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Alternative Healing at Westminster

Alternative Healing at Westminster

By Jennifer Rose

Puzzle pieces lie at random on a table, some with straight edges, others as fluid as abstract art. Separately, the image they create hides, indistinguishable, until the corners coalesce with the curves and colors blend recognizably.

Dr. Yeou-Lan Chen similarly describes the theories of complementary and alternative healing: "Western science pays attention to reductionism--whatever the problem is we can reduce and reduce, and look at each thing as a part. For the holistic theoretical foundation, we see the 'whole' as a sum of the parts."

The practice of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), long seen as mystical and disreputable, is slowly gaining prominence in today's traditional Western medicine. A growing number of physicians, hospitals, and medical schools take CAM seriously and feel comfortable integrating such practices into their everyday routines. CAM practices range from the familiar aromatherapy, chiropractic methods, and massage to Chinese medicine, Chi-Kung (integration of posture and breathing), and Reiki (healing by touch). According to Chen, professor at St. Mark's Westminster School of Nursing, patients used to keep silent about the use of alternative therapies, afraid their doctors would turn them away "already treated." But now, patients ask their doctors about CAM, and the patient-doctor relationship focuses on a positive outcome.

Currently, Westminster's nursing school offers CAM classes as electives, available to all students across campus. Chen and Diane Forster-Burke, interim dean of the nursing school, both agree that nursing students currently have enough classes to worry about without adding required CAM courses to their programs. However, other classes do discuss CAM theories.

"We made a decision as a nursing faculty that we would integrate or introduce aspects of CAM throughout the curriculum," said Forster-Burke. For example, pharmacology instructors introduce students to herbs and the interaction of herbs with standard Western medication. Chen believes that nursing curriculums will include CAM courses in the future, and she and Forster-Burke hope to see a CAM minor in Westminster's nursing school one day.

Although some medical and nursing students remain averse to CAM, communities are demanding more CAM therapy. From 1991 to 1997, a Harvard survey determined a 47 percent increase in patient visits to alternative medicine practitioners in the U.S. Chen certainly sees a growing community need. "It doesn't matter whether nursing wants to change or not," she said. "This is a trend, and nursing education is based on whatever the community needs are. We cannot just say, 'I don't want to change,' because change is the way our product--the student--can go out and survive. Otherwise, we don't teach community needs, and that's not right."

Forster-Burke also recognizes the growing trend of alternative healing. "It's just huge, and it's important for nurses on the bachelor's level and the master's level to know how to ask the questions to most appropriately support their patients and clients in providing the information that they need to recognize when [alternative] therapies can be integrated."

Over the 2002-2003 academic year, Chen brought three workshops to campus that focused on various alternative healing practices: herbal medicine, Navajo healing, and Inca shamanism. Though CAM therapies stem from numerous ancient and modern cultures--Chinese, Indian, South American, and Native American, to name a few--they all maintain similar philosophies. "They're holistic, so they focus on body, mind, spirit as a whole, a person as a whole; they emphasize a person with his environment," said Chen.

Western medicine tends to focus on a "cure," while CAM focuses on a "heal," according to Chen. People with chronic illnesses such as cancer can stay alive longer because of good medication, but they have to take it their whole life. "With CAM, the definition of health is different than in Western medicine," said Chen. "Even if you have those kinds of problems, you can still be healthy. CAM helps people increase their quality of life."

For example, cancer and AIDS patients use a wide range of CAM; meditation, stress reduction, painting, and even prayer are considered alternative forms of healing to complement Western medication. Though Chen practices complementary and alternative therapies, as well as teaches the May term courses Complementary Healing (co-taught with Forster-Burke), and Energy Healing and Spirituality, she stresses the importance of integrative medicine--the combined practice of traditional Western medicine and complementary healing. "I really feel these two need to combine together," she said. "I don't trust the people who say, 'Western medicine is no good,' or 'acupuncture is not good.' It's too narrow-minded. Every modality has strengths and limitations, even Western medicine. If CAM and Western medicine combined, they could complement each other's strengths and weaknesses."

Students don't have to take CAM courses to graduate from Westminster's nursing program, but Forster-Burke believes that becoming familiar with CAM practices can add to the students' nursing practice. "There are many things that happen in the patient care arena that Western medicine doesn't have a real good handle on, and if the nurse has some idea of other therapies which he or she knows can be used appropriately for that particular problem, why not be able to use CAM and Western medicine together?" she said. "I think the more knowledgeable you are as a nurse, the better the discussion of information you can have with your patients."

Jennifer Rose is a copy editor in Westminster College's Communication Office.