A mysterious illness changed her life

Renee Szudy helps others feel better

Renee Szudy helps Seward Co-op customers educate themselves about their health. Photo by Sarah Whiting
Renee Szudy helps Seward Co-op customers educate themselves about their health. Photo by Sarah Whiting

Renee Szudy believes in feeling good. As a dancer, educator and manager of the Health and Body Care department of the Seward Co-op, she’s experienced firsthand the miracles that arise when you feel good from the inside out. And in her gentle yet straightforward way, she educates the people around her, encouraging them to become advocates for their own health by learning about natural health products, organic food, good nutrition and the far-reaching effects of a healthful lifestyle.

Staying healthy

It hasn’t always been easy for Szudy to feel this good. As a child growing up in Madison, Wis., she was athletic and had a natural inclination toward nutritious food, requesting that her parents buy whole-wheat bread and natural peanut butter. She was extremely sensitive to illness and irritants, including pesticides. Recalling her severe allergic reaction to a neighbor’s chemically treated lawn, she said, “I remember wondering, ‘Why do people knowingly and willingly use something that would harm a child?'”

Although Szudy maintained her healthy lifestyle, she experienced a mysterious illness while in college that left her disillusioned with the limits of modern Western medicine. Szudy lost a dramatic amount of weight, despite a ravenous appetite. She also began to get chronic sinus infections and bladder infections. She was constantly exhausted. When she went to a doctor, he informed her that all of her tests were fine and diagnosed her with depression. As for the recurring yeast infections, he advised, “Go to the Women’s Clinic.”

Taking control of her body

Szudy recalled, “My life was falling apart. I couldn’t even function.” Dissatisfied with the answers she was getting, Szudy moved home to Madison and consulted an alternative healer, who diagnosed the problem as yeast overgrowth and prescribed supplements, a strict diet and herbs for a yeast overgrowth problem. Her health had so deteriorated that it took her a year to fully recover. The process convinced her that traditional approaches to healing were not only ineffective, but also often robbed the patient of advocating for her own health. Szudy decided to take her health into her own hands and use her long-standing interest in nutrition and natural healing to do her own research to aid in her healing.

Taking control over her health was comforting physically and emotionally. “It was a really pivotal experience in motivating me to help people,” Szudy said. After feeling isolated by her illness and dismissed by doctors, she became convinced that empowering people to explore alternative health solutions was a much-needed service. She considers herself lucky to be able to do just that in her day-to-day work.

Fostering education

Szudy has found that helping Seward Co-op customers educate themselves about their health is the most rewarding part of her job. She fields questions from customers about products and ingredients with delight and a real desire to help them find often obscure information. According to Szudy, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) information about health and beauty products and cosmetics is loose and often leaves the responsibility for safety in the hands of the company that makes them. “Most ingredients in cosmetics look scarier than they are. The big thing is preservatives. They’re usually the least natural,” she remarked. She urges customers to minimize their exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals and toxins by using fewer, higher quality products.

Szudy said she doesn’t claim to have all the answers. “I think the best thing to do is to try to educate people.” This type of empowerment is important to Szudy, who believes that good health and nutrition don’t merely benefit the individual person, but society and the planet as well. Her enthusiastic approach to a healthy lifestyle is thoroughly holistic. While she believes she works in the best department in the co-op (“We get to smell nice things,” she said with a smile), she’s also passionate about the co-op’s nutritious, organic food.

Organics for everybody

Affordability and access are of enormous importance to Szudy. Part of the challenge of her work is making a wide variety of products available to a wide variety of people. She doesn’t want natural cosmetics, body care products and food to simply become a privilege for the wealthy. To make this possible, she’d like to see more subsidies for organic farmers. “I’m idealistic,” she explained. “I want everybody to not only access healthy food for themselves but for the sustainability of our planet.”

As a cook and baker for several years, she learned firsthand the impact good nutrition has on the body and mind. She believes that cooking may be becoming a lost art, to the detriment of people’s health, social life and the planet. “People are dependent on eating out-mainly fast food-because that’s what’s affordable … [also] Americans are just working so much.” Simply cooking more often, she believes, can make a huge difference. Szudy herself is a great cook and baker, and often gets requests from friends to teach them to cook her favorite curries and stir-fry dishes.

Body and soul

Though she loves to cook, Szudy nourishes her soul as well as her body, though the two are invariably connected for her. When she’s not working at her job or on her Como-area duplex, she’s dancing in her living room. A self-described “monkey girl” who wriggled out of car seats and crawled out of her crib as a child, Szudy later turned her athletic interests toward dance when, during a 1995 visit to China, she saw an Arabic dance performance. She was particularly impressed by the way the dancers used scarves to accentuate their hips and the grace of their movements. She’s been taking classes ever since and performing occasionally, though her focus is mainly on the opportunities it provides for exercise and self-expression. She describes Arabic dance (often referred to as belly dancing) as “really beautiful, really feminine” and appreciates both the amount of technical skill it requires and its use as a way of bringing women together in Arabic cultures.

In addition to dance, Szudy stretches, does yoga and reads, currently about natural healing. She makes sure to spend time with her friends, and indulge in the occasional glass of organic wine. Recently she went camping on an island in the Mississippi River. True to her optimistic nature, she ignored the garbage that had washed ashore and focused on the animals she rarely sees in the city, including eagles, deer, pelicans and butterflies. “You forget about how beautiful the world is-it’s all paved over,” she said.

Unpaved paradise

If she has her way, someday Szudy will have her own unpaved piece of paradise. She dreams of living on a farm in rural Wisconsin. Returning to her home state appeals to Szudy for family reasons-she has six nieces and nephews who live in the area, and would love to someday have her own children and raise them in a sustainable environment-and because she’d love to be more connected to the land. Mainly, though, she wants to raise goats. She loves goat cheese, yogurt and milk. Since federal regulations dictate that all dairy products need to be pasteurized, Szudy is excited at the prospect of again thwarting traditional health wisdom by touting the benefits of unpasteurized goat’s milk for one’s skin, a good reason to own her own farm. And she knows firsthand that approaching her own and the planet’s health in an alternative way can lead to boundless, sustainable happiness. “I notice myself what a difference it makes depending on what I put in my body and how that impacts my behavior. … I feel like if people took better care of themselves, they would have a better quality of life and enjoy their lives more and just get along better.

“If you feel good, you’re gonna be happy.”

Erin Wisness works, writes, and walks her 20-lb. cat in south Minneapolis.