re paying a monthly fee so they’re more likely to come to their follow-up visits and do the therapies at home.”
Another challenge is trying to educate patients on the difference between a naturopathic doctor and a traditional naturopath.
“I’m having to compete with people who call themselves naturopath doctors but weren’t trained the same way I was,” Sparks said. “Traditional naturopaths can do online correspondence classes to earn a degree but they don’t have the same clinical supervised training — that’s the biggest thing — and they’re not as trained in the basic sciences, clinical diagnosis and pathology.”
There has been legislation before the General Assembly to change the laws, but for now Sparks is focused on operating within the current system by working in consultation with her patients and their primary physicians. She can offer patients lifestyle and nutrition counseling, which she says is the foundation for everything. Sparks can also offer homeopathic remedies, botanical medicine, hydrotherapy and cleansing programs. Sparks also makes organic teas that can be used for many common ailments. She’s helped her patients with thyroid issues, digestion problems, hot flashes, respiratory and allergy issues, hypertension and anxiety.
Sparks has gone back to school once again to earn a master’s degree in acupuncture, another service she’ll be able to add to her practice when her degree is complete in 2019. Right now she is performing acupuncture clinics in Asheville as part of her training.
For more information about Dr. Sparks and Blue Ridge Natural Health, visit www.blueridgenaturalhealth.com or call 828.539.0440. Sparks can also be found each Saturday morning at Waynesville’s Historic Farmers Market from 8 a.m. to noon in the HART Theatre parking lot offering salves and teas.