LEAH CURTIN, R.N., ScD(h),
F.A.A.N., director of communications
for the Franciscan Sisters
of the Poor in Cincinnati,
Ohio, and executive editor of
American Nurse Today—the
official journal of the American Nursing
Association—greets me with a very warm
hug on a very cold February day.
Leah gives me a tour of the Centennial
Barn, a 19th-century structure on the
grounds of the Franciscan Sisters' compound
Though the facility hosts meetings,
retreats, weddings and fund-raisers, it's primarily
dedicated to "community building
and empowerment featuring holistic therapies,
opportunities for spiritual exploration
and community involvement, health
education and wellness classes," as its
It's a calming environment, despite the
pounding of a carpenter's hammer. The
Barn is in the process of an extensive renovation.
Yards of exposed brick, authentic,
well-cared-for woodwork and a flow of natural
light make for a centering experience.
Besides more than one fully functional
kitchen and large, feng shui-friendly meeting
rooms, the Barn also provides instruction
in yoga, meditation and Pilates, as
well as acupuncture and other forms of
It is also a very Catholic place to be:
Prayer and faith are integral to this facility
and its people, both staff and visitors.
"Holistic care involves addressing the whole
person—body, mind and spirit," says Leah,
a practicing Catholic. "One of the things
I'm often asked about is the spiritual aspect
of holistic health care. Being a writer, I like
to look at where words come from. Religio indicates 'to link back.' Spiritus indicates 'to
"Religion," she continues, "is the tradition
with which we have learned to access
the spiritual world."
Leah, a graduate of the Good Samaritan
Hospital School of Nursing and the University
of Cincinnati, has master's degrees in
health planning, health administration
and philosophy. She was also declared a
"Living Legend in Nursing" by the American
Academy of Nursing in 2009 and has
an honorary doctorate in the field. She
asserts that people are, in essence, bodies
"We are all made of energy—varying densities
and combinations of energy. Whether
it is you, me or children in Croatia—we are
all made of energy," she says. "If we are all
made of energy, and energy in its very
nature moves, then it can be transferred."
But holistic care, despite its healing properties, is still a touchy subject in some
Catholic circles. Is it New Age fluff: a
world of crystals, chanting and incense?
Is it voodoo: a hodgepodge of unorthodox
methods aimed to remedy the body
while corrupting the soul?
Holistic health, put simply, seeks to
link body, mind and soul for optimum
health and wellness. Some of the most
popular methods of this approach are:
Meditation/Prayer: "I like to spend
at least 30 minutes in meditation every
day," Leah says. "For me, meditation is
a peaceful connection with the Divine.
It is among the most comforting and
Yoga: Yoga is a series of movements,
stretches and poses designed to tone the
body and clear the mind, without the
strain of intensive exercise. "Even the
best runners get hairline fractures,"
Leah says. "With yoga you can exercise
every muscle in your body with hardly
any danger. It's meditation using the
body instead of the mind. It's exercise
without the sweat."
Massage: "Chris, may I touch your
hand?" Leah asks me. She then gently
presses her finger against the top of
my hand. "Just that touch lets loose a
cascade of hormones in your body.
Something like massage not only feels
good but also will literally press certain
chemicals out of your muscles,"
says this nursing expert. "It comforts
you. It helps clear your body of toxins."
Acupuncture: This Chinese medical
practice involves needles to puncture
certain points on the body to fight disease
or ease pain. "We know that our
nerves operate on energy," Leah states.
"We know our nerves are electrical. If
there is a problem in the body and that
energy is disrupted, [an acupuncturist]
can open up that block and the body
will feel better."
Though the benefits of meditation/prayer, yoga, massage and acupuncture
can improve our health, many feel the
holistic approach is too close to the
fringe to be Catholic. Leah has a quick
answer for the doubters.
"There is nothing contrary to Catholic
Christian teaching when it comes
to holistic health," she says. Leah theorizes
the origins of this mistrust.
"Initially it was associated with 'New
Age,'" she says. "The secondary reason
has to do with misinformed people. I
don't mean just Catholics—sometimes
it's the therapists, the people who don't
understand because its scientific foundation
is still being formed. It has been
associated with a multicultural approach
to healing of the body.
