Doctor earns award for her work in whole-person healing

Erminia M. (Mimi) Guarneri, M.D., FACC  COURTESY
Erminia M. (Mimi) Guarneri, M.D., FACC COURTESY

By Arthur Lightbourn

Last month in New York City, cardiologist Mimi Guarneri, 52, was awarded the 2011 Bravewell Physician Leadership Award for contributions toward transforming the U.S. health care system through the use of integrative medicine.

The founder and medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla said she’ll use the $100,000 award to support education and research for integrative medicine through a foundation she’s formed called Miraglo.

But parallel to her professional achievements is the personal transformation Dr. Guarneri experienced, from a self-described Type A, stressed-out, overachiever who “was trained to see the heart as a simple mechanical pump,” to a physician whose patients taught her to appreciate the heart as a center of great complexity and power that deserves the best of nurturing.

She tells the story of the path to her present position in her book, “The Healing Heart,” where she writes about the defining moments of her life. “On an evening when I was 8 years old, my vivacious 40-year-old mother told me she had a pain in her chest, then got into bed and died of a heart attack.”

“Mimi” was alone with her mother at the time. “Part of the reason I became a heart doctor was to overcome the powerlessness I felt.”

To compound the hurt, a decade later, her father, a life insurance salesman by day and poet/comedian by night, also died of a heart attack at 50 — and Mimi was 17.

Another defining moment, though she didn’t realize it at the time, came while interning at Cornell after graduating from medical school at the top of her class and thinking she was hot stuff.

She encountered an elderly doctor who refused to be hurried as she and a flock of other interns followed him around while he chatted, joked, and patiently listened to patients and their long-winded anecdotes.

She recalls glancing at her watch, wanting to get on with more important tasks in her pressing schedule. When he finished, the old professor removed his glasses, peered solemnly at the interns and delivered this bit of advice: “If you let patients speak and tell you their stories, and you really listen, they’ll give you their diagnosis. But if you keep interrupting them and they don’t get to tell it, you’ll keep ordering tests and lab work and you’ll miss the answer that’s right in front of you.”

Initially, as a physician in Scripps Clinic’s interventional cardiology program during the mid-1990s, Dr. Guarneri inserted thousands of coronary stents into heart patients.

“My job as a cardiologist was to sit in my office and wait for someone to have a heart attack, then rush in and try to save him. I spent my days propping open their arteries with metal sleeves called stents, without considering why they had closed in the first place.

“I think it’s great work, sometimes life-saving work, but, at the same time, it does nothing to prevent heart disease. It’s a mechanical fix for a problem that’s already there, but it does nothing to get to the underlying cause.

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