By Arthur LightbournLast 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.
“We started to do research here with Dr. Dean Ornish, where we looked at whether lifestyle change could actually reverse plaque in vessels, reverse heart disease.”
The research revealed that people with severe coronary heart disease were able to stop or reverse it without the use of drugs or surgery by making comprehensive lifestyle changes. The interventions used included stress management through yoga and meditation, a low-fat diet, smoking cessation, moderate exercise and social support.
“When we were coming to the end of the research, the nurse of the program, Rauni King, and I saw such an impact on the patients that we thought, ‘How can we let a program like this go?’ ”
As a result, Guarneri and King co-founded the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in 1999. The center takes a “whole person” approach to treating disease and improving health by blending conventional Western medicine using the latest imaging technology for early disease detection, along with evidence-based complementary and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga and healing touch.
The focus is on designing customized plans to help patients manage chronic illness, reduce their risk for disease, and lead healthier, happier lives. An extensive class schedule includes a vegetarian cooking school, yoga and body-mind lectures.
“We believe that health is continually influenced by how we live our lives and how we relate to the world around us,” Guarneri said. “And we believe that healing starts from within.”
Also located within the center is the Shiley Sport and Health Center that includes a weight room, cardio exercise room, 25-yard outdoor lap pool, and an outdoor running track.
Guarneri reports in the U.S. today, $2.5 trillion is spent treating seven diseases — heart disease, diabetes, asthma, some cancers, hypertension, stroke and obesity.
“These are all preventable,” she insists. “Yet what we keep doing in health care is we play this game where we say: ‘Name it. Blame it. Tame it.’
“In the last year, we have spent $308 billion on pharmaceutical therapies. We are consuming 48 percent of all the pharmaceuticals made for the entire world in North America. And we spent $14.6 billion on anti-psychotic drugs, $10 billion on anti-depressants, $13 billion on statins [to lower cholesterol], and $13 billion on proton-pump inhibitors [to reduce gastric acid].
“What this tells me is that the United States of America is psychotic, depressed with high cholesterol, and has acid. That’s the reality. And we can’t keep going like this.
“The planet is getting sicker and people are getting sicker. And we need to look at both of those. They’re so connected. We’re all connected. And to me now, prevention is the best intervention.
“We can’t keep pumping the food filled with partially hydrogenated fats and oils, high fructose corn syrup, and sugar and salt in everything, and expect people to get well.
“We have also to take responsibility. Just like you put your safety belt on, you have to take responsibility for what you eat, to exercise, to take care of the planet, and so on.”
Personally, Dr. Mimi said she’s been a vegetarian since 1996. She exercises, meditates, works in her garden, and walks her dog.
“The good news is,” she said. “Integrative medicine is emerging nationwide as a vital force within hospitals, clinics and even the military.”