Change of Heart

When doctors told Erminia “Mimi” Guarneri that she needed surgery for her back pain, she was skeptical. Guarneri, a cardiac surgeon, knew the procedure might address the short-term problem, but she also knew it wouldn’t give her the tools to deal with the work-related issues that had led to the injury in the first place. So she took a chance. Armed with her CT scan, she asked a yoga teacher to put together a program that included spinal twists, healing touch, and acupuncture. Sure enough, her debilitating pain disappeared. “It cured me,” she says. “I went from not being able to walk 10 feet to full functionality.”

Although Guarneri’s medical training taught her that hearts were mechanical pumps, “hollow muscles with no relationship to the emotions, intellect, or soul,” she could never shake the feeling that her patients’ anxiety, fear, and anger contributed significantly to their heart problems. Her fellow doctors didn’t talk about the emotional or spiritual realm, and her patients often ended up on the table for repeat surgeries. She knew intuitively that something was missing. “Medicine is great at patching things up,” she says. “But rather than talking about blood pressure and cholesterol, often it’s just as important, if not more, to talk to people about why they’re overeating or having problems in their relationships.”

Guarneri’s awakening to the mind-body connection led her to envision a place where patients could use Western medicine and reap the benefits of holistic, preventive care. The result was the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, which Guarneri founded in 1999. Here, patients find tools like guided imagery, massage, and music therapy; classes in Kundalini Yoga and vegetarian cooking; and courses on weight management and mindfulness-based stress reduction. “We teach coping skills that can ultimately heal people’s hearts,” she says. As the center’s medical director and a leader in the field of integrative medicine, Guarneri—who has a daily yoga and chanting practice—sees a steady acceptance of integrative medicine. “Soon it won’t be called alternative,” she says. “It will just be called medicine.”

Read Mimi Guarneri’s new book, The Heart Speaks:
A Cardiologist Reveals the Secret Language of Healing.