"When Jesus said, 'Do unto others,' he wasn't just saying something sweet.
He meant it. When he engaged in healing,
he was literally transferring his
energy and the Father's energy to the
person who was ill," Leah says.
"As we look at what science is telling
us, we find ourselves coming full circle
to the teachings within our own tradition,
the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is
Instead of being in opposition to
Catholic teaching, Leah says that holistic
care affirms the Catholic faith. "It is
a confirmation of Christ. It is an affirmation
of the teachings of Christ and
an understanding that when he said,
'Do this,' he meant it. He didn't just
mean it for his apostles. He meant it for
all who believe."
Many in the medical profession are
starting to believe as well. "There is
growing acceptance of holistic health
and a growing legitimacy," Leah says.
"In fact, there is the American Holistic
Nurses Association's Journal of Holistic
Nursing. And more medical and nursing
schools are including holistic concepts
in their curricula."
But the medical community, even
those who practice holistic care, can
only do so much. Our own accountability
is crucial in maintaining good
Five years ago, everything changed for
this writer when I turned 30.
Prior to that, I could eat whatever I
wanted, exercise as frequently or infrequently
as I pleased, drink and smoke
with (terribly) foolish abandon. When
I left my 20s, the benefits of young
adulthood all but left me, too. My body simply couldn't function and rebound
as it did in youth.
Not long after I turned 30, I developed
myositis, an inflammation of the
skeletal muscles. For days I ached from
chin to ankle. After consulting my
physician, who urged me to make
lifestyle changes, I decided to clean
house: I curtailed my drinking. I quit
smoking and implemented an exercise
routine, which I've maintained.
Personal responsibility is crucial to
holistic health. What we put in our
bodies and how often we move them
play an integral role.
"In many ways, you are what you
eat," Leah says. "What you eat can
affect your moods and your blood-sugar
levels. This affects every cell in your
body, including brain cells. If you fast
and you don't eat anything, your blood
sugar bottoms out. You can literally die
from it. Your diet affects every part of
In this hectic world, it's become too
easy for busy Americans to choose
quick, high-fat meals over healthier
alternatives. Obesity in America is an
According to a report produced by
the National Health and Nutrition
Examination Survey, 58 million Americans
are overweight, 40 million are
classified as obese and three million
are morbidly so. The Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development
reported that obesity in this country
is over 30 percent, declaring America
the most obese nation on the planet.
Leah, as well as other professionals,
can advise patients on what to eat but,
ultimately, it's a matter of discipline,
focus and personal responsibility. They
cannot decide what we put in our
"If you choose to live on fast-food
junk, you will do so. Nothing is going
to change that," she says. "If you choose
to be a couch potato, there is nothing
I can do about it. I can tell you that
you've got to move around because
your muscles are turning into flab. That
means you have less vitality, less energy;
your level of metabolism goes down
and you will gain weight. The muscles
control our level of metabolism."
Leah says the human body wasn't
designed to be sedentary, though technology
has encouraged us to move as
little as possible. Even something as
common as a remote control has done
us few favors.
"I can sit in my big chair, go click,
click, click and the only muscle I have
to use is my thumb," she says. "We
were not meant, physically, for the
indolent lifestyle that technology has
"I think technology is a wonderful
thing," Leah continues. "I love knowledge.
But, in general, we have made our
lives so soft we're getting sick from it."
A healthy lifestyle isn't only possible—it's fully achievable for most of us. Even
if we can't run a mile, simply being
outdoors can enhance our mental well-being
which, in turn, aids in our overall
"It's very good for your mood to be
outside for 15 minutes each day," Leah
says, "though some depressed people
may need medication so their progress
toward health will be significantly
But not all who suffer depression
need medication. Leah feels exercise
can alleviate those symptoms for many.
"Some people only need exercise. They
need to make it a matter of course to be
outside. I don't care if it's snowing or
raining. Go outside every day. Experience
the natural light. It does improve
"One of the best things you can do
for a friend or loved one who is
depressed is to get them outside every
day—even if you're just working in the
garden. It doesn't matter. Go outside.
