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From the Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients
August/September 2005

Pathways to Healing
by Elaine Zablocki

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Institute for Health & Healing Inspired by Compassionate Care
The Institute for Health & Healing (IHH) in San Francisco is one of the best-known integrative medical centers in the country. It includes in-hospital services, a clinic, library, self-care programs, classes and a store. The clinic combines conventional care with physical therapies such as massage and bodywork, mind-body practices such as mindfulness meditation and guided imagery, nutritional counseling, herbal remedies and supplements. It cares for patients with complex chronic diseases and life-threatening illnesses, as well as everyday health problems and preventive strategies.

IHH is part of the California Pacific Medical Center, a leading not-for-profit San Francisco hospital. It offers a one-year interdisciplinary education program for healthcare professionals, with specializations in spiritual care, bodywork, guided imagery, expressive arts, nursing, and clinical supervision. The Institute's founder, William B. Stewart, MD, believes that "health involves the physical, mental, emotional, social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions of our existence. Healing processes can range from becoming aware of feelings, to combinations of therapies such as surgery and nutrition, to meaningful lifestyle changes."

The institute has grown dramatically over the past decade. During its first year, 1994, it offered 1,000 patient visits (primarily educational and chaplain services) at one hospital. Today it offers comprehensive services at six locations, with 60,000 patient visits last year.

This modern organization, which uses the latest in Western medicine as well as ancient healing traditions, was inspired by a remarkable healthcare organization on the other side of the world.

In 1983 Stewart, an oculoplastic surgeon, traveled to India to offer eye care services and physician training at Aravind Eye Care System. What he found there was more than he expected, and it transformed his ideas about what it means to be a doctor.

Aravind was started by Govindappa Venkataswamy, MD, an Indian physician trained in ophthalmology, who wanted to help the many thousands of people who can be saved from needless blindness. Even though his hands were crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, he trained himself to do delicate eye surgery. His dedication and passion for helping his patients drew a team of dedicated workers around him. Today, Aravind's five hospitals perform more than 250,000 eye operations each year, caring for more than a million patients annually. Not a minute is wasted. That means the system is so efficient, it can offer free care to three-quarters of its patients, and use fees from the remaining one-quarter to cover its costs.

"When I first visited Aravind, I was very moved by the meaning and purpose that was palpable in their work," Stewart recalls. "Not only the senior staff, but the entire setting was instilled with a devotion to compassionate service. You could hear it in their voices during interactions with each other, and with patients and students. They had an energy that allowed them to work extremely long hours and somehow maintain equanimity. Clearly, they were rewarded by something besides their monthly stipend."

Stewart left Aravind with a new sense of service. "Of course, I was moved by the statistics on how many cases they handled, and how much care they could offer at no charge. But I was even more moved by the personal aspect. It wasn't simply that they had set up a project to eliminate blindness. They were able to do this work because of their personal connection to their fellow human beings. You could see it in the compassion present in their care for each individual patient."

As he returned to the United States, Stewart wanted to rediscover the idealism most healthcare professionals have when they begin their training, but often lose later. "I wanted to rekindle in contemporary medicine an appreciation for our interconnectedness," he says. "You know, science is essential, but science can only take us so far. We need to make sacred the experience of Western medicine."

That vision lies behind the Institute. Behind all the scientific papers in the library, and the schedule of current classes, and the appointment book for physicians, nutritionists and massage therapists, lies a vision of human interconnectedness, and the importance of reconnecting science with other views of reality. "No one gets sick in a vacuum," Stewart says. "When you're over-tired or stressed-out or overwhelmed you're more likely to get sick. In addition to treating symptoms of illness, we also need to engage preventively with each person's holistic need for well-being. People who are in touch with themselves, and take quiet restorative when they need it, can save themselves a lot of illness."

In February 2005, Venkataswamy (also known as Dr. V.) traveled to San Francisco to receive an award from the Institute and meet its supporters. IHH gives a "Pioneers in the Art, Science and Soul of Healing Award" each year to a person who has expanded our view of the healing process. The annual award dinner is a chance for IHH supporters and friends to gather together to celebrate their work.

After a video presentation about Aravind, Dr. V. spoke about his work. He emphasized the importance of keeping your mind clear, quiet and peaceful if you want to be of service to others.

As he discussed various levels of consciousness, he mentioned that he spends quite a bit of time in his own meditative practice, and this practice is essential to sustain the daily active work. "Maintaining mental discipline, both in your own self-care, and in the work you do, is what healthcare needs most," he said.

According to one observer, it was remarkable to hear a talk on consciousness and perfection, offered to supporters of a sophisticated Western hospital. At the close, the audience gave Dr. V. a standing ovation. There was a palpable change in the atmosphere of the room: people who had previously been weighed down with problems left recharged, with a new sense of hope.

There's nothing vague about Aravind healthcare. In fact, Dr. V. was inspired by McDonald's: its precision, its efficiency, its ability to offer the same service in many locations. Most recently, Aravind is working to educate healthcare professionals in many other parts of the world on how to offer high-quality, low-cost, high-volume care.
But at its center is a sense of compassion for others and a desire to be of service. Dr. V. ended his talk by reminding his audience, "when we offer service as healthcare professionals, it is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing."

For more information:

Elaine Zablocki is the former editor of CHRF News Files and Alternative Medicine Business News.


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