By Anne Rueter, Originally published in the Ann Arbor News
The stately wood doors at 1422 W. Liberty St. recently opened to 13 patients seeking relief – and a new outlook on their ills – at an unusual new holistic medicine venture, the Rudolf Steiner Health Center. The graceful Italian-villa -style building, formerly the Anna Botsford Bach home for the elderly, is a familiar landmark on Ann Arbor’s west side. It doesn’t look or feel like a hospital.
That’s very much the point, say the center’s founders, local physicians Quentin McMullen and Molly McMullen-Laird.
The couple, trained as M.D.s, have practiced a form of alternative medicine known as anthroposophical medicine for five years at Community Supported Anthroposophical Medicine, their own outpatient clinic on Ann Arbor’s east side. The new residential health center showcases therapies they’ve long believed can fill a void in health care for people with excess weight, high blood pressure and more serious problems like chronic fatigue syndrome and autoimmune diseases.
“I believe we all have a self-healing mechanism that can be activated,” says McMullen-Laird. Anthroposophical medicine aims to treat the mind and spirit as well as the body.
At the new center’s recent weeklong session, many patients came for tools to deal with health problems for which there is no cure. That was true, too, at earlier sessions the two doctors conducted in northern Michigan.
The experience is like a retreat, “a tune-up,” McMullen-Laird says.
“We have a lot of patients who come with fibromyalgia, arthritis and chronic pain problems… We often have a newly diagnosed cancer patient, in that shell-shocked state where they’re thinking, ‘My life has just been turned on its head, and I need to sort this out.'”
The retreats are gearing up slowly, with the next one scheduled for February. The extended time-out – two-week, one-week and three-day stays are planned – helps patients change their mindsets about living with their illnesses. They learn new therapies to practice at home, says McMullen-Laird.
“I feel confident I can take some of it with me,” says Anne Mininberg of Ann Arbor. At the recent session, she says she learned the value of a daily routine that includes nutritious meals at regular times. She now intends to keep a healthier schedule at home.
“I didn’t realize till I came, that I wasn’t really taking good care of myself.” Mininberg, who has immunosuppressive problems, found the almost daily rhythmic massages “enormously helpful” for her swollen limbs.
With the new inpatient center, the two doctors step closer to a goal they’ve had since training in Rudolf Steiner-based treatment methods in Switzerland in the 1990s: to run one of the nation’s first – if not the first – anthroposophical medicine hospitals. In five years, Quentin McMullen says he hopes to be raising funds for a larger facility of 50 beds, a type of convalescent hospital similar in size to a rehabilitation center.
He’s confident the new Rudolf Steiner Health Center, which only has space to treat 14 to 15 patients at a time, will take off easily. He thinks that soon patients will be on waiting lists for two-week and shorter sessions.
Most patients pay out-of-pocket for the sessions. Charges run $350 to $400 per day, including room and board, therapies, nursing care and physician treatments.
Health insurance won’t cover the residential costs. The therapeutic services may be covered by some insurers’ home-care provisions, says McMullen-Laird.
The recent session was shortened from two weeks to a week to suit both the budgets and time constraints of those who wanted to sign up, says McMullen.
Jane Lorand of Santa Rosa, Calif., considers the week’s price-tag of about $2,500 inexpensive for the “outstanding care” she received during the session. She says that’s about the cost of a room for one day at the California hospital where she has spent time being treated for Sweet’s disease, a rare autoimmune disorder that struck her a couple of years ago.
She had been pushing on with a hectic life as owner of two businesses and as mother of five. She took a week off to attend the session, hoping to reduce the doses of prednisone and other drugs she takes to control the disease’s symptoms of pain, blood blisters and internal bleeding. She met others at the center who also wanted time-out from stressed lives to examine what was happening to their health.
A schedule with serenity
At the session earlier this month, some patients were new to the anthroposophical concepts they found in daily sessions in art therapy, special movements called curative eurythmy, speech formation therapy, rhythmic massage and homeopathic medicines. Others were more familiar with the therapies, based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner. Anthroposophical medicine is more widely practiced in Europe than in the United States. It’s an outgrowth of spiritual scientific studies outlined by Steiner. Its practitioners add to modern physical medicine “a knowledge of the laws of the living organism, of the psyche and the spirit derived from a spiritual scientific methodology,” according to the Physicians’ Association of Anthroposophical Medicine Web site.
Steiner’s ideas inspire an active community in the Ann Arbor area. The Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor practices his educational ideas. In 1998, local Steiner followers welcomed McMullen and McMullen-Laird’s clinic, which is partly supported by a 270-member patient organization that combines features of a cooperative and a health maintenance organization. Ann Arbor is also the home of the Anthroposophical Society in America, the U.S. arm of the anthroposophical society Steiner founded in 1923.
While at the serene high-ceilinged home, with its massive stone fireplaces and dining room overlooking a tree-filled slope, the patients aren’t supposed to have frequent contact with friends or family.
“This place is just like ‘Stop,'” Lorand says. She had to turn off her cell phone. She made only five phone calls during her stay. When she’s back to her everyday pressures, she hopes to set hours when she won’t be in cell-phone contact. During the retreat she realized, she says, “That is the tone of my life – I was responding to it constantly.”
At the health center, patients and workers sit together family style to eat three meals of organic vegetarian food, with little sugar and an emphasis on whole grains. “We significantly change a lot of people’s eating habits,” says McMullen-Laird.
Each patient has a daily schedule, based on his or her needs. Nurses trained in anthroposophical techniques frequently use compresses, foot baths, hydrotherapy and oils.
Patients do clay modeling and painting in an upstairs room. In future sessions, McMullen and McMullen-Laird hope to add a music therapist.
Working with mainstream medicine
The two anthroposophical doctors say acceptance of their version of alternative medicine has grown in the past seven years, along with burgeoning interest nationally in alternative therapies in general. They frequently work with mainstream doctors at the University of Michigan and St. Joseph Mercy Hospital who also treat their patients. Some oncologists refer patients to them for supplemental treatments. Those include iscador, a mistletoe derivative. McMullen-Laird says she has seen cancer patients feel more energetic and need less pain medication when iscador is added to conventional cancer treatment regimens.
But for all the good will, McMullen feels something important is missing in mainstream medicine: “a realistic idea of what disease and health are.”
In high-tech modern hospitals, he says, “Disease is considered the enemy. From our way of looking at it, disease is something human beings go through as a matter of course to become stronger. You can get into this stream of becoming stronger mentally and physically, if you know it’s there.”
The two doctors operate the new nonprofit health center under a board’s guidance. People buy “community shares” to become shareholders in the organization. They get a tax deduction and a 1 percent discount on a two-week stay at the center per year. If the stay isn’t needed, people can pool their shares to offer a discount to others. Shareholders are mostly local, but some live on the east and west coasts and in Canada.
Reporter Anne Rueter can be reached at (734) 994-6759 or [email protected]