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Multi-generational family walks outside through a forest.

Whole Body Wellness

Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness embraces alternative approaches to fight disease

A warm wind rustles through the pine trees as three vans full of excited senior citizens pull into the Valhalla Tahoe parking lot in South Lake Tahoe.

Barton Health Registered Nurse Khristy Gavigan and Medical Director of Lifestyle and Wellness Greg Bergner have taken time out of their busy schedules to help wheelchair-bound nursing home residents spend time outside on a beautiful Tahoe summer day. 

The energy is palpable as eager participants and their attendants prepare for the short jaunt to the Valhalla boathouse, where they will practice some chair yoga exercises and enjoy a nutritious snack before heading back to Barton’s Skilled Nursing Facility.

A few months later, 75-year-old Carol Bennis straps on snowshoes for the first time and goes for a moonlight trek along the beach with a dozen other recovering orthopedic patients, Barton Health clinicians and Forest Service rangers. It’s only been two months since her knee replacement.

“I was totally shocked that I could do it,” says Bennis. “The knee held up beautifully, and it left me inspired.”

The monthly “wellness walks” are part of a partnership between Barton Health and the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, which aims to harness the restorative benefits of spending time in nature. The agencies are also jointly working to increase accessibility for all skill-levels on public lands.

“How can we prescribe this as medicine? I’m a firm believer that there are a lot of benefits. It’s been depicted in literature and in artwork for hundreds of thousands of years,” said Orthopedic Surgeon Stephen Bannar, MD. “But now we have peer-reviewed studies, scientific proof, that time in nature will decrease your heart rate, decrease your blood pressure, decrease your cortisol levels, decrease your levels of depression, improve your creativity and decrease your risk of cancer.” Increasing patients’ time in the outdoor is one of the ways the providers at the Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness hope to achieve the four pillars of wellness — nutrition, fitness, stress management and sense of purpose in life — throughout the community.

Guided by the belief that modern ways of living are contributing to the rise of chronic disease across Western societies, the team at Barton Health is offering traditional as well as alternative approaches to care to prevent, arrest and sometimes even reverse chronic disease.

The Center provides a home base for wellness programming and practitioners to collaborate under one roof on a patient’s treatment, whether they’re recovering from an injury, suffering from a chronic illness or just looking to live a healthier life.

Acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medicine specialist Melinda Choy has been treating South Shore residents for 14 years at her holistic health center Elevate Wellness, and now she’s extending her practice to patients at the Barton Center for Orthopedics and Wellness.

“There’s a wide range of conditions that we treat with acupuncture, from pain management and stress to chronic illnesses.” said Choy.

Tapping into acupuncture points — pods of neural nodes — with needles is a way of signaling the brain to take action.

“They’ve found that acupuncture helps release natural endorphins in the body, that’s why it helps with pain and inflammation,” explained Choy. “You’re also signaling a greater response to the brain to say ‘Let’s send more anti-inflammatories and more blood flow to this area.’ It’s increasing your body’s natural signals to do it’s own healing.”

Choy also advises patients on lifestyle and other alternative forms of treatment, like yoga, diet, meditation and mindfulness. 

“People come in with some sort of physical pain and they’ve exhausted all other routes with injections, surgeries, etc.,” she continued. “We’ve seen them go through all the routes, but when we look at the whole body — diet, lifestyle and underlying conditions — then we can start to see how parts of the body are related to each other.”

Choy points to a woman she once treated who continued to experience neck pain after a car accident.

“I could see inflammation in multiple places besides her neck, so we are working on adjusting her diet and lifestyle to reduce the inflammation,” said Choy. "She’s now fifty percent better and says this is the first time she’s noticed a real improvement in years."

Upon examination, Choy found an underlying autoimmune condition that appeared to be associated with her neck pain. 

Choy worked with the patient on her generalized inflammation, and the patient later came back to report the pain in her neck was dissipating.

At Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness, the healthcare providers practice what they preach when it comes to wholebody wellness.

Working as a family physician in South Lake Tahoe for more than 35 years, Dr. Greg Bergner is an advocate of the Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP) and passionate about preventative care in his position as Medical Director of Lifestyle and Wellness.

CHIP is a time-tested educational lifestyle program that aims to reduce the chance of disease by helping participants ditch their highly-processed diet; exercise more; reduce their dependency on alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine; and find healthy ways of decreasing stress levels.

The program is proven to be helpful with management and reversal of type 2 diabetes, reduction of stroke risk, normalizing blood pressure, and lowering average cholesterol levels by 10 percent to 25 percent. It can also lessen depression and reduce weight.

CHIP’s successful results have been published in over 30 scientific articles in peer-reviewed medical journals.

“Eighty percent of the money we spend on healthcare is due to lifestyle,” said Bergner. “If people can adopt a healthier lifestyle, it takes care of that cost.”

Nineteen Barton Health employees have gone through the 18-week CHIP, which includes video lectures and discussion on different wellness topics. Barton Health Director of Case Management & Social Services Lisa Vulpe-Fisher participated in the program, which met twice a week with Barton providers to work on her own nutrition, stress management and fitness regimen.

“These are true lifestyle changes with the idea that you look at the person’s whole body, to live a healthier and fuller life,” said Vulpe-Fisher. “As a result, I lost weight and my cholesterol and blood pressure went down and I now feel healthier overall.”

The new face of healthcare goes beyond treating symptoms with pills — and Amy Smith, FNP, a family/integrative medicine specialist at the Center, has found that sometimes it’s the simple things that can make a difference in a patient’s life, like meditation or a different mindset about stress.

Smith crafts treatment plans that could incorporate meditation, a nutrition plan, an exercise regimen or even natural botanicals. She also works as a conduit within the Center, referring patients to counseling services, acupuncturist sessions with Choy, or other service providers within the building.

“I’ve helped a lot of people with their stress related anxiety and low mood by incorporating botanicals and working with them on their mindset and stress management without pharmaceuticals,” explained Smith. “It’s about asking the right questions, learning a client’s personal perspectives and facilitating an openness to their personal awareness. Often times the client has the answers within themselves.” Some effective techniques are teaching focused breathing techniques, connecting with personal values and practicing gratitude which creates balance to carry her patients through the day.

As for the Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness, Smith says the sky is the limit for helping the people of Lake Tahoe achieve whole-body (and mind) health.

“I’m happy we can support our community in this way,” said Smith. “It is an honor to be a part of developing the care services that will be offered at the Barton Center of Orthopedics and Wellness.”

An excerpt from "Orthopedics & Wellness" published by Barton Health for the 2018 opening of the Barton Center for Orthopedics & Wellness. Written by Kayla Anderson and Claire Cudahy.