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The Theory of Medicine

From acupuncture to meditation to salt therapy, alternative medicine is changing the way patients are treated in South Florida. But can Western and holistic medicine learn to co-exist? We find out.

Six adults sit cross-legged on pillows forming a circle in a private exercise room in Fort Lauderdale.

They breathe in incense as therapist Debra Kelly instructs everyone to close their eyes. “Concentrate on your breathing,” she says. “Breathe in one, two, three. Breathe out one, two, three.”

The air is sucked from the room as people inhale, and then whoosh, exhale in unison. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

It might sound like a bunch of “new-agey” California craziness, but for a lot of people today, it’s the one thing that really works.

As the owner of Thermae Retreat, Kelly Doyle says: “Learning to relax … Well, that’s a hard thing [for people] to do.”

Doyle opened Thermae two years ago in Fort Lauderdale with the hopes of giving people a place to do just that. What started out as a spa with massage and sauna treatments, evolved into a place for mind, body and spiritual healing. The retreat offers everything from facials and body scrubs to sonic meditation rooms and vibrational therapy.

“We teach people how to relax again,” Doyle says.

Thermae isn’t a traditional doctor’s office, or talk-therapy session. But, the retreat aims for the same results as those traditional clinical methods: relief and healing.

Alternative medicine includes everything from meditation sessions, like the one held at Thermae, to holistic wellness centers that offer acupuncture and Chinese medicine, to very specific treatments like salt therapy. In South Florida, these non-mainstream treatments have taken on many forms and are attracting a wide variety of clientele – to treat everything from stress and anxiety, to asthma and even cancer.

Fort Lauderdale resident Marcello Jaspan is one of those clients who found success after he “gave up on Western medicine” and turned to alternative remedies.

“They try to put you in a box, and then when you don’t fit in the box, they try to send you to another doctor,” Jaspan says, who went from doctor to doctor to treat stress and emotional anxieties until he found himself in the hands of Filiz Bakir at Thrive Wellness Center in Fort Lauderdale.

Bakir is the owner and founder of Thrive, a wellness center that aims to uncover the root cause of a condition and design an individualized treatment plan based on acupuncture, herbal medicine and homeopathic remedies. She opened the center after experiencing her own bout with anxiety, frustrated that the only thing Western medicine could offer her was antidepressants.

“Western medicine shuts down the receptor. It doesn’t always treat the root cause,” Bakir says. “Every patient has a unique footprint. It’s influenced by the environment, stress levels and DNA.”

Bakir approaches each patient ready to listen. She asks them about the food they eat, the stress from their job and their personal life. She spends time with the patient. She conducts lab tests. From there, she aims to strengthen whatever has been weakened through techniques such as acupuncture, massage and body work, nutrition and more.

That type of attention to detail and care has helped patients like Jaspan recover from anxiety and stress within one year.

“She made me feel comfortable. She made me feel like I had a place – that what I was going through had a solution,” Jaspan says of Bakir.

Time is everything

A major advantage to alternative medicine is the luxury of time. A holistic practitioner, like Bakir, isn’t constrained to 15-minute visits with patients. Instead, she can spend an hour with a patient, seeing six patients a day rather than an average of 20 to 30 patients a day in traditional doctors’ offices.

“You can’t develop a partnership with someone when you’re seeing them for 15 minutes, and then a 7-minute follow up,” says Dr. Ashwin Mehta, the medical director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

This short window of time can lead to a knee-jerk reaction where the physician reaches for the prescription pad, Mehta says.

“It’s not a lack of empathy on the part of very busy physicians. It is the infrastructure in which we operate,” he says.

But now, unconventional medicine often fills that void.

What does “alternative” really mean?

Of course, there are discussions about the correct uses of the words “alternative” and “complementary” to describe non-mainstream medicine.

“We don’t refer to what we do as alternative medicine,” Mehta says. “There’s a robust body of knowledge that supports the use of these modalities.”

Even that sounds like medical jargon, but what he’s really talking about is treating cancer patients with therapies such as yoga, acupuncture and nutritional advice, alongside more mainstream treatments like chemotherapy. He’s practiced integrative medicine, with great success, for the past four years at University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center.

And he’s not alone. The National Institutes of Health has taken note and widened its view of medicine, saying that complementary and alternative medicine includes “natural products such as herbal supplements, manual therapies and mind/body practices such as chiropractic care, massage acupuncture and meditation.”

These alternative therapies can help treat diseases like cancer, depression, and even everyday physical ailments, such as allergies or asthma, which was the case for Dan Gamache of Delray Beach.

Gamache, a lifelong runner, felt his asthma return stronger than ever after an accident forced him to stash away his running shoes for good. “I was using everything just trying to breathe,” Gamache says.

He read about The Salt Suite based in Delray Beach, and decided to give it a try. Within a week, Gamache felt a change.

Now, twice a week he enters a room covered in sea salt, and reclines back in a chair to listen to soothing music while breathing in slightly salty air for 45 minutes.

Hours later, he says he can actually sleep through the night. And a year later, after weekly treatments, he says he can swim the entire length of the pool without gasping for air.

“I don’t have to worry about breathing. I don’t have any sinus issues,” he says of the salt therapy that calms inflammation.

The environment, which is safe for both children and adults, creates a natural micro-climate using a halogeneator that soothes allergies, asthma, sinusitis and other respiratory conditions.

A limited field of vision

Alternative treatments don’t come without risk – the primary risk being that alternative medicine practitioners don’t have the background to properly diagnose what’s going on, Mehta says.

“If you go to acupuncture or Reiki masters or massage therapists, they will portray the condition in terms of what they understand and know,” he says. “That’s OK. … But if it’s smoldering cancer, that’s the problem.”

But, with more education and training, the risks are lessening and the two fields of thought are starting to co-exist.

In addition to traditional schooling, most medical students now receive training in complementary, non-mainstream treatments, Mehta says.

It’s giving weight to the argument that the treatments deemed “alternative” today, might not be so “alternative” five or 10 years from now.

“There’s a pretty wide understanding on the part of young trainees that patients are going to want to know their backgrounds. They’re going to want to know what their training is,” Mehta says. “We are in the era of the informed health care consumer.”

And Jaspan agrees. “If you’re a doctor, and you’re not holistic in any way, I think your business is doing pretty bad,” Jaspan says.

Three hours later, back at Thermae, the six adults who sat cross-legged on the floor are holding hands, laughing and thanking one another for taking each other on a journey of peace and reconciliation.

For some, it was a spiritual exercise that caused them to break down and cry. For others, it was a way to refocus their minds, freeing them from the hustle and bustle of daily life. For others, it was about feeling empowered to conquer whatever might be ailing them.

“We’re teaching people how to take control,” Doyle says. “People need a place to come clear their minds and refocus.”

Even traditional doctors can’t argue with that.