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Archive for Thursday, September 6, 2001

East meets Bible Belt

Self-help guru Deepak Chopra opens shop in Georgia

September 6, 2001

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— In self-help books rooted in Eastern spirituality, Deepak Chopra writes that people can reverse aging by changing their thoughts. His Web site says astrology can forecast disease. He once wrote an essay for Playboy titled "Does God Have Orgasms?"

He admits he didn't expect the warmest welcome from physicians here on the coast of the conservative Bible Belt.

But despite some unorthodox ideas, Savannah's 2,500-seat Johnny Mercer Theatre was packed when Chopra came to lecture on mind-body medicine earlier this year.

Now, Chopra is partnering with Savannah's Memorial Health University Medical Center to open a branch of his holistic spa.

"I was slightly surprised," Chopra said. "I thought that the medical community might not be receptive."

While about two-thirds of the nation's medical schools offer courses in alternative medicine, mainstream hospitals have been slow to put it into practice. According to the American Hospital Assn., only 11 percent of hospitals offered some sort of alternative remedies in 1999.

Savannah's Memorial is the nation's first hospital to partner with the Chopra Center for Well Being, founded in La Jolla, Calif., in 1996.

By joining forces with Chopra, Memorial gets to market its program under one of the hottest names in pop science. The 54-year-old India-born physician has sold millions of books and drawn attention for famous admirers, including Michael Jackson and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But Chopra's popularity doesn't necessarily translate into sound treatment, said Dr. Wallace Sampson, a retired oncologist who teaches a course in alternative medicine and science at Stanford University.

"You're dealing with an ideology that's actually invading the scientific community and is corrupting it," Sampson said. "My opinion is they're doing it because he has a name and it's a moneymaker."

Memorial's chief executive officer, Robert Colvin, acknowledges the mass-marketing appeal of Chopra's name but says the hospital sees alternative treatments as another way to ease patients' emotional distress.

The hospital plans to use Chopra's less controversial teachings hand-in-hand with traditional medicine, he said. Meditation and aromatherapy may be in, but astrology and Eastern religion are out.

"Part of it is because we're in a conservative Southern community," Colvin said.

What patients might find, Colvin said, are massages for pregnant women, meditation classes to help heart patients reduce stress, herbal teas to ease cancer patients' nausea from chemotherapy, and aromatherapy to soothe patients who must remain conscious during brain surgery.

Dr. Ray Rudolph, a breast cancer surgeon at Memorial, said he signed up for the Chopra training because he believes modern medicine has become too impersonal.

"I'm a scientist and a researcher, not a guru from the Himalayas. But I've seen something that I think can help my patients, and that's what I think is important," Rudolph said.

Bookstore owner Esther Shaver says she sells one or two copies of Chopra's books when they come out, not much compared to books like "The Prayer of Jabez," Bruce Wilkinson's pop-Christian, self-help best seller.

Critics say Memorial risks undermining its credibility by linking with Chopra.

"You're risking the Faustian bargain here," said Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society of scientific debunkers. "They're trying to get the benefits, but they're going to risk tainting their organization with a lot of pseudoscientific quackery."

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