A Deeper Look: Guidance for Health, Public Engagement and Discipline in the New Year

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Donna Ginsberg and the wheel of health. Photo: Theresa Curry.

While the short-lived nature of New Year’s resolutions has become a cliché, many people still welcome a quiet opportunity to reflect on past events and articulate their intentions for the year ahead. Crozet has a number of original thinkers who believe in the possibility of meaningful change. None of them came to this belief easily. They’ve had difficult journeys, and are willing to share what they’ve learned.

The Wheel of Health

A couple of weeks ago, Donna Ginsberg was at her job as the nighttime clinical pharmacist at Augusta Health, working with the doctors to stabilize a patient with a critical head bleed. It was like a movie set, only real: “The helicopter was waiting, the doctors were scrambling, and my assistant’s hands were shaking too hard to fill the prescription,” she said. She had the technician stop for just a second and take a deep breath. Ultimately, the patient was medicated, loaded onto Pegasus and flown to Charlottesville. The incident gave her a chance to reflect on why she became a pharmacist.

Ginsberg started out years ago as a dietitian. “I’d counsel clients about what they needed to do to restore their health, but they just didn’t believe they could really change, so all the same problems would repeat themselves.” She grew weary of the disappointment and studied pharmacy, where at least she could have some observable results.

Different profession, same problem, she discovered. Scenes like the recent emergency leave her glad to make a difference, but her day-to-day work has the same pitfalls as her previous work: “I’ve seen obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases grow until they’re the major reasons for hospitalization,” she said. “I’m filling prescriptions for people who could have prevented their own disability.”

So she continued her interest in prevention and healing, studying plant-based nutrition at Cornell and integrative medicine at Duke. When two fairly young colleagues died, she resolved to use her accumulated knowledge for the good of the community, and she added individual coaching to her professional repertoire.

At Duke, she had learned about the wheel of health, a concept that acknowledges personal responsibility for our own health in a number of areas: the mind-body connection, movement and rest, nutrition, spirituality, personal and professional development, physical environment, and relationships.

In her coaching, Ginsberg’s noticed that people often diagnose themselves with the wrong ailment: A recent client thought she needed nutritional counseling when it was really recreation she was lacking, Ginsberg said. Or someone might come in with anxiety and then let it slip that their living space is chaotic and depressing. “We become so out of touch with ourselves that we don’t know what’s really wrong,” she said.

Ginsberg has found a way to expand her individual coaching practice to include the larger community. She became interested in Essentrics, a group class that focuses on the movements necessary to sustain life, mobility and independence, and trained to be an instructor. She’s leading a class, “Aging Backwards,” at Tabor Presby-terian Church at 10:15 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays. For more information, visit her website, higherplanehealth.com.

Gene Locke. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Healing and Courage in Public Life

Gene Locke was a young Presbyterian minister when the tragic death of two children in his congregation led him to take a different path in his profession. “The impact of these deaths was so enormous, and the family’s heartbreak so painful, that I wanted to learn how best to help,” he said.

Locke undertook the lengthy training to become a hospital chaplain and over the years, has worked in Michigan, Wisconsin and Atlanta, taught and supervised other chaplains and maintained a pastoral counseling practice. In a large urban setting, he saw the devastation of the early AIDs epidemic and learned a great deal about how families react in the face of tragedy.

“I guess one of the first things I realized was that all family members are not the same in the face of loss,” he said. “Each person experiences a different reality, has his own story, often quite different from other family members.”

When Locke retired and moved to Crozet to be near his grandchildren, he applied his understanding of the validity of each person’s individual experience to a new kind of ministry. He’s educated students at U.Va.’s medical school on the place of spirituality in their practice, and has taken and taught courses for OLLI.

Like many, he’s been discouraged by the ferocity and nastiness of political debate in this country, and a course he offered at The Lodge at Old Trail––”Healing the Heart of Democracy”––based on the work of the Quaker writer Parker Palmer, especially touched him as a way forward politically. Like Palmer, Locke believes in the importance of listening and remaining open in the face of heartbreak at the state of national affairs. Both men talk about having hearts “broke open” to find new energy and purpose, and creating safe spaces to discuss ways to promote meaningful change. Using a model proposed by Parker, Locke has offered to facilitate a “circle of trust” for those in the area who would like to support each other in figuring out how to extricate themselves from tribal warfare and engage effectively in public life.

By “engaged” Locke does not mean crafting insults to post online to political enemies.” If our idea of ‘discourse’ is angry posts on Facebook, then we’ll lose everything,” he said.

Those interested in a non-partisan group discussion on healing democracy are invited to email Locke at lockegene@gmail.com.

A Transfer of Power

Everyone wants to know what John Alton knows. He’s consulted with U.Va.’s swim team to prevent the many respiratory illnesses that plague each season; he lectures at the University’s School of Nursing; he’s gone to Silicon Valley to make presentations to thousands of Google employees; he has interactions with both U.S. and Chinese government health officials that sometimes baffle him. He’s not a doctor, nor a public health official. His life’s study is of the tools that could transfer to each person the power now held by the medical establishment, which does great at heroic treatment for specific problems, but not so great at the big picture.

His method is far from simple, although it started simply enough. Alton, a long-time and fierce student of East Asian martial arts with multiple black belts, broke his wrist in a bicycle accident, ignored it for too long and re-injured it enough times that it was pronounced unfixable. He spent long months with his arm in a full cast with no improvement. The young Virginia Tech English professor sought and was offered a job in China teaching English and working on language textbooks. Alton, unwilling to accept his life-changing loss of mobility, was determined to see if Chinese medicine could offer something for his useless wrist. One of the reasons he was offered the job was because he was young and healthy, Alton said: “They needed people to be in good health because the air there is so bad.”

John Alton. Submitted photo.

Accepted into a yearlong study program with Beijing’s foremost master, Alton practiced Qi Gong, plus an arduous routine of breathing, meditation and exercise, following very specific instructions. “I can’t say I had much hope in the routine I was given for my wrist,” he said. And despite his health and youth, he had succumbed to the bad air and had a lung infection. “I felt miserable, the routine was a lot of work and it was boring.” But he had promised to follow instructions exactly and he did. One night about a month in, while meditating and contracting his muscles in a certain way corresponding to his breath, he felt his infection clear as though it had been zapped by lightning passing through his body. Encouraged, he struggled to direct the same kind of energy to his wrist, which eventually also healed.

Beijing University—the Harvard of China—was the world’s center for experts in the Chinese  tradition. Beijing was also the place to go for advanced Western-style care. Alton was surprised to see that the life-saving procedures and medicines of the West, and the more interior and holistic practices of China had never been integrated: “In fact, you might have to go to two different hospitals if you wanted both,” he said.

Since then, Alton’s life’s work has been a search for that integration. He owned and was the chief instructor for the “Three Emperors” studio in Charlottesville from 1990 to 2002 and has written three books, focusing on the healing power of reflective exercise rather than the potential of martial arts to vanquish a foe. He’s had success working with individual clients with intractable disease. One of his most difficult students has been himself, a journey he chronicles in his book, Autonomic Intelligence. He now focuses full time on running his company, Pulsatile International, which offers his books, a special app, and instruction in reflective exercise.

For more information on Alton’s work, go to pulsatileinternational.com.

Those looking for local classes in Tai Chi can register for Wednesday classes at the Greenwood Community Center through albemarlecounty.org, or Saturday classes at Tabor Presbyterian Church at blueridgetaichi@gmail.com.

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