Healing doesn’t always wear a white coat

| 10 Feb 2012 | 02:50

The words “live with it” can launch a journey into esoteric realms. Likewise, “take the gall bladder out.” Sometimes it’s fear of the side effects of staying on a drug long-term. Spurred by various catalysts, more and more sick people are repairing not to the drug store but to neighbors who have tapped into ancient healing traditions. These witches and holistic healers, acupuncturists and naturopaths are reemerging as realistic health care options in the 21st century, when we seem most to need them.

Complaint: 12-hour gall bladder attack

Remedy: eat better Danielle Gaebel was 29 when she threw the Cinco de Mayo celebration of a lifetime. Mojitos, margaritas, rich foods and plenty of everything. Then came a 12-hour gall bladder attack. Her family doctor discussed surgery: “Have that gallbladder removed.” After all, this was not Danielle’s first attack, though it was the worst. But instinct told Danielle that cutting the organ out would not really solve the problem. She figured gall bladders have their purpose. Her doc also said a change in diet might help. That’s where her journey began.

A few weeks after the transformational party, Gaebel and her partner, Jen Bitetto, began making visits to the Healing Zone in Hawley, Pennsylvania. It’s a place where a lot of alternative medicine happens -- yoga, animal acupuncture, ear candling and infrared sauna, and the small, efficient examining room of Lynn Wright, registered nurse and naturopath.

Wright took up the mantle after working long hours with heart patients in a traditional cardiology practice. The patients came back again and again, never seeming to get better. The medications sometimes even seemed to make them worse. After working as a naturopath from her home office, she started the Healing Zone in 2007.

Here’s what happens in Wright’s office: She stabs your pinky with a tiny lancet and takes a few drops of blood. You and she spend the next half hour gazing at your blood starring on a 20-inch screen in a daytime drama of its own.

When Gaebel viewed her “blood picture” on that day in May 2009, she was taken aback by the nasty things floating around -- parasites, for one (though they are quite common), plus sugar crystals (a possible early sign of diabetes), bacteria, undigested food bits.

Gaebel and Bitetto were moved to action by what they saw in their blood, not to mention the memory of the excruciating gall bladder episode. That Gaebel was told to wear heart monitors on several occasions before her thirtieth birthday was a telling sign of her poor diet and stressful work life. The couple tried stocking up on carts full of groceries from places like Whole Foods, but they were shopping in ignorance. Their blood pictures hardly budged. They got down to business and began reading labels, investigating sources and finding out where they could get foods free of genetically modified organisms, processed ingredients, and oversupplies of sugar; organic eggs and locally grown veggies even in winter. They saved money because, while ingredients cost more, meals were a lot cheaper than the fast food and takeout they’d been hooked on.

They hatched a plan to quit their newspaper jobs and open an online store and distribution center that helps others live their new life. Naturalcontents.com offers advice, pantry staples like gluten free grains and organic black beans, and free recipes.

Gaebel, the cook in this couple, devises and tries outs the recipes on her family. Since school lunches are no longer allowed for the couple’s two kids, they show up at school with hummus wraps, tacos made from local veggies and grass-fed beef, and PB&J – organic, of course. Now they’re well aware: no blue-died drinks.

The payoff has included unanticipated perks, such as almost no colds for the kids and an unexpected and virtually effortless weight loss for the moms. Bitetto dropped 45 pounds to a size six; Gaebel lost 40 pounds.

For Wright, the women are “poster gals.” “They did a much better job than most people,” she said. “They became food warriors.”

Complaint: back pain and cigarette addiction

Remedy: acupuncture Eric Zanetti is no stranger to needles. His many tattoos are a testament to that. But acupuncture was not on the 42-year-old union plumber’s radar until his back pain got so bad he couldn’t walk without hanging on to his wife, a wall or some other vertical aid.

Zanetti had thrown his back out moving a log intended for firewood. His back was already a problem because of an injury and surgery years earlier, so the mishap immobilized him. He had been to his regular MD and his chiropractor, but the agony continued. That’s when he hobbled, with help, into the office of Warwick acupuncturist Christie Barner.

Within days, he was walking upright and the pain was under control. A week later, he signed on for monthly treatments at Barner’s Bluestone Acupuncture to maintain his condition. Two years later he’s a regular customer, and not only for his back. Once he got into acupuncture, his therapy took an unexpected turn: he is also one year into a tangent treatment designed to help him stop smoking.

In a method called auricular acupuncture, needles are inserted at five points on the surface of the ear. The treatment – which reduces stress, a key factor in addictions – goes back to ancient times, and came back into vogue 60 years ago. In the seventies, Lincoln Memorial Hospital in the Bronx developed an auricular acupuncture treatment plan as an alternative to methadone. Since then, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association has formed to train practitioners and help integrate the protocol into the treatment of addictions.

Still, it’s “no magic bullet,” said Barner. The effects of treating habits as opposed to pain can be a lot more subtle and complex. Much of the success depends on the patient’s discipline. Those around the patient also play a big role. That’s why Barner is such a badger. “I tend to nag people to get them to stop doing things that could be self injurious,” she said. At home, his son and daughter, 12 and 10, are the cigarette police.

Zanetti’s been smoking since he was his son’s age, when he and his cousin filched a pack of Merits from their uncle’s jacket pocket. At the peak of his habit, he was up to two packs a day. When he began auricular treatment, he was smoking one pack a day.

The protocol works best at decreasing cravings when applied at least once a week, but because Zanetti’s smoking is a secondary concern to his back, he’s on a less intensive course. Still, he’s down to less than half a pack a day (8 or 9 cigarettes) and is no longer gasping for air after climbing two flights of stairs.

