Yasmin Bhadha could have taken the diagnosis of stage four breast cancer as her death sentence.
After all, this isn’t her first go-round with the disease. Seven years ago the 63-year-old La Crescenta resident battled breast cancer, which went into remission. But it emerged again in 2009, this time manifesting in the bones throughout her body.
“I feel very happy, that luckily it's not my children, it's not my grandchildren, it's not my husband, it's me,” says Bhadha, a teacher originally from India. “I can take it. I'm strong, I'm strong like a pillar.”
And, she says, she's getting stronger, despite her diagnosis. She supplemented traditional medicine, her standard chemotherapy appointments, with Reiki, the ancient Japanese energy therapy that claims to promote healing for a variety of ailments. She says her cancer markers are declining drastically.
As the healthcare debate rages and chronic conditions continue to rise at alarming rates, more and more patients like Bhadha, physicians and even pharmacies are throwing out a one-size-fits-all approach to medicine and incorporating alternative therapies used in their lives, practices and businesses.
Proponents say this holistic and proactive approach is the future of healthcare, where open minds, emotional as well as physical wellness and prevention reign and complement conventional techniques.
This new model, where acupuncture, homeopathy, food as medicine and more are being plucked out of Asian, Middle Eastern and Hispanic cultural communities and integrated into doctor's offices along with prescriptions, X-rays and blood tests, is especially gaining ground in Los Angeles, where a crop of practices and medical centers have sprouted across the city, offering tailor-made healthcare to patients, like at the 2-year-old Beneveda Medical Group in Beverly Hills.
With the constant buzz of traffic below, patients at Beneveda, in a high rise off Wilshire Boulevard, indulge in salt therapy, thermography, chiropractic treatments and even hypnosis alongside conventional modalities. An integrative medical practice committed to “re-energizing, rejuvenating and revitalizing” patients according to their website, Beneveda has made it a point to offer an experience that leaves no stone unturned in an effort to decipher what may be ailing those who come through their doors.
“It's more than just blending East and West. It's really taking a number of modalities and disciplines that exist within modern 21st century healthcare practices and looking at which one of those things is most effective,” says Beneveda founder Dr. Thomas Lobe.
For Lobe, starting an integrated medicine practice was personal. Having spent time in a hospital as a child, he was forced to wear a straight jacket and would cry himself to sleep – the first memory of his childhood.
“I realized something's wrong here,” he says. “I said I'm going to grow up and make a difference in how people are treated.”
A surgeon by practice, he's traveled the world, delving into traditional medicinal practices of a plethora of cultures, including spending time with witch doctors, and earned degrees in acupuncture and hypnosis. He shared a position as an advisor to the Institute for the Study of Traditional Chinese Medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was the chief of pediatric surgery service at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he made news for separating cojoined twins.
Beneveda's specialty, Lobe says, lies in the power to help you interpret the signals your body is sending, much of it in a non-invasive way, through scans that can read body energy and determine signs of hypo and hyperthyroidism, muscle inflammation and thermographic body scanning, which has shown to have a 99 percent accuracy in detecting breast cancer in women from ages 30 to 55.
While those looking to maintain their health comprise a large portion of his patient database, many seek out his help as a last resort, when dozens of consultations with conventional doctors haven't produced clear solutions to complex health problems.
John Stack is one of them. Before visiting Lobe, he saw a handful of doctors who weren't able to figure out why he had developed a low platelet count since the home he shared with his wife Patty Kelly burned down in the Santa Barbara wildfires two years ago.
Kelly and Stack, 77 and 87 respectively, had spent thousands on trying to get to the bottom of John's ailment, including traveling to a Nevada medical center where he was given an alternative chemotherapy regime that cost $50,000 and seemed to help, but there was one catch: he didn't actually have cancer.
When Stack and his wife drove down from their Santa Barbara residence and reached Beneveda on the recommendation of another physician, Dr. Lobe's integrative model finally figured out what had been plaguing him for years.
