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Healthy Hybrids

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

By Bill Squier

The trend of creating new synergies for the common good is no longer defined by the automotive industry alone. See how Stamford straddles the worlds of conventional and alternative medicines for a healthy body and mind experience.


It used to be that practitioners of conventional forms of medicine and those of alternative forms, such as acupuncturists and chiropractors, lived in very different worlds. But recently, the two have learned to coexist in an area known as “complementary” or “integrative” medicine. Wellness centers that offer reflexology and meditation have sprung up in hospital settings. “Med spas” that feature herbal supplements and therapeutic massage have been incorporated into many doctors’ private practices. And within the Stamford city limits there are as many yoga studios attending to the mind-body connection as there are neurologists.


“There’s some really exciting stuff happening,” says Eileen Karn, a licensed acupuncturist and director of Stamford’s Meridian Wellness Center. “It’s that blended system we’ve all been dreaming about for years.”


For local resident Carol Shwidock, the mix of conventional and alternative forms of healing is particularly welcome. Shwidock had been an occupational therapist for more than 25 years when she began to feel that it was time for a change. “I was kind of burned out on illness,” she admits. “That’s why I turned to wellness.”


Shwidock was galvanized into action on Sept. 11, 2001, when, in the middle of taking a yoga class, she heard about the attack on the World Trade Center. After discussing the decision with her husband, she left her job and spent some months seeking a new direction for her life. Shwidock eventually became certified as a yoga instructor and opened her own business, the Harmony Yoga Studio, which is housed in the Break Thru Family Fit 4 Life Center on Union Street.

Today, Shwidock’s students range from young mothers and cancer survivors to corporate executives and high school sports teams. And she reports that she has come full circle professionally and returned to working with clients in need of occupational therapy. But the difference is that Shwidock is now able to incorporate her training as a yoga instructor into her sessions. “The [other occupational] therapists are always watching me because I’m doing something different,” she says.


The seeds of alternative medical practices were sown in Stamford some 20 years ago when the Tri-State Institute of Traditional Chinese Acupuncture (now known as the Tri-State College of Acupuncture) opened its doors. Today, acupuncture is one of the more widely recognized alternative therapies. But Elaine Stern, L.Ac., a Manhattan-based acupuncturist who grew up in the Westover section of town, remembers that it was slow going at first. “I practiced there one or two days per week,” Stern recalls. “And while not many people came in, there were a few brave or curious souls. One man who came to see me there is still a patient!”


Soon independent practitioners, such as Eileen Karn, who trained with Stern, began moving into the area. “I was living in Greenwich at the time, and I felt that Stamford was underserved with acupuncturists,” Karn explains. “So, I guess it was sort of a marketing decision.” She describes her early clients as “explorers” and “the desperate.” “In those years, I heard this phrase again and again, ‘I’m willing to try anything,’” Karn remembers. “And acupuncture was considered a version of ‘anything.’”


Eventually her business grew, and she moved into a larger office. At that point, Karn, who had begun her career as a shiatsu massage therapist, also began to think about expanding the scope of her practice. “I never lost my love or respect for massage,” she emphasizes. “So, I was always referring my clients to other trusted professionals. And I suddenly thought, ‘Wait! We could do all that here!’”


Today, under the banner of the Meridian Wellness Center, Karn and her associates offer their clients a number of different forms of massage, touch therapy and, perhaps most intriguingly, Nutrition Response Testing (NRT). Also known as muscle testing or applied kinesiology, the system involves assessing acupuncture points and nerve reflexes that appear to be linked to the body’s internal functioning. The theory behind NRT is that it helps determine which case-specific whole food supplements and herbs your body needs to heal and repair problem areas. “It’s a wonderful technique for finding out what’s going on by just asking the body,” Karn attests.

She became an advocate for NRT after receiving treatment from Dr. Freddie Ulan, who developed the technique. “I had a bad car accident, and it took me forever to get better,” says Karn. “He identified that there was still a shock in my system. Within three months of doing his protocols, I was doing much, much better.” At first, she employed it in her own practice as a diagnostic tool when certain of her clients’ problems failed to respond to treatment. Now, Karn uses it routinely to detect toxic levels of heavy metals (like arsenic, mercury or lead), chemical sensitivities, single cell parasites or viruses and food intolerances.


In 2003, Stamford Hospital’s Carl & Dorothy Bennett Cancer Center made the bold move of establishing a formal program of alternative therapeutic services to augment the facility’s science-based forms of treatment. Though the center already offered exercise, nutrition counseling and art therapy to patients undergoing cancer treatments, the list of available services expanded to include items like meditation, visualization, reflexology and yoga. And the hospital began to refer to them as “complementary” therapies in response to the concerns expressed by some staff physicians that their patients would see the therapies as an alternative to Western medical practices rather than an enhancement.


“We had been talking about doing it for a while,” says Elizabeth Manfredo, administrator of cancer services for the Bennett Center. “But the physicians needed to learn more.” “We explained that healing occurs on all levels: physical, emotional and spiritual,” adds Fran Becker, su-

pervisor of support services at the Bennett Center. “What we were doing was offering to ameliorate some of the side effects of treatment. The response [by] the patients was so overwhelmingly positive that the physicians began to refer them to the program.”


Alternative practitioners who were already active in the community were quick to want to be involved. “Where we made the effort was in bringing on like-minded practitioners,” Elizabeth Manfredo explains. “We actually had one oncology nurse who got a holistic nursing degree while she was working here and had a relationship with the physicians, so they trusted her. Some of the Reiki practitioners had done work with our hospice program.”