Take a walk."
Depression can wreak havoc on our
bodies and our spirits. Prolonged emotional
stress can be a killer.
"One of the things we know for a fact
is that, when you are depressed or
unhappy, not only does your personality
change but the strength of your
immune system also changes," she says.
"Your mental status has a direct effect on
your immune system, as does your nutrition,
as does your level of exercise."
Leah emphasizes that our bodies love
a dare. "It's a matter of nature. The body
will respond to the stresses put on it. If
you use weights, you'll get big muscles.
If you don't, your muscles wither away.
Why? Because you're giving that muscle
a challenge and it grows stronger.
"Walking will make your bones and muscles stronger whether you are a
five-year-old or an 85-year-old. The
more you take to your bed or chair,
the weaker you become."
According to the American Holistic
Medical Association (AHMA), choosing
the right physician should not be
taken lightly. AHMA's Web site (www.holisticmedicine.org) lists these five
key components for patients to keep in
• The physician should be trained in
• The visit should address the whole
person, not just the symptoms.
• The appointment should be open,
honest and comfortable.
• Medication is not the only form of
• Would the patient recommend this
physician to a friend or loved one?
But there are preliminary measures
that we can implement before searching
for a physician. Leah believes that
our attitudes—and our spirituality—are huge motivators.
"It's important to cultivate an attitude
of gratitude," she says. "Every
morning, I recommend spending just a
couple minutes thanking God for what
you've been given. In good times and
in bad, thank God.
"We know that our thoughts affect
the levels of hormones and chemicals
in our bodies," Leah continues. "If you
have an attitude where you are grateful,
your body chemistry changes, just as it
changes dramatically when you're
angry, when you're frightened, when
you're anxious. Gratitude addresses all
of those things."
Good health involves more than
physical exercise. Leah feels the entire
entity must be cared for.
"The brain needs stimulation just as
the body needs stimulation. And the
soul needs stimulation, too. This is
where prayer, meditation, spending
some quiet time with God each day
stimulates the development of the soul.
And as we get older, it's important to
read and remain active. When we participate in life, the brain remains sharp."
The holistic approach seeks to do more
than treat a damaged or diseased body.
It also aims to mend a broken spirit.
Leah poses a series of questions that
she keeps in mind when working with
"How can we effectively pray for
your recovery? How can we deal with
the damage done to your psyche? How
can we keep the rest of you well cared
for while whatever is broken in you is
being healed? Much of what you find
in holistic health is looking at this,
looking at your mind," she says.
Leah and other professionals within
this form of care aim to remedy the
entire person. "Perhaps you've been
hit by a truck and, by golly, you feel bad
about it. Or you're facing a divorce and
your heart is broken. You could use
some help with these stressors. What we
can do is help you deal with those
issues while you're healing."
Leah paraphrases a story of Jesus
Christ, a model of holistic care.
"Jesus said, 'When someone is ill,
take him to the elders and they will
lay hands on him.' He said this because
prayer of healing is a transferring of
energy from healthy people to those
who are not.
"This is not anti-Christian," Leah
says. "If we begin to look at who and
what we are and put it all together,
holistic care is one of the most stunning
things in the world."
3. Waist management. Keep your
weight under control.
4. Food for thought. Avoid fast, fatty
foods and lots of food additives.
5. Get movin'. Even a little bit of
6. Get out. Be outside at least 15
minutes every day.
7. Pray each day. Take time every
morning to speak to God.
8. Lots of love. Good relationships,
family and friends have been proven
to help extend life, improve health and
increase happiness. Jesus told us, long before the researchers proved it,
to love one another, to honor our parents, to avoid at all costs calling our
brother a fool.
9. Believe. Study after study confirms that those who have a deep faith live
longer, healthier lives.
10. Good upkeep. Treat your body like the temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus
taught us that we are one with him: "On that day you will realize that I am in my
Father and you are in me and I in you" (John 14:20).
—Leah Curtin, R.N., ScD(h), F.A.A.N.
Christopher Heffron is the assistant editor of this publication.