When you walk into the well-lit Jefferson Valley office of Dr. Minerva Santos, you get the instant impression that you are in a place where you will feel calm, and that even your spirit will be uplifted.
That is because Dr. Santos, a 58-year-old Bronx-born physician of Puerto Rican descent, practices integrative medicine. She believes that the patient has to manage her stress and learn how to cope with it.
“We cannot get rid of stress,” the doctor says. “Life is stress, but don’t allow it to overcome.”
The conversation with the warm and amiable Dr. Santos taught me that the fast-growing medical approach of integrative medicine combines conventional and alternative medicine. This means the patient is looked at as a whole human being, and the prescriptions may include herbal supplements and acupuncture as well as regular medication.
“I advise patients regarding what supplement I think they should take. Much is individualized but overall I would say fish oils, vitamin D, and some herbal supplement depending on the situation. For example, valerian root for insomnia, ashwagandha for stress.” Santos said.
I also learned that as a natural “healer” from an early age, Santos was always inclined to give health advice, based on the knowledge she acquired from her Puerto Rican grandmother and mother, who used to give her children Humpreys homeopathic remedies most of the time.
“Consequently, I learned and loved to give advice to all those that needed it. Including those with sick dogs!” she said.
Dr. Santos went to medical school as an adult upon the persistent encouragement of her then husband. As the mother of a two-year old, she thought the goal was unrealistic, but she succeeded. With her husband’s constant support she graduated from Mount Sinai Medical School.
Her last of eight degrees was obtained from the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, led by renowned Dr. Andrew Weil. Nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction are emphasized in almost all of Dr. Weil's health works to prevent and cure. And when there is no cure, the patient’s life can be extended and made more comfortable with integrative medicine, as in the case of Alzheimer’s patients.
When asked if she could give one piece of advice to our readers Dr. Santos said that focusing on diet to prevent illness is number one.
“Refrain from consuming processed foods. These contain nitrites, which become carcinogenic in your system: hot dogs, bacon, salamis. The food you choose doesn’t necessarily have to be organic, but it has to be fresh.”
Dr. Santos explained that consumption of processed foods causes inflammation and this in turn leads to chronic illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease. Her best advise is to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Next is meditation, which Dr. Santos teaches at Northern Westchester Hospital Center where she heads the Health and Wellness Program. The hospital is designated as a Planetree hospital, which means that it is patient-centered. The five year-old center operates on the strong belief of patient care. The center offers meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy and energy medicine to patients and employees
Dr. Santos has many Hispanic patients. Some are new to the United States and she speaks with them in Spanish, which she learned as a child and in school.
She said the most common health issues she sees in Hispanics are: diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension.
“Many of the issues affecting our people are diet-related and I try to show them how to change their diet and still eat culturally,” Dr. Santos said.
The idea that a doctor can treat a patient as a whole human with body and mind is gaining more acceptance in the country, but according to Dr. Santos it is “nowhere near where it should be.” And the message that Dr. Weil relays though her is “Spread the word.”
The most obvious and inevitable impediment that holistic and integrative medicine doctors face is the climate created by the insurance companies that dictate what the doctor can and cannot do for the patient.
Dr. Santos explains that it is easier to get reimbursed if a diagnosis is made quickly, following the traditional route, instead of spending time talking to the patient to find out about lifestyle and personal problems that are causing the stress or the illness, or that are interfering with the treatment.
Before leaving I asked Dr. Santos if she could share her dreams for the future of her profession. She didn’t hesitate to say that she hopes that society will become more open to Eastern philosophies.