Holistic Healing is this Doctor’s Best Medicine
Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer, San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Dean Ornish was in his second year of medical school in Houston when he asked his supervisor for referrals to heart patients. It was 1977, and Ornish wanted to launch a study looking at the effects of Yoga and a vegetarian diet on patients with heart disease. The supervising physician’s response was: “Should I say I’m referring patients to a swami?”

Sixteen years later, when Ornish met with a director of Medicare – a chain-smoking, 280-pound man – to see whether his holistic approach to treating heart disease could be covered under the program, he was told, “If we do this, anyone with a crystal and a pyramid will want us to pay for what they do.”

But just this past month, Medicare finally gave approval to Ornish’s program of a plant-based diet, meditation, exercise and support groups to treat heart disease. It was a crowning achievement for the Sausalito physician, best-selling author and health guru, who’s come a long way from his geek days as an introverted boy in Dallas. Now, the clinical professor of medicine at UCSF stands as the nation’s pre-eminent proponent of adopting a healthy life to reverse chronic diseases.

“While I was home, my parents had a cocktail party for this swami my sister had been studying with,” he said. “This was considered a little strange back then – it was Texas, 1972. The swami’s name was Swami Satchidananda, and he was straight out of central casting: long white beard, peaceful eyes, long saffron robe.” Laughing, Ornish recalled, “I asked him if he was a Hindu, and he said he was the ‘undo Swami,’ that he was about looking at the cause of self-destructive behavior.” Between the swami, who became a mentor, and one of his teachers in medical school – who asked the same question over and over: “Yes, but what is the cause of that?” – Ornish’s path began to take shape. He finished up at Harvard Medical School in 1984 and, later that year, founded his institute.