Therapeutic Session at the Rudolf Steiner Health Center
by Kristen Puckett
Kristen Puckett lives in Northern Virginia. She is the mother of three children. She currently volunteers with local hospice and meals on wheels programs.
Attending a two-week therapeutic retreat with Drs. Molly and Quentin McMullen, in Ann Arbor, Michigan this past summer, I found true therapy and true retreat.
Two months later, I find the essence of my experience in two simple words: Rhythm and Devotion. But these words come in a context; so let me set the scene.
The Anna Botsford Bach Home in Ann Arbor is home to the Rudolf Steiner Health Center. Built in 1916, it is three stories high, with graceful proportions, pleasant grounds and gardens. It is in a quiet residential neighborhood. Nearby parks and woods make for enjoyable walks, while, should one suddenly need an espresso or a book store, a twenty minute walk takes one to central Ann Arbor. Twice a day the music of bells floats along from a church across the street.
Fourteen patients attended the summer retreat, one third from Michigan, the rest from various parts-the furthest being Israel. Ages ranged from under 20 to over 80, and reasons for attending were as varied as the individuals. For several, this was a first exposure to anthroposophic medicine-so much so the tongue tripped on the words. Add the staff of medical doctors, nurses, therapists, housekeepers and cooks who also arrived from near and far-it was a lively and interesting community that settled into shared meals and evening gatherings.
Of course, we were there for a therapeutic retreat. Each patient met frequently with his/her doctor and was tended by his/her nurse. Each had an utterly individualized schedule – medicines, nursing treatments, (more on these later), and therapeutic activities -speech formation, art therapies, eurythmy, rhythmical massage, biographical work, therapeutic baths. As in life, no one can have everything-each patient was prescribed two or three therapies specific to his or her situation. I, for example, was prescribed eurythmy and speech-but not the massage or watercolor I had secretly dreamed of! Group speech and eurythmy were available to all in the afternoons.
Beyond “formal” therapies, individualized suggestions were introduced over the 2 weeks. These added hints ranged from being outdoors-walks or garden work, for example-to keeping a journal, taking long rests, drinking that special tea, or taking extra nourishment.
Anthroposophical nursing care was, for me, one of the most unusual aspects of the retreat, and worthy of special mention. The idea of a warm compress has always elicited images straight out of Little Women; a “foot embrocation” turned out to be a form of light massage, not the footbath I had envisioned. It was a revelation to receive them daily.
Now, a compress or embrocation is healing in itself, but most remarkable is the way in which the therapy is administered. Silence reigns. Gestures are calm and slow-almost ritualistic. This must stem from the intention, described in our “nurse’s evening”, of striving to work completely in the moment. The result for a patient- this one at least- is feeling entirely cared for.
Now, as wonderful as all of these activities are, is being embedded in a living rhythmic form that made them most fruitful. There was a schedule and it was followed fairly faithfully. But do not be misled-a ” scheduled” has a bit of a dead quality, while what we lived was a rhythm. Soft singing in the halls wakened us; we ate (excellent meals) at regular times and all together. Morning singing and a house blessing set a tone for the day; outings were arranged and rearranged; people took walks or conversed or went on errands; of course, everyone had a therapeutic schedule. And we rested. And rested. Rest after meals. Rest after therapy. Rest after compress. Rest after embrocation. “Rest, rest, rest.” I wrote home. I could never have imagined my own capacity for rest and more rest. Nor my capacity for complete quiet-no radio, no news, no telephone, no computer. Instead human voices, bird song, my own inner rhythms. My brain became quiet. Such a rhythm restores healthy breathing, physical and non-physical.
Lastly-because all this sounds rather solemn-intermingled with all the earnest devotion and loving activity was humor. We laughed.
House of Healing, House of Rest
I have cancer. I was diagnosed in August 2004. I had just become unemployed and was contemplating what I would do next. Now I knew. I would have cancer.
To have a serious illness is a full time job. To keep my cancer from spreading, indeed, to fight against it and eradicate it from my body, treatment had to start immediately. For me this meant a course of daily radiation, supplemented by weekly chemotherapy treatments over five weeks, followed by two applications of internal radiation.
I was in the care of an excellent oncologist. Treatments took place at a small, intimate hospital with an excellent, personable team of doctors, nurses, technicians and support staff. I felt well cared for and recognized as an individual, not just another cancer case. This was important, as the treatments themselves were not particularly pleasant, and their side effects were at times quite distressing. Radiation treatments exhausted me. They gave me sunburn in strange and unusual places, which made my skin itchy and raw. They upset my digestion. The chemotherapy made me nauseated, and each week I vomited sooner, and more often than the week before. I was given drugs to address the side effects of the chemotherapy, and creams to treat the raw, itchy skin. It is a fact that, except for the effects of the anemia caused by my cancer, I had felt well prior to cancer treatment, but that the treatment itself made me feel very ill. I lost weight. I lost muscle tone. My doctors were very sympathetic, monitored my reactions to treatments and medications, but found little they could do to help against my general loss of inner vitality.
