Medicine and the New Age

Publication: Los Angeles Times

Author / Writer: Hilary E. MacGregor, Staff Writer


“I was stressed.”

Through classes like music, cooking and yoga, the tony La Jolla clinic teaches its heart patients to reflect on, and revise, their everyday lives.

By the time Bill Coleman arrived at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in mid-2005, he’d been through the wars. His first heart attack struck in 1998, and doctors put three stents in his heart. Two years later, they put in two more.

Then in 2005, a stress test showed he had a blockage in one of the main blood vessels to the heart—the left anterior descending artery, also known as the “widow maker.” He awoke after an emergency surgery with a total of seven stents in his heart.

Getting the stents was effective and easy—too easy in some ways.

“It is such a quick fix. It gives you a false sense of security,” said Coleman, 61, who runs an electrical contracting company in Loma Linda. “I didn’t take care of myself. I didn’t make any lifestyle changes.”

His cardiologist at Scripps Clinic—the mainstream medical facility that the integrative medicine facility is attached to—told him he was heading in the wrong direction and asked him to consider the integrative center’s Healing Hearts program, designed to stop the progression of heart disease.

More Americans die of heart disease each year than any other illness. Western medical care excels at acute care and trauma: Stenting and bypass surgery are routine procedures. But once the crisis is over, alternative medicine can offer a prescription for prevention and lifestyle change. Many alternative practitioners deal with the more nebulous—but still, for heart disease, vitally important—areas of emotion, spirituality and stress reduction, and are generally more eager to focus on low-tech interventions such as anti-inflammatory, low-glycemic index diets.

The Scripps program started after cardiologist Dr. Mimi Guarneri was approached by Dr. Dean Ornish, the celebrity doctor known for showing that coronary disease could be reversed without surgery using a low-fat diet, exercise, yoga, meditation and support groups. Scripps became part of Ornish’s Multicenter Lifestyle Heart Trial, and Guarneri’s clinic grew out of that experience. Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine opened in 1999.

Perched on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, the high-end clinic feels more like a spa, and makes no secret of the fact that it caters to the rich and well-to-do. Glossy brochures explain that the center is “a physical expression of the mind/body/spirit connection,” and that the “sacred geometry” of the golden mean informs the architecture, just as it does the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

The spiral of the chambered nautilus shell—an “archetype embedded deep in our collective unconscious”—adorns the plush carpet and the ceilings. Soft overhead lighting rotates through the “rainbow spectrum” of the seven chakras—energy centers—of the body.

The center, which specializes in cardiology and pain management, has built itself into what Guarneri calls a “high-tech, high-touch clinic” with more than 100 people on staff, including doctors, dietitians, yoga instructors, group support leaders, biofeedback specialists, acupuncturists and a hypnotherapist.

From Western medicine, the clinic takes costly, high-end diagnostics such as an echocardiogram machine and a SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) camera to look at blood flow of the heart muscles. It is one of just 23 places in the country that uses a GE Discovery PET/CT scanner, considered the most definitive imaging device for tracking blood flow to heart muscles. And it uses all the tools of conventional coronary care, such as beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, angiograms and stress tests.

The high-end tests and conventional Western medicine help subsidize low-tech alternative treatments such as acupuncture, massage, biofeedback and hypnosis.

The Healing Hearts program is a 12-week course designed to help patients re-pattern their lives. Patients usually pay $1,800 out-of-pocket for 10 hours a week of classes—vegetarian cooking, music therapy, yoga, meditation, exercise, stress management—as well as intimate support group meetings, consultations with a raft of specialists and tests for cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood cholesterol.

More than 1,000 people have gone through the program, Guarneri says, and those who have done it for six months lose an average of 10 to 15 pounds and have an average cholesterol level of 140 (down from 225) upon completion, as well as marked improvements in quality of life, vitality and physical function.

It’s a Monday morning, and Coleman arrives at 10 a.m. Nurses hook him up to a computer and track his heart rate while he rides the stationary bicycle for 45 minutes.

After 15 minutes of stretches with seven fellow patients, the sweaty group—four men and four women—troops to a small room for music therapy. All have hearts that may be in trouble: Some have already had heart attacks, others have high-stress lives, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or a family history of heart disease.

They sit in a circle in the music room, around a pile of marimbas, slit bells and drums. “Did anyone draw a mandala this week?” asks the teacher, Barbara Reuer, a board certified music therapist. Drawing these “sacred wheels,” she explains, is a way for patients to nonverbally express their emotions—including unhealthful negative and healthful positive ones.

“Name one way you used music this week,” she continues, and the group, heavy on CEOs and Type A personalities, start sharing: One says he’s subscribed to Sirius radio and now listens to music while he works. Another says he listens to music while working out at the gym.

A woman says she hummed a tune when her husband started snoring—and he stopped.

Then they raise their voices and sing “Healing Journey,” a song they’ve written together, to the tune of “Sentimental Journey”:

“Gonna take a healing journey.
Gonna get my heart healthy
Now’s the time to feel so good,
Gonna give up steak and fries . . . . ”

Small clinical trials have shown that music can help reduce stress and anxiety, make people feel more spiritual or just feel better. One small study even found that drumming can boost the immune system.

“Who remembers the benefits of music?” Reuer asks.

“We are concentrating on music, not on our troubles,” says one woman.

“It brings out the child in me. Like when you discover things when you were really young,” chimes in another patient.

“One half-hour of music-making boosts your immune system,” Reuer reminds the class. “This is about taking responsibility for your health.”

Assistants then roll in a mobile grill for this week’s vegetarian cooking class, “Bountiful Beans.”

Six weeks into the program, Coleman says he’s benefiting most from the group sessions, yoga and meditation—they’ve given him insights about the cause of his disease, and taught him techniques to quiet his mind. He’s also done some biofeedback, hypnosis and anger management classes.

He says he’s thought a lot about how he ended up at Scripps with such a damaged heart, and has concluded he was there because of his weight—and, above all, stress. He had a “dad who was an angry guy.” And over the years Coleman’s business changed, so that he was spending less time doing the electrical work he loved and more time managing lawsuits.

“This has brought me heart disease, as far as I am concerned,” he said of his business. “But I am not here to get rid of stress. I am here to learn to cope with it. It is not going to go away.”

When he had checked in with Guarneri after four weeks he had actually gained a pound.

“Do you want to die?” he says she asked him.

But some techniques are paying off. When Coleman wakes up in the middle of the night, he meditates, and is able to get back to sleep. And though at first he found guided imagery classes uncomfortable—and would sneak peeks at his fellow patients—that, too, has helped.

“I knew I was stressed, but I didn’t know how badly,” he says. “Now I have ways to deal with it. I think of a good thought when I am stressed. Now I think of my granddaughter: She just turned 1.

“Every time I am stressed, I think of her face. It really helps.”  [ end ]


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