Complaint: painful knees and hip, low energy

Remedy: treat Lyme disease, avoid food allergens

“I felt like a 90-year-old,” 55-year-old Marti* recalls. “I wasn’t dying, but I was in really bad shape.” An unexplained pain in her knees and hip had gotten excruciating, and she was losing energy. For six months, she’d been using a cane at her job at a health food store. At night she sometimes even used a walker.

Marti tried a chiropractor, an acupuncturist, an orthopedist. One doctor said the pain was arthritis, so she self-medicated with supplements from the health food store for a year, to no avail. Another doctor suspected Lyme disease, but the test came back negative and the antibiotic didn’t do anything.

Fran Sussman, a holistic healer who shops at the health food store, hated to see her in that condition. “I don’t solicit,” said Fran, “but it was like, please, ask for help.” Finally, Marti did, even though she was strapped for cash and insurance doesn’t cover what Sussman does. The women figured out a way to make it work.

“I think I’m still the last resort a lot of the time,” Sussman acknowledges. She’s been practicing holistic healing for 20 years in Chester, ever since a holistic remedy proved the only cure for her infant daughter’s ear infection.

Through a series of tests, which are frankly inscrutable to the casual observer, Sussman determined that undiagnosed Lyme disease was Marty’s underlying problem. Sensitivities to soy, citrus, milk, wheat and gluten were exacerbating the body’s inflammatory response. The double-prongued approach: treat the Lyme with remedies containing artemesinin and other herbs, and eliminate the food allergies.

A year later, Marti’s walking without a cane with an almost imperceptible limp, seeing a guy, playing piano, and planning a birthday party for a friend. But she’s also having some trouble sleeping, has been strangely thirsty, and her muscles are tight.

At a session at Sussman’s home practice in Chester, Marti talks about all these things while Sussman takes notes. Lucy, a rescued toy terrier, gazes sympathetically at Marti from a cushion on the massage table. The room smells vaguely of peppermint oil. A yellow orchid livens the windowsill. Marti climbs up onto the massage table for her examination and props her knees over a cushion. Lucy jumps onto Marti’s stomach and licks her hand. You could see how this alone could make a person feel better.

After an abdomen exam and a general detox, Sussman checks to see whether any of Marti’s food sensitivities have subsided. She selects tiny vials out of briefcases full of homeopathic remedies made from all manner of things animal, vegetable and mineral, including dolphin’s milk, animal dander and poison ivy. She places one sealed vial at a time near Marti’s head, then pushes down on Marti’s raised arm. If Marti is allergic to, say, citrus, when the citrus vial is near her head, then Marti’s arm will be weak and easy to push down. If she can tolerate citrus, her arm will be strong.

“I’m well aware that a lot of what I do looks weird to people,” said Sussman. “People say, I don’t believe in this. I say I don’t care, it’s not a religion. It’ll either work for you or it won’t. I just want people to know there are options.”

Does Marti understand all of this? Nope. “Getting out of excruciating pain, it was like, I don’t care if I know or not, I’m just going to keep seeing her,” she said. She still gets choked up when she thinks about that low point. “I just went on what they call faith.”

Complaint: Bronchitis Remedy: White pine tea

Norma Stehle’s cough wasn’t going away. She’d never had anything linger like this. Cough syrups and supplements weren’t working, and Stehle, a normally robust 67-year-old, worried the bronchitis would reach her lungs and turn into pneumonia.

She called her neighbor Robin Rose Bennett, whom she knew through Sustainable West Milford. Bennett calls herself a green witch, an herbalist, a wise woman, a liaison between people and plants.

“Witch is a word that’s been used to shut women up,” Bennett explains. “By taking the word, we no longer need to fear it.”

After three days of drinking the white pine tea that Bennett recommended, Stehle was symptom free. (The white pine is from a tree in Bennett’s yard in Hewitt. When taking from a tree, Bennett offers a gift in return, like a potpourri of herbs.) Stehle particularly liked that Bennett used simple, whole ingredients. Instead of the ginger powder she’d been taking before, for instance, Bennett had her go to the store and get a piece of ginger.

“I love that, the clear fact that I was really taking something that hadn’t gone through processing,” said Stehle. “And it was really tasty.”

For that acute situation, Stehle saw Bennett for six weeks. “Then I asked for a consultation because it was fascinating me,” Stehle said. This often happens with Bennett’s clients. They become her students.

“This is not like Chinatown,” said Bennett. She’s not hawking potions, but explaining each herb, why it works, and what form to use it in, whether tincture, paste, powder or tea. “Some people don’t want to know, but I find ways to secretly empower them,” said Bennettt. “Too many people are willing to give it all away.”

Stehle and her husband came in for a two-hour consultation, which begins with a meditation, to discuss their health priorities. Stehle wanted to be rid of the arthritis that made it necessary for her to do yoga just to straighten out in the morning, and to get off the medications she was taking for high cholesterol and osteoporosis. She’d heard the latter had disturbing side effects like necrosis of the jaw.

“My resolution was that I’d just become more conscious,” she said.

For her arthritis, Stehle learned to make a remedy by steeping mugwort in cider vinegar for two weeks. After three months of taking one teaspoon a day, the arthritis was gone.

In lieu of the drugs to increase bone density and lower cholesterol, Stehle drinks two to three cups of tea a day, made from oats and herbs like mugwort, rose hips, mullein, and nettles. During growing season, most of the ingredients can be found growing wild or in Bennett’s garden.

If it sounds like way too many herbs to remember – well, Stehle has little tricks. Hawthorne, she repeats aloud, is heart. Hawthorne, heart.

Stehle is off of all her prescriptions. The plan is to live to 104.

* Name changed at client’s request.