Nonprofit Serrena battles chronic disease with a pioneering blend of natural and conventional therapy.
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Lisa Gebo lives with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. She’s had the disease for four years, and it’s spread to her bones, liver, lungs and brain. She currently undergoes chemotherapy and immunotherapy, which involve injections and regular bloodwork, “and I’m needle averse,” she says. One of the side effects of chemo is peripheral neuropathy, which causes numbness and pain in Gebo’s hands and feet. In other words, the disease and the traditional treatment, as Gebo dryly describes it: “Not fun.”
She also receives treatment at Serrena, the Center for Integrative Therapies. Once a week, Gebo walks in the door to the light, airy office next door to Monterey Bay Oncology in Ryan Ranch, where Chinese characters for “harmony,” “love,” and “tranquility” decorate the walls. She’s led into a room that smells faintly of homemade lavender shea butter, where R.N. MaryLou Schaeffer (who makes the butter) does Trager therapeutic massage, which helps control Gebo’s pain – and, she says, soothe her mind.
“I’ve received acupuncture and Trager massage treatments,” Gebo says, “and it’s made a huge difference through pain-control. The therapy and the product – shea butter and essential oils – help me dissipate the pain and keep ahead of it.
“This counterbalances the more unpleasant aspects of treatment, and it is something to look forward to,” she continues. “It puts you in a better state of mind for the treatments that may follow. After this I’m going to get a shot. This puts me in a more relaxed state.”
: : : :Four years ago, the Center for Integrative Therapies opened its doors. The idea came from oncologists who wanted their patients to receive care beyond the traditional medical treatment.
At the time, Serrena wasn’t part of the name. Boardmember Patty Gebhardt and others wanted to rename the center, and “serene was one of the words I was working with,” she says. “I thought of the peaceful, calming meaning, but it actually has two very interesting definitions: One is calm and peaceful, the other bright and full of glory.”
And so Serrena was tacked onto the front of the name, supported by donors and practitioners who wanted to bring peace and brightness to people with chronic illnesses.
The center’s therapies work with traditional medical care to help patients manage symptoms and address the physical and emotional effects of illness. In 2008 it saw more than 225 patients (staff hasn’t calculated 2009 numbers yet), each of whom received several therapy sessions, bumping the patient-visits count to about 1,300.
Patients are people with cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Because it’s a nonprofit, funded through grants and private donations (its recent fundraiser brought in $40,000), Serrena provides a sliding scale for fees. Some patients receive coverage from their insurance companies or pay full cost out-of-pocket, while others who can’t afford services receive subsidized care.
The nine practitioners on staff include two acupuncturists, three body workers (whose specialties include massage and healing touch), a clinical psychologist and a psychotherapist, an herb and supplement counselor and a restorative yoga therapist.
They’ve got research – and health-market trends – in their favor.
: : : :Clinical trials by prestigious names in medicine including MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Scripps hospital have been collecting data on the benefits of integrative therapies, and the positive results mean more hospitals and medical centers are moving toward similar integrative-therapy models, Gebhardt says. “But why the Serrena model is unique: It offers a wide-array of services all under one roof,” she says. “I looked at nationwide cancer centers, stand-alones and satellites, and haven’t been able to find a business model like this. You may find alternative medicine, but not centers that specialize in chronic illness, which make such a difference.
“If someone goes to a psychotherapist, but that psychotherapist doesn’t have a specialty in cancer care, they may not understand the issues.”
Adds Executive Director Ratna Anagol: “Another example: A particular type of acupuncture works well with peripheral neuropathy. At Serrena, there’s discussion across practitioners as well as discussion with your medical doctors about what’s happening to you. The idea of having it all under one roof and so close to Monterey Bay Oncology is key.”
Anagol says this from personal experience. In May 2008 doctors diagnosed her with breast cancer and referred her to Serrena. At the time she was working as a vice president at CTB/McGraw-Hill until the illness – and with it, the realization that she needed to slow down and spend more time with her family – caused her to leave the company.
Anagol underwent surgery, five months of chemotherapy, seven weeks of radiation and more than 20 sessions of acupuncture and massage therapy at Serrena – “the best one-hour I could experience in a week,” she says.
In April 2009, board members approached Anagol about joining the center as its executive director.
Gebhardt, too, has a personal experience with cancer. Her husband died from the disease in 1997. “Everybody that’s involved with Serrena has a personal story with chronic illness,” she says. “The group is united through that real-life-based experience and knows the care provided through Serrena can be life changing.”