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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Two Worlds of Medicine

From the E.R. Dept.: The health center described below has changed its name – it’s now the Stram Center for Integrative Medicine – and has opened a branch in Bennington. But here’s a piece I wrote nine years ago that still serves, I hope, as a good introduction.


RONALD STRAM IS A HEALER who is also a doctor. That’s an odd phenomenon to note, but it signifies the gulf between conventional medicine and the less traditional – or at least less familiar – approaches now being offered, approaches still scorned by skeptics and denied insurance coverage.

Dr. Ronald Stram
Two years ago, Dr. Stram opened Delmar’s Center for Integrative Health and Healing with a number of associates offering treatments including acupuncture, naturopathy, Chinese herbal medicine, Reiki and much more. At the same time, he is a board-certified physician with 13 years of experience in this area. Currently, he is Director of Emergency Medicine at Albany Memorial Hospital, a career that predated his interest in integrative medicine. How does he reconcile what seem to be two vastly different worlds?

“The promise is the same.” Stram is a pleasant, soft-spoken man more inclined to ask questions than to answer them. “We’re here to take care of patients. At the Center, I’m able to offer a wide array complementary services, and I believe some of them even should be offered in conventional medicine.

“As it is, I’ve tried to bring some of what we do at the Center to my work at Albany Memorial. There we’ve gone from a department where people were forced to feel that it was a privilege to be taken care of to a place where we believe it’s a privilege to take care of people. Our patient satisfaction rate there was at 50 percent when I started; it’s been 95 percent for the past year and a half.”

Stram’s professor of Emergency Medicine at Albany Medical Center was Joel Bartfield, who is the Center’s Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education. “Ron is a talented guy with a lot of experience,” says Dr. Bartfield. “He brings a multi-faceted approach to his work in the Emergency Department at Albany Memorial. Traditional medicine doesn’t always allow the time you’d like to talk to people, but he does what he can, and does it with the sensitivity he has developed.”

Talking becomes a vital part of the healing process at the Center for Integrative Health and Healing, and Stram schedules a lengthy consultation time for the first visit. “For the first half-hour of our consultation,” he explains, “I’m the student. I’m learning from you. My goal is to listen to people and to break down barriers.”

Stram credits his interest in alternative medicine to “two somewhat life-changing events. The first one took place when my father was ill with a spinal cord tumor. We’d been estranged when I was a young man. The illness brought us closer, which made me recognize that disease doesn’t always result in loss.”

That was also a time when Stram was introduced to the works of Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra, “healers who are pretty big names,” as well as writers like Ken Wilbur, who tackles questions about our physical and spiritual universe.

“The second event took place when I was working at Albany Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in May and the place was humming. Even the halls were filled with stretchers. And we admitted a 16-year-old girl who had been ejected from a car and hit her head against a tree. The injury had resulted in diffused brain swelling, and there’s not a lot you can do for that. The neurosurgeon came down, looked at the CT scan, looked at the monitor – I don’t think he even looked at the girl herself – then went into the waiting room where about 30 family members were gathered. He told them the girl had about a five percent chance of surviving. There was pandemonium as he walked away.

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I only knew that this was wrong. I suggested to the family that, whatever they believed in, they should pray. They should speak to friends and set up a prayer vigil, set it up all across the country if they could. ‘When you go to her hospital room,’ I said, ‘bring anything that reminds you of her. Read to her. Tell her that she has chores to do, she has work to finish.’ And, for the family at least, there was a sense of calm. That helped me recognize that healing goes beyond the patient. It includes family and friends.

“Was I giving them false hope? No. I was giving them power. Percentages are false. When people are cared for by other people, they get better.”

Spurred by this to further investigate Integrative Medicine, Stram pursued a fellowship program under Weil’s auspices at the University of Arizona. In opening the Center in Delmar, he offers a program of services intended to complement what conventional medicine provides.

“Ron puts together a realistic treatment plan,” says Christopher Reilly, a staff acupuncturist at the Center. “All my patients say he’s a really good listener who understands what they’re going through and where they’re at.” Reilly also notes that it doesn’t hurt to have a physician with Stram’s training on hand. “A patient of mine had an episode of chest and jaw pain radiating into the left arm, and I was able to grab Ron and make sure that everything was okay.”

As far as cooperation with conventional medical community, progress is slow (and insurance coverage is scarce). “Right now,” says Stram, “there is still a lot of skepticism, but there is also good evidence that these modalities can be effective. Physicians here just aren’t educated in them.”

But he needs no more convincing than the evidence of the young woman with the head injury. “I kept in touch with her family,” he says, “and eventually got a postcard with the girl’s picture on it. She was dressed for her Senior Prom. She was one hundred percent recovered.”

Metroland Magazine, 27 January 2005

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