When Maria Villicana came to Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, she had no idea what Integrative Medicine (IM) was. She just knew she’d begun feeling pain all over her body – her knees, legs, ankles, hands, neck, and wrists. She was suffering from depression and losing sleep. After a series of blood tests and X-rays, Maria was diagnosed with osteoarthritis. It got so bad she couldn’t walk without the help of a cane. One day, her physician, Dr. Ben Brown, saw her struggling to get out of her car. “He noticed the pain medicines weren’t working,” Maria recalls. “He asked me if I would be interested in trying an elimination diet. I was crying, upset, tired of the pain and medicines. Nothing was working. So I said yes.” Dr. Brown asked Maria to follow a strict diet that cut out all gluten and dairy for one month. “This is usually very challenging for patients to do,” Dr. Brown says. Yet at the end of the four weeks, Maria says, “Dr. Brown was very surprised when he saw me. I was walking normally, and the pain in my hip was gone. I was sleeping better. This was two years ago.” Since that time, Maria has continued with her new lifestyle, incorporating regular water exercise to complement her new diet. Her depression is gone. Dr. Brown indicates, “This is an excellent example of how Integrative Medicine can change a life.”
He explains: “Integrative Medicine complements traditional western medicine, it doesn’t replace it. We know that our attitudes, beliefs, and identity contribute to our overall well-being. Our lifestyle and habits, including the amount of movement we get, the kinds of foods we eat, and the quality of our sleep and relaxation, all have an impact on our health. In addition to western medicine, we use proven Integrative Medicine practices that address the patient’s concerns from the point of view of the whole person,” says Dr. Brown.
Dr. Wendy Kohatsu, physician, IM provider, chef, and champion of the “food-as-medicine” concept at Vista, elaborates: “There are a lot of chronic medical conditions for which western medicine has partial or no treatment. Integrative Medicine uses nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, and natural supplements that complement western medicine. In addition, many of our patients are already using IM in their lives by using herbs, teas, tinctures, and their own cultural remedies, so what we’re teaching is the science behind what many of our patients already know.”
Dr. Brown and Dr. Kohatsu are faculty members for the Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency at Vista Family Health Center. Patients at Vista can access a weekly Integrative Medicine clinic, where services like osteopathic manipulation (which involves the manipulation of joints and bones to diagnose and treat illness), lifestyle change support, acupuncture, nutritional consults, Ayurvedic medicine (a centuries-old system of medicine native to India), and trigger point injections are provided.
Integrative Medicine is also available to patients at our Southwest Community Health Center at Lombardi Court. Mental health providers at Southwest incorporate mindfulness meditation and abdominal breathing into stress management and stress reduction techniques taught in anxiety groups. Two providers offer acupuncture; and Southwest holds a popular weekly class called “Dulce Vida” or “Sweet Life” to prevent and control diabetes that focuses 100% on nutrition and exercise. The class is always full.
An emphasis of the IM program at both sites is helping patients access healthy, affordable food. “Twenty years ago, it was difficult to get a Coke. Today, it’s easier to get food that’s bad for you than good. It takes a greater degree of intentionality to be healthy,” says Marie Mulligan, MD, Medical Director at Southwest Community Health Center.
At Vista, a recent grant supports the FVRx program, known as “Veggie Rx,” through which providers prescribe and provide vouchers for fruits and vegetables for pregnant women who are at risk for gestational diabetes. Members of the Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency do free cooking demonstrations at the Farmer’s Market, and several providers conduct group visits for their patients at local grocery stores as a means of teaching patients how to purchase healthy foods that fit within their budgets. Several local organizations donate fresh fruit and vegetables for patients at Southwest, including Rancho Mendoza Market, Ortega’s Market, and WHOA Farms; and doctors from Vista were successful in spearheading the movement to get Sonoma County Farmers Markets to accept CalFresh (food stamps).
The Integrative Medicine program at Vista has gained local and national attention as the IM movement gains momentum. Indeed, local partnerships are flourishing with the University of California San Francisco, Community Acupuncture, the SHARE Exchange, and the Sonoma Alliance for a Veggie Outreach Revolution (SAVOR) to name a few. Dr. Brown says, “By providing these services to underserved patients, we’ve become pilots, leaders, and examples around the country. We are clearly meeting a need, and there is a shift in this country in this direction.”
SRCHC is committed to the holistic care of our patients, their families, and our community. We are proud to include Integrative Medicine among the ways we strive to create an excellent health care experience for each of our treasured patients.