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Whole Person Health Care Brings Out Your Inner Gardener

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"Would you like your doctor to be a mechanic or a gardener?"

"A mechanic fixes broken parts, but a gardener is interested in the whole plant," Dr. Donald B. Levy said as he addressed the mostly female audience at his lunchtime talk at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital. "You have to till the soil, strengthen the plant, add in nutrients and care for it at each stage of growth."

Dr. Levy's presentation focused on "Health Care for the Whole Person." He acknowledged the strengths of doctors, especially surgeons, who are often more like meticulous mechanics, but suggested his current practice was more in line with a gardener's perspective when treating patients.

After a 25-year career in primary care, Dr. Levy switched gears and "became more interested in strengthening the patient beyond pills and procedures." He said his current practice of integrative medicine is mostly an attitude of mind where TLC (therapeutic lifestyle change) is vital.

"There's an innate healing force in the human body," he said. "We're beyond machines. I'm interested in the whole person and teaching people how to take care of themselves."

Dr. Levy shared how 2,000-year-old seeds found in an Egyptian tomb actually regenerated when immersed in water. "We can do that, too," he said, citing that 99 percent of the human body regenerates over a short period of time." For instance, our skin is completely regenerated in seven days, red blood cells in 120 days, and every single cell in our skeleton is replaced every seven years (Stanford School of Medicine).

The gardening analogy in caring for one's health got me thinking about how it relates to a spiritual practice in caring for health. As lifestyle medicine takes off, my hope is that while caring for one's health through better diet and regular exercise is a progressive step forward, considering the "whole person" rightfully includes tending to the thoughts we think on a regular basis. Our thoughts are a lot like the soil -- because, like soil, they are the very foundation of health.

What if you're physically fit, eat all the right things, but you feel animosity, fear, stress, or loneliness? No amount of exercise or good food can specifically and completely address these feelings, and yet they do negatively impact your health.

While meditation and psychotherapy are often included in the array of modalities physicians consider for maintaining a patient's mental health, many people find great benefit from a spiritual practice and a church community to support them and their well-being.

Consider recent research in the field of neurotheology that suggests prayer actually reshapes your brain and changes brain activity when practiced consistently over a period of time. "You can sculpt your brain just as you'd sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym," neuroscientist Richard Davidson told NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty ("Prayer May Reshape Your Brain and Your Reality").

If prayer can change the brain, imagine what it's doing for the rest of you? Trust in God and the peace of that understanding uproots the weeds of stress, fear, or unease, which then naturally translates into better health -- as this Scriptural passage suggests: "And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy you with all good things, and keep you healthy too; and you will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring" (Isaiah 58: 11).

At the American College of Lifestyle Medicine Conference I recently attended, Dr. Dean Ornish told the audience, largely made up of physicians: "Doctors need to reclaim their role as healers, not simply technicians," reminding us that healing comes from the root word, "to make whole." He also shared that "the goal of all spiritual practices is they quiet our mind and body so we can experience what we already have." He emphasized, "It's not to get something but rather to experience the peace and well-being that's already there."

That's truly tending to the whole person.

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