Old ways to heal gain new patients Nontraditional care so popular in area some doctors accept it

June 08, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

His hands float a few inches above her torso as she rests serenely in a softly lighted room.

This body energy treatment, plus a raw food diet and hypnotherapy, are helping her feel so much better that in December she stopped chemotherapy and transfusions for a recurrence of Hodgkin's disease -- yet her blood work is stable enough that her oncologist has postponed another CAT scan until summer's end, she says.

She came here, to a Severna Park shopping center, because she says the treatments helped her uncle and because she wanted something more than doctoring.

"I feel the warmth of the energy there, healing going on," Barbara Pieper, 43, of Timonium, says as Bill Pearson sways his hands.

Body energy gives off something akin to a vibration, and bumps in the energy field indicate a problem, Pearson says, explaining that his practice has roots in Oriental and ancient traditions.

Around Annapolis, such unconventional health scenes are increasingly common. The number of alternative healing practitioners in fields from the esoteric to the commonplace has mushroomed in recent years.

"There is somewhat of a hub," said Alice Yeager, president of the Annapolis Healing Arts Alliance, a rapidly expanding 3-year-old network that includes massage therapists, herbalists, acupuncturists, spiritual healers and more.

Energy from the water

The attraction of the Annapolis area is elusive, though Yeager suspects a link to the water and the energy ascribed to it -- or it could have something to do with the lifestyle the peninsulas and their waterfront foster.

"There's massage therapists falling out of the trees in Annapolis," said Christina Sharp, who offers massage, foot reflexology -- foot massage to correspond to sensitive areas of the body -- and other services in nearby Severna Park.

A 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that about one-third of Americans use some form of unconventional therapy and spend about $14 billion a year for it, slightly more than on all hospitalizations.

Mixed in with the now-mainstream massage therapists and acupuncturists -- some of whom are registered nurses and physicians -- are practitioners in more unconventional fields. Among those are iridology (detection of ailments by examination of the colored ring of the eye), aromatherapy (healing scents) and a smorgasbord of body energy, spiritual energy, herbal and nutritional therapies.

Proponents swear by the practices. Detractors call them faddish, potentially harmful hocus-pocus. The National Institutes of Health supports research into the safety, effectiveness and rationale of such therapies.

Some of them are not such a big leap from the national preoccupation with exercise, the food pyramid and preventive health care, focusing on individuals taking charge of their health and adjusting their lifestyles.

'There aren't enough'

What constitutes complementary care is vague, given that much of it -- the most controversial parts -- is unregulated and unlicensed in the state and nationally, meaning that anyone can claim proficiency.

How many unconventional practitioners are in the area is hard to determine. Some belong to more than one organization and some to none. Some advertise, others rely on word-of-mouth and some work in several locations, some from home.

"I don't think there are enough," Pearson said. "You see more in the Annapolis area than in the average town, but there aren't enough."

About a dozen alternative practitioners work out of Pearson's office. Business is so brisk that though he moved Natural Healing Inc. there from smaller quarters in Annapolis last year, he's looking to expand the treatment center-art gallery to a second site.

Local enthusiasm

The Annapolis Holistic Health Community, an 18-year-old grass-roots organization of practitioners and anyone interested in the subject, is credited with cultivating alternative healing locally. It has a mailing list exceeding 300. It books lecturers as much as six months ahead, and some of those talks held at Anne Arundel Medical Center draw more people than free cancer screenings there.

The Annapolis Healing Arts Alliance, based in Edgewater, has 160 members, more than half from the Annapolis environs. Yeager, its president, is organizing an Inner Peace March in Annapolis on June 21 with hopes that it will spread around the world.

Mid-Atlantic Integrative Medicine, a referral service for licensed or credentialed holistic care providers from Northern Virginia to Baltimore, recently opened in Annapolis. In restricting her clearinghouse to accredited practitioners, "I don't cover the more metaphysical end of things," says operator Cynthia Chatfield. Someone who does Reiki, a hands-on therapy, would have to have credentials in massage, for example, to be a member.

Hospitals meet demand

A gaggle of food stores target the holistic health care market, from the upscale Fresh Fields supermarket to smaller shops featuring produce, supplements, nut-milk cooking classes and the like.

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