At Bon Secours' Mind Body Medical Institute, patients tap into their own healing powers. 

Stress Busters

Tom Wojick's illness wasn't all in his head, but it was partially there.

Every Sunday night after dinner, like clockwork, Wojick began experiencing severe intestinal cramping.

He saw his doctor about the problem, but both the doctor and Wojick himself overlooked a major factor. "Not once did he ever say to me, 'What's going on in your life?'" Wojick recalls.

What was going on was that Wojick lived in Chesapeake but for four years had been commuting to Richmond where he worked as vice president of behavioral health services for Bon Secours Richmond. Every Sunday night he'd begin the process of leaving for the week, and that's when the problems would start. The pain and aftereffects of his intestinal problems would linger until about Wednesday. He'd head back to Chesapeake on Friday and start the cycle again. It was only later that he understood it was the emotional stress of leaving that triggered his weekly illness.

Wojick's is a classic example of how the mind affects the body. Funny, then, that two years later he should become the director of the Mind Body Medical Institute of Bon Secours Richmond, a center devoted to easing the symptoms of medical problems by addressing the stress-related causes.

The institute is about to complete its first year of operation offering programs that help patients reduce symptoms through changes in behaviors and attitudes. Clinicians and instructors use breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, diet, exercise, yoga and cognitive restructuring (identifying how beliefs and thoughts cause stress) to tackle problems associated with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain, migraine headaches, digestive problems, insomnia and high blood pressure, among other illnesses.

"It helps you identify negative thought patterns and learn to challenge that," says Program Clinician Carol Zogran, who is a clinical nurse specialist.

But whatever you do, don't call this "alternative medicine."

"Everything we do is research-based. It's not alternative medicine," Zogran says. "It's based on solid medical research."

That research connects Bon Secours' program to Harvard University, where cardiologist Herbert Benson began his groundbreaking research on the mind/body connection in the 1970s. He is the author of six books, including "The Relaxation Response," "The Mind/Body Effect" and "The Wellness Book." Benson identified and coined the term "relaxation response" as the opposite of the natural fight-or-flight response in all animals, including humans. While the fight-or-flight response triggers hormones that raise blood pressure and heart rate and cause muscles to tense, the relaxation response lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and creates a sense of calm.

Benson, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, established the Mind/Body Medical Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts continuing research and includes a network of 14 affiliates such as the Bon Secours center throughout the country. It offers programs for medical-symptom reduction, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, cardiac wellness, HIV and AIDS, infertility, menopause, pain management, healthy lifestyles and insomnia.

Currently, Bon Secours' center offers the medical-symptom reduction, healthy lifestyles and cardiac wellness programs. It plans to add the cancer program, which is aimed at curbing the symptoms associated with chemotherapy and the stress of cancer, in the fall.

"What we teach people is how to … tap into their own healing properties within us to fight illness and disease," says Wojick.

He likens medical treatment to a stool that is wobbling precariously on two legs — the traditional disciplines of surgery and pharmacology. What is missing, he says, is the third leg — self-care, the mind/body connection that allows people to avoid the other two. "There is a real significant difference between treating the disease, and treating the disease and the person," he says.

Seems like common sense, yet there are still a great many doctors (and insurance companies) that hear words like "mind/body" and think crystals and aromatherapy. Wojick says in its first year, the center has been "slowly progressing." Classrooms aren't bursting with patients referred by physicians. Insurance companies won't reimburse the $600 for the 10-week medical-symptom reduction class, even though it's helped people like 73-year-old Joyce Gontkovic, who says she is calmer, more relaxed and in less pain than she was when she started the class. Now that she's finished, her back hurts less, and she knows what to do when it flares up. The dosage of medication she takes for depression has been cut in half.

Bon Secours' program could get the boost it needs next week when Benson, the man who started it all, comes to St. Mary's Hospital Sept. 13 to speak at the hospital's annual medical staff meeting. If his message hits home with that tough audience, it could mean increased referrals.

Benson will also speak at Imperial Plaza retirement community, at 1717 Bellevue Ave. in North Side at 2 p.m. The event is open to the public.

Even if Benson doesn't hit pay dirt with the medical staff, Wojick and Zogran are confident that it's just a matter of time before mainstream medicine wakes up to the benefits of mind/body medicine. Blue Cross in Boston is beginning to reimburse providers for this kind of care, and insurance giant Kaiser Permanente offers its own version of a mind/body program, Wojick says.

Zogran says insurance companies would be missing the boat not to come along soon: "These programs teach skills [people] incorporate for the rest of their

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