It was the overall loss of strength and stamina and general well being that led me to seek care at the Rudolf Steiner Health Center after my conventional cancer treatments had been completed. With the support and approval of my doctors, I enrolled in the next two-week health retreat being held at the Steiner clinic.
The Rudolf Steiner Health Center is housed in al old mansion in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is in a quiet neighborhood, across from a church behind which are woods with paths where patients and community members walk. The house itself has three full floors of rooms. On the second and third floors are bedrooms, bathrooms, therapy rooms, an examination room, offices and workspaces. On the first floor are the community rooms: kitchen, dining room, library and living room, and another bathroom. A wide stairway leads from floor to floor, beginning and ending each time on a spacious landing furnished with chairs for people to rest. For those for whom stairs are challenging, there is also an elevator.
The house is clean, bright, and welcoming. Each room is furnished with a thought not only to its practical use, but also towards creating an atmosphere of beauty and peace. Every room contains a vase of fresh flowers, and the linens are of natural materials.
The mood at the Rudolf Steiner Health Center is set from the outset by the center’s founders, the Doctors McMullen. Their warmth, graciousness and easy humor are reflected in the friendliness of all the staff. Before I’d been there a week, it had permeated the spirits of the patients as well. It was easy to fall into a habit of participation and thankfulness.
In addition to their great warmth of soul, the doctors, therapists, nurses, aides, cooks and other staff reflected a high level of training and expertise. The doctors coordinated each patient’s care and specific therapies and medications so that they would be mutually supportive. Thus I was able to identify recurring themes in all my care. For me, these themes were warmth, balance, and rest.
Rest is a theme that unifies all care at the Rudolf Steiner Health Center. It is a principal of each therapy that it should be followed by a period of rest. During this time, as you lie in bed in comfortable warmth with your eyes shut, and your mind still, the therapy just received takes stronger hold in your being. During my rests, I felt a deep, rhythmic balance in my breathing. I continued a sense of balanced movement after eurythmy and speech therapies, and a flowing of beautiful colors after painting. Massage and bath therapies left my mind and body in peaceful emptiness, as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.
Rhythm, too, brings rest. Each day and week at the Rudolf Steiner Health Center had a rhythm of meals, rest periods, medications and therapies. After breakfast, the doctors, therapists and patients gathered to sing rounds together. An hour of quiet rest, sometimes with a compress and hot water bottle applied to the area above the liver, followed lunch. After dinner, the patients and some of the therapists, doctors and nurses gathered around the library fireplace to hear a presentation on a health topic, or just to be together as a community.
I am not a napper. Even as a young child, I would creep from my bed at rest time to cut the hair of my sister’s dolls, or eat her chocolates if mine were gone. Sleep was remote during the time provided for my afternoon nap. It is clear, then, that the idea of a midday rest period, while not wholly foreign to me, was not welcomed either with any great joy when I first came to the Rudolf Steiner Health Care Center. And yet, the hour of rest following the mid-day meal marks and defines each day. Peace and stillness settle on the house. Warmth and comfort steal over the body and mind. The eyes close of themselves. It is as if the house itself has released a long, slow breath. Time is suspended. The healing forces are at work. Slowly I have opened up to receive the tremendous benefits of rest. Even as I finish my meal, I feel my body relaxing, preparing for rest.
Rest is a great healer. It increases the effectiveness of the medications and therapies, which themselves support the healing taken on by the body when its waking activities are suspended. Two weeks seems a short time to spend in recovery from a serious illness, and full recovery is not expected from a single session at the Rudolf Steiner Health Center. But two weeks is long enough to learn new ways to approach health; long enough to experience a renewal of vitality, of life forces; long enough to be touched with inner peace. In my two weeks at the Steiner clinic, my digestion, disrupted by radiation and chemotherapy, returned to normal. My spirit, which had reached a state of passive acceptance of my illness and whatever it would lead to, regained its spark, and I was able to begin to look toward the future with greater mobility of mind. Healthy color returned to my face, and the dark circles under my eyes all but disappeared.
What happened then when the two weeks ended, and the patients dispersed, returning to their homes? We had the opportunity to take many of our therapies with us. We had speech and eurythmy exercises to continue. We had been taught how to make footbaths and compresses. I was even given instructions on how to continue my therapeutic baths. Some of us continued medications we’d begun taking at the clinic. Some patients would even continue consultations by phone with the doctors. We had learned a new approach to healthful living, and left with an opportunity to freely choose to continue to eat healthier meals, to live a more rhythmic, balanced life where activity and stress are offset by periods of rest. And we left, knowing that if we felt the need to return at some point in the future, we would be warmly welcomed to another two-week session of physical and spiritual renewal.
For more information on cancer treatment, see our Cancer Treatment page.
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