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Treating the whole human being: the Penny George Institute

Penny George Institute
Photo by Bill Kelley
Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is the largest inpatient integrative medicine clinic in the nation.
The Line

Illness is not just physical. That's hardly a new idea, but for years, techniques like acupuncture, aromatherapy, and healing touch — which treated symptoms but also patients' mental and spiritual well-being — got little respect from hard-nosed medical professionals. Prescription drugs and surgery, with more demonstrable effects and corresponding research, took center stage as "real medicine."

But appreciation for so-called "alternative" or "complementary" medicine is less rare than it used to be, and Minneapolis' Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is both evidence and a willing vehicle of that change. It's the largest inpatient integrative medicine clinic in the nation, and a feng shui master helped to design its outpatient clinic, whose wood, water, and stone elements and fireplace make it resemble a spa. Designers left literally no stone unturned in making the clinic healing-friendly; when the foundation was poured, workers added rose quartz crystals to the cement.

Dr. Courtney Baechler
Photo by Bill Kelley
Dr. Courtney Baechler

More unusual is its close relationship with a traditional medical setting. The Institute's three physicians and 55 providers treat about 10 percent of Abbott Northwestern Hospital patients with Chinese medicine, energy healing, biofeedback, healing touch, and many other treatments. That translates to more than 14,000 inpatient visits (and more than 17,000 outpatient) annually.

Cardiologist Dr. Courtney Baechler, the Institute's director, says that Penny George exists in part because patients wanted it to. "More and more patients are asking for this kind of treatment," she says.

The idea of Penny George is simple: You treat the whole patient, not just the  body but also the mind and spirit. So you give them chemo to fight their cancer, but you offer ginger and reflexology to help them fight the pain and nausea afterward. You have a nurse practice healing touch and massage, maybe with some lavender oil, to help them calm down and relax when worries about the future overwhelm them. You teach them how to use mental imagery or breathing exercises so their pain and fear don't undercut their ability to heal. And you do it all in the hospital, not just afterward.

"The idea is to meet patients where they are, as opposed to where medical school taught us to," Baechler says.

Working hand in hand

Take, for example, Douglas Grams, a 61-year-old tractor dealer from New Ulm. After a brain stem stroke in mid-September, Grams recovered at Abbott Northwestern. Fortunately for Grams, the stroke didn't affect any of his cognitive abilities, but he did lose all sense of balance. To regain it, he's been doing occupational therapy, physical therapy — and acupuncture.

"Since my stroke, I've had double vision and dizziness, and while I'm getting acupuncture, that clears right up," he says. "I was skeptical about it, but now I've been telling anyone who will listen that they should try it."

To help treat an inner-ear infection, Grams's acupuncturist also gave him Roman chamomile, which soothes the inner ear and promotes a sense of calm and well-being.

Baechler says that the Institute gets referrals from Abbott doctors and nurses who have seen the effectiveness of these treatments.

"People have been seeking this kind of approach from the [health care] community for along time, and the health system is finding that there's something here, but it had to be demonstrated as credible first," she says.

Preaching what they practice

Mimi Lindell is an integrative health nurse clinician for the Institute. She preaches and practices integrative medicine, seeing patients two days a week. Practicing integratively might mean a short massage when she's at a patient's bedside to deliver medications, or teaching the patient breathing exercises.

Mimi Lindell
Photo by Bill Kelley
Mimi Lindell preaches and practices integrative medicine.

"If a patient is really struggling with pain and it's going to be two hours before the next dose of meds, massage or breathing techniques or aromatherapy can really help them," Lindell explains. "It doesn't replace traditional interventions, but it gives both the nurse and the patient a sense that there's something more that can be done to help."

Lindell also instructs other Abbott nurses in these techniques via the Institute's Tranformational Nurse Training (TNT). The 32-hour curriculum explains basic skills in the integrative services arena: massage techniques, relaxation (including meditation and breathing exercises), and guided imagery.

Lindell explains that the training focuses on the idea that integrative practices don't require extra tasks that an already-overburdened nurse doesn't have time for. "The idea is to bring small things to the bedside to enhance what's already happening," Lindell says. "It's not about adding another task, it's about changing who you are when you walk in."

Complementing for healing

Grams's experience with both aromatherapy and acupuncture isn't an accident. Mary Ellen Kinney is another integrative health nurse clinician at the Institute, and she explains that the Institute's cross-functional approach encourages providers to use multiple treatments for better effect. "Nausea from chemo might suggest a combination of reflexology on points in the foot, and ginger, which is known for helping with nausea," Kinney says.

Kinney notes that nurses have long been interested in alternatives to medications for patients who were already on multiple drugs. One of those treatments is aromatherapy, which Kinney practices. For example, lavender has relaxation and antispasmodic properties, and can alleviate a patient's pain while helping them relax.

Mary Ellen Kinney
Photo by Bill Kelley
Mary Ellen Kinney practices aromatherapy.

"Scent goes into the olfactory system and then directly to the limbic system of the brain," Kinney explains. "That's a primitive part of the brain, where emotion and memory are stored, and a reaction there creates a reaction in the rest of the body."

Aromatherapy can make a huge difference for a patient with a traumatic brain injury or cervical fracture, Kinney says, because the patient is often not only dealing with pain but also with stress, anxiety, and depression.

Recovery, rebuilding and prevention

Integrative medicine doesn't stop at the hospital's edge, any more than traditional treatment does. Maureen Doran practices integrative nutrition at Unity Hospitalin Fridley, another Allina hospital connected to Penny George. Doran says that her outpatient work focuses on treating food as medicine.

"I educate and collaborate with people about how foods and perhaps targeted nutritional supplements can enhance their well-being and their treatment, whatever that treatment might be," Doran says.

Doran says that her outpatient work focuses on treating food as medicine.
Photo by Bill Kelley
Maureen Doran's outpatient work focuses on treating food as medicine.

That means more than what to eat and what to avoid — also how different foods might interact depending on a patient's condition and medications. For example, patients who are taking Coumadin, a frequently used blood thinner that helps patients with heart disease, might not know that fish oil or flaxseed oil might actually increase the effects of that medication.

As Allina rolls this same approach out to other hospitals and clinics, the challenge is insurance coverage — some treatments, like acupuncture, are covered, but massage is generally not. But Baechler says the paradigm is changing.

"We're so good at detecting physical things that we frequently dismiss symptoms we can't find a diagnosis or a test for," Baechler says of medicine in general. "But if someone's body is producing a symptom, then something's wrong, and you need to re-align that person's energy to produce a healthy person."

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy. 

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Comments (2)

How lovely

This looks to be really nice, and oh so not affordable for anyone without some form of magiic pill, i.e. insurance.

Re: cost

I am an intern at the Penny George Institute now, and the great thing about all of the inpatient treatments is that they are offered at no cost to the patient. So all patients, regardless of whether or not they have insurance, are able to have these therapies included in their treatment while at the hospital. It's an amazing thing to be a part of!