Treating the Whole Person at Middlesex Health’s Burris Center for Integrative Medicine
Written by Alix Boyle
Photography courtesy of Middlesex Health
Patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer can often get a common side effect called neuropathy, a numbness and tingling in the feet or hands that can be uncomfortable. Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment, helping to alleviate the pain and discomfort.
Acupuncture is considered an integrative medicine treatment, something that is not typical Western medicine, but shown to be effective. Another modality is massage, known to treat anxiety related to medical treatment or just the strain of sitting at a desk for too long.
With the recent opening of Middlesex Health’s Burris Center for Integrative Medicine in Middletown, patients can experience pain relief and more.
“Middlesex has always offered integrative medicine and this new center allows us to do it in a better way,” said Justin Drew, director of Middlesex Health Cancer Center. “One of the limitations was that the integrative medicine practice was located within the cancer center. There’s a hesitancy to come into a cancer center if you don’t have cancer. Integrative medicine is for anyone, including employees and members of the community, not just for cancer patients. If you need a massage, you can come.”
Integrative medicine is gaining popularity as a way to support and treat the whole person, Drew explained.
“It’s using Eastern medicine to complement Western medicine, oftentimes for people facing chronic illnesses like diabetes and Crohn’s disease,” Drew said. “A lot of our physicians are in favor of holistic care. We get a lot of referrals and requests to do acupuncture or Reiki. Now we’ve got one physical location to treat the whole person.”
Besides acupuncture and massage, the center offers Reiki, gentle yoga, reflexology, mindfulness, lifestyle medicine and mental wellness. Janine Fonfara, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker, offers targeted behavioral health to address anxiety, and manage concerns associated with chronic health issues like irritable bowel syndrome or diabetes. She also works with patients to manage stress that can help symptoms to improve.
“The pandemic shone a light on the issues of mental health that have been plaguing our world for generations,” Fonfara said. “It’s quite common that comorbid health conditions—conditions that are present in a patient at the same time—such as diabetes and depression, or gastrointestinal issues and anxiety, for example, go hand in hand. Our goal within the integrated work of bringing mental health treatment into lifestyle and integrative medicine is to provide the most evidence-based care and treatment to patients and families who are dealing with comorbid health conditions.”
Fonfara went on to say that mental health treatment within integrative medicine focuses on a whole-body approach to treatment, starting with a complete biopsychosocial assessment, with an emphasis on the healing relationship that brings treatment providers and patients together through a shared collaboration toward improved health.
“At all times, the focus in mental health treatment is to understand the context of each individual patient’s life, their very specific life circumstances and always with a focus on health equity,” she explained. “Health equity focuses on ensuring that all people have access to partaking in a healthy lifestyle. In our work, we focus on all aspects of a person’s well-being, including the factors necessary for living the healthiest life possible, filled with healthy foods, people, places and things, as well as healthy thoughts, emotions and choices.”
Mental health treatment is important for both new diagnoses of medical conditions as well as chronic medical conditions.
“For new diagnoses, we support people on this journey of change—which often involves working through the grief cycle of changing how we know ourselves in this world, and what our future may look like—and helping people to have as much education, autonomy and support through their journey,” Fonfara said.
Chronic medical conditions are multi-faceted, and Fonfara focuses on the bio-individuality of each person.
“Our work focuses on each person’s belief system, what is important to them and to their lives, and addressing some behaviors which may be affecting their ability to best manage their lives. We emphasize what will affect change first, while planning for obstacles and identifying adherence strategies that will support maintaining healthy habits when change occurs.”
The new, 2,500-square-foot integrative medicine center, located at 540 Saybrook Road, Suite 350, has five treatment rooms and a group activities room. It can serve 15 to 20 people at any given time. The healing environment includes dimmable lights and aesthetically pleasing décor.
The nearly $500,000 cost of building the center was covered by philanthropic donations. The primary donor was the family of Dr. James Burris, an ophthalmologist who died in 2018.
Some integrative medicine treatments, such as mental wellness and acupuncture, are covered by some insurances; many of these treatments are billed out of pocket, Drew said.
Two groups contribute significantly to help defray the cost of integrative medicine for cancer patients: After the Storm, an organization that raises money for cancer patients’ healing, and goPINK, an annual community fundraiser. Both groups have raised more than $300,000 each over the years and fund three free integrative medicine treatments for cancer patients.
Drew has overseen the cancer center for more than a decade and has seen the demand for services grow.
“The most common modalities are acupuncture and massage,” Drew said. “We are in the process of publishing a study that shows how acupuncture can be used to treat long-haul Covid. In all patients, there was improvement after using integrative medicine. Patients regained their sense of taste and smell. When word got out, we got a lot of referrals from primary care doctors.”
For patients who do not want to travel to Middletown, integrative medicine services are also available at Middlesex Health Shoreline Medical Center, located at 250 Flat Rock Place in Westbrook.