VA embraces nontraditional treatments

Complementary Alternative Therapy helps people move the focus away from their aches and pains.

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Developing a following, tai chi instructor Ed Parker (center right) leads a group of VA patients in a lunch-time tai chi session, the first in what will become a bi-weekly tai chi class for interested patients.

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VA patient Cass Paige, from Eugene, breathes during a tai chi exercise at the facility.

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Dan Knoch (foreground) of Pendleton and Jason Wane of Yakima (far left) work through a few basic tai chi principles and poses with the VA's tai chi instructor Ed Parker.

WALLA WALLA - It seems an unlikely pairing. The practice of traditional - and renowned - medicine on a historic campus and a new program of alternative and complementary healing.

Yet the blending of the two may be the best answer for offering enrolled veterans patient-centered care, officials at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center believe.

That is certainly what veteran Kim Hemberry is holding on to with everything she's got.

Such medicine involves a team of providers, with the patient driving care plans as much as everyone else, noted Linda Wondra, associate director for patient care services at the Walla Walla VA.

"This concept puts them in the center of the decisions being made about their care, which in the long run gets the veteran more committed in accomplishing the goal of getting well," she said.

Chronic and unmanageable pain can put the brakes to healing, however, no matter how well-intentioned the team.

Picking up a paintbrush - or bending into a yoga pretzel or sniffing in a healing scent - might be the tool to get through that hurdle.

As might tai chi and guided imagery, all alternative medicine approaches starting up or planned for enrolled Walla Walla VA patients.

Complementary Alternative Therapy - or CAM - is an excellent way to help people move the focus away from their aches and pains, Wondra said. "And in some ways, it can provide great therapy to cope with issues."

That's what Hemberry is hoping for. At 42, the Desert Shield veteran is standing at the door of her last hope of staying upright, she said.

In 1992, the East Coast native was medically discharged after four years of service in the U.S. Army. A back injury and chronic migraines plagued her then - two decades later she's added post traumatic stress disorder and degenerative joint disease to her woes, Hemberry listed off

She moves only with the help of a cane and 75 milligrams of morphine a day. And while the time-released dosing keeps Hemberry functional, there are long-term side effects - potential liver failure, for example - that makes morphine worth weaning off, she knows.

It all scares her, Hemberry said. "My biggest fear is being in a wheelchair for the rest of my life."

Hemberry has received care at the Walla Walla VA since moving here in 2007, she said. "I think we get the best care. I can go in there with any problem and they will find a way to help me."

Recently, help came from a new pain clinic she began attending. A social worker there suggested Hemberry might benefit from tai chi, a series of slow, relaxed, graceful movements, each flowing into the next, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The body is in constant motion, and posture is important.

Tai chi and the other alternative therapies coming on board at the VA should prove a benefit to many of the veterans, said Dr. Charles Beleny, chief of staff. "We have a lot of patients with chronic pain syndromes. It's possible that using these to reduce that level of pain, they might be able to back off some medications."

It's a change the VA medical system has been working toward regionally and nationally, officials said.

And those are types of care veterans were seeking in their own communities, according to Brian Westfield, director of the Walla Walla VA.

Bringing those in house, so to speak, allows the VA to do a more wrap-around approach, Wondra added.

Complementary Alternative Therapy is not a substitute for traditional medicine but an adjunct, explained Kris Patterson-Fowler, chief of home and community-based services at the VA.

"Research shows that 40 percent of Americans participate in some form of complementary and alternative medicine," Patterson-Fowler said. "That can include gardening, music, tai chi - there's a huge variety of things people might be participating in."

Her staff enthusiastically bought into the idea and administration was quick to follow.

"According to a 2011 survey ... the use of complementary and alternative medicine has grown substantially in the VA over the past decade. About nine in 10 VA facilities now directly provide CAM therapies or refer patients to outside licensed practitioners," noted an article from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

The Walla Walla campus will be gathering its own data, Patterson-Fowler said. At the moment, research studies are small and narrow in focus. However, information coming from the Portland, Ore., VA indicates patients prone to falling and struggling with balance are seeing significant improvements in balance and mobility when taking tai chi.

Currently Walla Walla VA administrators have invested about $30,000 of staff time into developing the CAM program here. All of the instructors, some in private practices, are donating their time and expertise, Patterson-Fowler said.

Hemberry is grateful they do.

With a long history of braces, physical therapy and other traditional treatments - none of which helped in the long run - she attended the very first tai chi class at the local VA with a held breath. To her happy surprise, that first experience was immediately positive and she's gone to every class she could since, she said. "It's been excellent. It's relaxing."

Her immediate goal is to have less stress, less pain, fewer migraines and less need for heavy-hitting medication.

Hemberry is leaning on alternative medicine for her ultimate goal, she added.

"I've been told I'm working toward that wheelchair," she emphasized again. "I am hoping with the pain clinic and tai chi, I can slow that down. At this point I am willing to try anything."

There is nothing left to lose, said the veteran, who depends on live-in help for more and more living assistance.

"Up until this, my future was surgery and a wheelchair," she said. "It scares me to death. Where will I be in 20 years if I don't try this now?"

Classes

The Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center is offering alternative medicine classes at the following times:

Tai chi - Monday and Friday, 12:15 p.m.; Wednesday, 9-10 a.m., Bldg. 68, Room 118.

Yoga - Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., Bldg. 68, Room 118.

Guided imagery - by appointment only.

Artistic expression - Monday and Wednesday, 5-7 p.m., Bldg. 68, Room 213.

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