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 in Cincinnati.
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 brochure states.
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
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 holistic
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 give life.'
"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 of
"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 uplifting things."
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 so clear."
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 health.
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
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 your
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 mouths.
"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 enabled.
"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 wellness.
"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 improved."
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 your mood.
"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 mind:
• The physician should be trained in holistic medicine.
• 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 treatment.
• 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
"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
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 patients holistically.
"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."