A hands-on exam, X-rays, CAT scan and one of Beneveda's energy tests suggested that Lyme disease, a bacterial infection transmitted to humans by infected ticks, was the culprit.
“With the simple combination of laying on of the hands – probably the most ancient of healing arts, with some sophisticated quantum level energy diagnostics, we were able to come up with something and made a correct diagnosis,” Lobe says.
The fire had ravaged their house and Kelly’s immune system in the process, bringing the disease to the surface.
With weekly platelet transfusions and an immune-boosting herbal supplement, Stack's platelet count rose from 5,000 to 25,000 in a matter of a few weeks.
“He is absolutely amazing, a true genius as an MD,” says Kelly, who recently had a hair analysis done at Beneveda to see if her body chemistry was in balance. “If he can't heal you the regular mainstream way, he uses whatever it takes to help you.”
Patients who come to him out of desperation aren't necessarily surprising to Lobe, who says conventional medicine is more or less broken, especially insurance-based practices where doctors who are under pressure to earn more money focus on quantity instead of quality.
“I think there has to be a major shift in our thinking, especially in healthcare,” he says. “I'm going to spend more time keeping my patients healthy. There are a lot of doctors who want to take the time to figure out what's wrong and how to change your lives.”
A major theme of the integrative model comes in the form of adapting the standard model to be all-inclusive and providing a plethora of options to a diverse population.
It was on this philosophy that Barry Perzow, founder of Pharmaca, opened his chain of integrative pharmacies, where customers can pick up prescription medication and browse through endless shelves of Chinese, homeopathic and herbal medication.
After being in the organic supermarket business for several years, Perzow sought to take the philosophy of his natural food store and open Pharmaca stores based on the realization that conventional pharmacies had remained stagnant over the past 50 years, slow to address the need of an aging population and those seeking alternative methods to healthcare. The first store opened in 2000 in Boulder, Colo., and there now are 23 in five states.
“I think there's a trend out there, probably among baby boomers more than anyone else, where they're realizing they wish they could figure out ways to engage in drug avoidance as opposed to drug intervention,” he says.
According to Perzow, among other functions, Pharmaca aids the need for this engagement by informing its customers how to combine medicine for overall well-being and health. Drugs like the high cholesterol medication Lipitor and birth-control pills, deplete the body of important nutrition like co-enzyme Q10 and folic acid, respectively.
“There's a time and place where the combination of both works, and that's what I built my business on,” he says.
Pharmaca -- with its practitioners wearing olive-colored lab coats, aisles of household items including environmentally friendly cleaning supplies and organic dog treats and the kind of beauty section filled with aestheticians that could rival a makeup counter at a department store -- is more than just a pharmacy, a realization you reach the moment you step in one of their stores.
With its aesthetically pleasing qualities and a fragrant atmosphere, it's quickly become a place where people come to hang out, whether that's in the tea room overlooking a colorful fish tank and or flipping through dozens of magazines offering health advice or getting an on-the-spot massage with a massage therapist in the middle of the store. Customers also can see a licensed chiropractor or acupuncturist at the store's Integrative Medical Clinic.
When people come to Pharmaca, they tend to stay. Even on a random Wednesday afternoon, with rain pounding the L.A. landscape, the Pharmaca store located in the affluent neighborhood of the Pacific Palisades is full of shoppers.
But Perzow is interested in developing his business beyond stores. He recently introduced the Integrative Health Advisory Board to help educate consumers, healthcare professional and the media on the safe and effective use of integrative medicine, which he says is the foundation for the future of medicine.
Even so, the complementary and alternative medicine industry yields major profits and continues to grow. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Americans spent $33.9 billion on complementary and alternative medicine over the previous 12 months. In 2009, sales of herbal dietary supplements in the U.S. increased by almost 5 percent, reaching an estimated figure of just more than $5 billion, statistics detailed in a report published by HerbalGram, the quarterly journal of the American Botanical Council.
