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Former surgeon left her career to become a holistic healer

Gina Sager, pictured February 28, 2012, in Towson, Maryland, was a former general surgeon in Maryland who gave up her practice after the cost of medic...

Gina Sager, pictured February 28, 2012, in Towson, Maryland, was a former general surgeon in Maryland who gave up her practice after the cost of medic...

The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE
Not so long ago, Gina Sager set out to cure her patients by wielding a surgeon’s scalpel. Today, her preferred tool is a set of two small brass bells connected by a cord — though these, too, require all the precision and delicacy she can muster.
“Tling” the bells call out just once, high and pure. There’s a pause, not too long and not too short, and once again, Sager rocks her hands just slightly: “Tling.” Sager waits, and gives the bells a third and final shake that’s just loud enough to be heard without startling the listeners in the class she’s teaching on mindfulness and stress reduction: “Tling.”
Ten years ago, Sager, now 51, shut down her private medical practice, in part because she was sued for malpractice — she said wrongly — three times in five months. She walked away from a career as one of Maryland’s few board-certified female surgeons to study, and eventually teach, holistic healing.
“I may have closed my practice and let my medical license expire, but I really believe I’m still a healer,” she said. “I still take care of people, but in a much less stressful environment and much more completely than I ever could before.”
A new study seems to bear her out.
According to a report released Feb. 15 by the Bravewell Collaborative, such nontraditional methods as meditation, yoga, acupuncture and herbal supplements can lessen the symptoms of certain chronic conditions. (The collaborative is a Minneapolis-based advocacy, research and funding group that promotes holistic practices.)
In a survey of 29 integrative medicine centers in hospitals and medical schools throughout the U.S., doctors and patients reported success using holistic techniques in 75 percent of cases involving chronic pain; 59 percent alleviating gastrointestinal disorders; 55 percent in reducing depression and anxiety; 52 percent in lowering stress; and 52 percent in diminishing the discomfort caused by the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
While the percentage of some outcomes might appear little better than chance, advocates say a low-cost technique that helps many patients and causes no harm is valuable from a treatment perspective.
“The important news in this research is that it can help treat chronic conditions,” said Delia Chiaramonte, who is the director of education for the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Integrative Medicine, which participated in the Bravewell study.
“If you have meningitis, you need antibiotics. If you’ve been in a car accident and you have 20 broken bones, you need a trauma surgeon. But for many chronic conditions, we don’t have wonderful pharmacology we can use.
“The results of the study are very heartening. It means that now we have a bigger toolbox for treating patients.”
Today, Sager travels from site to site around Maryland, teaching yoga, meditation and stress-reduction classes six days a week to medical students, cancer patients and the public.
During the growing season, she can be found at farmers’ markets in Bel Air and Takoma Park, Md., conducting demonstrations of healthful vegetarian cooking techniques. She leads biannual retreats at a ranch in the New Mexico desert.
During a recent class in Ellicott City, Md., Sager sprinkled detailed scientific information about brain activity into a reading from “The Velveteen Rabbit,” a discussion of the perils of giving advice, a guided meditation and such body-centered exercises as “mindful walking.”
After the session, participant Nina Lagervall, 50, of Catonsville, Md., said that Sager’s medical background gives her teaching increased credibility.
“It’s very inspiring to think of her giving up her life as a surgeon and doing this now because she believes in it so fully,” Lagervall said. “The payoff for me is that it’s increasing my happiness. I’ve found that if I slow down and take the time to experience all my senses, I can even find housework enjoyable.