Among the best received of the Bennett Center’s integrated services is Reiki, a form of touch therapy that purports to regulate the body’s energy fields and flow with the laying on of hands. Caran-marie Zambo, a local master of the Reiki system known as “usui,” isn’t surprised at its popularity. Though she sees clients privately and is unaffiliated with the Bennett C enter, Zambo can understand how Reiki could be used to counteract the side effects of a medical procedure like chemotherapy. “It’s a very soothing treatment for anything that’s stress related,” she says, “anything that has to do with nausea or stress.” Fran Becker echoes Zambo’s sentiments. “You can see blood pressures go down with Reiki therapy,” she notes.


The success of the integrated services program at the Bennett Center has led to similar services being offered throughout the rest of Stamford Hospital. At the Tully Health Center, for example, residents can take advantage of the Health and Fitness Institute’s ever-expanding focus on wellness. To that end, classes in kickboxing and Pilates share the schedule with tai chi and its aquatic relative, ai chi. Therapeutic massage has long been a part of the hospital’s rehabilitation repertoire, but lesser known variations such as trigger point therapy — which deals with muscular tension and pain — have also come into play.


One unique therapy that has recently become available is Watsu . Vivian Howell, a licensed massage therapist who has worked at the Tully Center for the past four years, took the initiative to introduce the service into the hospital’s program. “There’s a gorgeous, warm therapy pool,” Howell says. “Most of the time, it sat there empty.” So, she traveled to California to study with Watsu’s creator, Harold Dull, and brought what she learned back to Stamford.


As the name implies, Watsu is a combination of water and shiatsu. “It’s in a category unto itself,” Howell declares. “You are held in the water with your head supported and under the sacrum (the large, triangular bone at the base of the spine). It starts out with stillness. We connect with the breath. Then, there’s a feeling of descending and ascending in the water. Then, you’re rocked like a baby. And then, you go into different twists and turns, which help stretch the meridians in the body.”


Watsu appears to ease conditions where there’s a loss of muscle control, such as Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy and fibromyalgia. “Your muscles have memory,” says Howell, speculating that “Watsu brings you back to when you didn’t have all of these worries and concerns. Your body starts to remember, and you can go into a deep relaxed state.”


Perhaps the most surprising place in the hospital that complementary services have surfaced is in the area of cardiology. At the instigation of the department’s chief and program director of cardiac surgery, Dr. Li Poa, the hospital has adopted a number of homeopathic practices. “All open-heart patients receive acupuncture prior to and just after their surgery,” reports Mary Henwood-Klotz, administrator of the Center for Integrated Wellness, of one of Poa’s innovations. “It’s amazing for the nursing staff to see how much better some of the patients are doing by having that service,” she says.


And later this summer, Stamford Hospital will open its new Center for Integrated Wellness at the Tully Center. “It’s basically an outpatient facility that builds on what the Bennett Cancer Center has already done,” says Henwood-Klotz. Already on site is Dr. Joseph Feuerstein, a traditionally trained physician in family medicine who recently completed a two-year fellowship in Dr. Andrew Weil’s program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Feuerstein’s areas of expertise are supplements, herbal remedies and Chinese medicine. He offers patients who have been referred by a physician a one-hour holistic consultation.


One effect of large institutions such as Stamford Hospital bringing integrative medicine to the forefront is that physicians in private practice have begun to give unconventional treatment options a closer look. When Drs. Rena Fortier and Donald Savitz opened Long Ridge Dermatology in 1997, they took a straightforward approach to diagnosing and treating skin disorders and diseases using science-based medical and cosmetic procedures. By the time they were joined in the practice by Dr. Ayelet Mizachi, the list of services they offered was decidedly high tech.

“Botox and Restylane are two of our most popular treatments,” reports Dr. Savitz, of their initial success. “We also do a lot of laser hair removal, microdermabrasion and a variety of chemical peels.” Long Ridge Dermatology is also one of the few medical groups in the area to offer Fraxel Laser treatments, a rejuvenating process that’s especially effective for skin issues associated with time, such as sun exposure and aging. “We’ve been doing it for a year,” Dr. Savitz notes. “To get the same effect in the past, patients had to hide from the public for a couple of weeks after their treatment. But with this technique, you don’t have any downtime, and you get the same benefits.”

Yet Dr. Savitz, a Stamford native, sensed a demand from his patients for something more. So the doctors decided to expand their facility to include med spa services. “We’ll be combining relaxation services with the traditional counseling and medical treatments that we give,” says Dr. Savitz. In addition to adding licensed massage therapists and a nutritional consultant to the staff, the doctors will also be formulating their own skin care products.


With so many options available in Stamford, how do you determine if a complementary medical practice is right for you?


The Mayo Clinic, the Minnesota-based research institute (www.mayoclinic.com), suggests that you begin by weighing the risks of a given therapy against any potential benefits. Do this by talking with your doctor about anything that you’re planning to try. Be particularly cautious about the kinds of negative interaction that supplements might have with medication you’re already taking. And make sure you have a diagnosis of your health problems from your primary care physician to compare with what you’re told by other providers.


Then, check out the practitioner’s credentials. Though a license is no guarantee of quality care, it’s at least an indication that the practitioner has met certain standards. Eileen Karn, who was instrumental in lobbying for Connecticut’s system of licensing acupuncturists, sees this as key. “The states all around us already had licensing laws,” she explains. “And Connecticut was a bit of a haven for people from other jurisdictions who had either lost their licenses or didn’t have proper training.”


And, finally, use your common sense. “If it sounds too good, it probably is,” Fran Becker warns. Thus, it is all the more heartening that the medical community at large has taken a closer look at alternative therapies. “We’re trying to provide patients with medical oversight,” Elizabeth Manfredo explains. “And by having the hospital vet some of these programs, we’re hoping to grow the number of people who benefit from using them.”

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