Still, there are detractors. A $2.5 billion study from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found a majority of alternative and herbal health remedies don't actually work. Some call it “pseudoscience” and say its lack of regulation and research haven't been able to prove its effectiveness. News reports say it's not uncommon for customers and their money to be taken advantage of.
Recently, magician and scientific skeptic James Randi released a video statement criticizing homeopathic medicines, and then proceeded to take an entire bottle of 32 homeopathic sleeping pills to demonstrate that they have “no more effect than sugar pills or pure water."
Psychologist Steve Eichel also sought out to prove how easy it was to fool unsuspecting members of the public with advanced alternative degrees by applying and earning hypnotherapy certifications and a degree from the American Psychotherapy Association for his cat Zoe, now known as Dr. Zoe D. Katze, Ph.D., C.Ht., DAPA.
Even with vocal critics of alternative medicine or a so-called placebo effect it might produce, the integration contributes to an element many patients and practitioners find missing from their interaction: a genuine relationship.
In Lobe's case, he considers his patients to be members of his family, with many of them having his cell phone number in case they need to contact him.
“I want my patients to have access to me,” he says. “I want to help people; that's why I'm here. I want people to feel better.”
Angela Daneshrad works at Pharmaca's Pacific Palisades store. Having worked at a conventional pharmacy before, she and other members of the store's staff know more about the customers they're serving beyond the prescriptions they're taking – and they say it makes a difference.
“Here, I can go out and recommend things that actually help people get better, as opposed to masking their symptoms,” she says.
Laurie Cohen Peters, a regular customer, notices the bonds created in integrated settings as well.
“There's a good level of education and understanding of the products they're selling,” she says of the staff. “They're very caring, they like doing what they're doing, and they're here for a reason.”
Not far from Pharmaca, the oldest Oriental medicine school in California is developing healers and teachers entrenched in the philosophy of humanizing medicine.
“In terms of the Oriental medical approach, there's no separation of mind and body, so if somebody comes to you, the number one thing you have to have is the attribute of compassion. If you don't have compassion, you're in the wrong field of care,” says Jacques MoraMarco, dean of Emperor's College in Santa Monica.
This approach, which MoraMarco refers to as “looking at the whole forest instead of just a leaf,” is a cornerstone of the college, where the emphasis is on partnerships with universities and other medical institutions where disciplines like acupuncture, herbal and Oriental medicine are integrated into standard healthcare.
The college just recently connected with the Roy and Patricia Disney Family Cancer Center in Burbank, where master's degree students participate in externships at the center, treating cancer patients with acupuncture to alleviate undesirable side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. The reach of the college also helps to ease the boundary between socio-economic status and quality alternative care; Venice Family Clinic, believed to be the largest free clinic in the nation, is also a partner.
While Western medicine is a third of the college's curriculum, CEO Yun Kim says the interest in the trending integrative models lies in the fact that people see the limitations of conventional methods.
“People in their 20s don't want to hear that they're going to be on medicine for the rest of their lives,” she says. “And there are things that we can do in Eastern medicine to strengthen their terrain, strengthen their function of the organs, so that people don't have to be on pills for the rest of their lives.”
Thirty miles east of Emperor's College, Bhadha finishes work early on Friday afternoons and goes to her group chemotherapy appointments, but she contends the weekly reminder that the malignant cells that are damaging her bones does not affect her life.
“I think I'm going for a sauna,” she says. “I go there and relax and put my legs up.”
Bhadha recently gave up Oxycontin, a drug used in moderate to severe pain management. While the acceptance and integration of alternative therapies into doctor's offices across the country faces its own challenges, Bhada hasn't felt as good as she does now for a long time and she's convinced her fellow chemotherapy participants could benefit from her brand of gusto.
“Say that it's going away and just feel it inside you,” she says. “Close your eyes and feel it and let the [cancer] cells fall out.”
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