Dr. Erminia (Mimi) Guarneri first became known as a pioneering interventional cardiologist who placed more than 700 stents a year before she had an awakening to the wider arena of healing, including Healing Touch. She is the cofounder and medical director of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California, the president-elect of the American Board of Integrative and Holistic Medicine, and author of The Heart Speaks (see MimiGuarneriMD.com). In November, Dr. Mehmet Oz presented Dr. Guarneri with the Bravewell Leadership Award in Integrative Medicine. The prestigious award is given to a doctor who is a proven catalyst in the field and has a strong history of collaboration across healing disciplines and philosophies. Paul Sutherland caught up with Mimi in Hawaii.
Q: I’d love to understand how you chose your path.
Mimi Guarneri: When people would ask, “What do you do for a living?” I used to joke, “I’m a plumber.” Because really, that’s what I felt like. I’d go in, find clogged arteries, and I would either choose a drill to drill them out or I would put in a metal sleeve, a stent, to scaffold it open. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a plumber, but I set out to be a healer.
Q: What happened?
I went to medical school. (laughs) It was an interesting journey, because it requires you to have a good memory but not to ask too many deep questions. They feed you as much information as possible, so at the end of the day, you are reduced to what Western medicine is good at creating, which is someone who can make a quick diagnosis and rapid intervention. Of course, that’s great when you have acute problems. If someone’s having a heart attack, you need to make fast decisions, but it was a very disconnected kind of job. Frequently, I would meet patients when they were on the surgery table. I would say, “Okay, there is a blockage in your artery, and your physician wants me to fix it. Oh, by the way, I’m Dr. Guarneri.”
Q: What started your awakening?
Dr. Dean Ornish came to me and said, “I would love for Scripps to do research on my lifestyle change program.” And I said, “Dean, this is not my paradigm. I don’t know anything about yoga, meditation, or being a vegetarian, all the things that you want to study.” But, long story short, I ended up spending a week watching 500 patients at an Ornish retreat in Berkeley. All the food was 10 percent fat and vegetarian. Every morning there was yoga and exercise and meditation and lectures — everything needed for a crash course in lifestyle change. The results, from a medical perspective, were profound; I mean, people were coming in saying, “Wow, normally I have six episodes of chest pain a day. I now only have one.” Or “Normally my blood sugar is 400. Now it’s 120. I cut my insulin in half!”
Q: Did the Ornish retreat change you?
Absolutely. I signed up to participate because I needed to be able to know what the patients would be doing for our research project. But I went up to Berkeley with a frozen shoulder. I’d had a steroid injection, but I still couldn’t lift my arm above my head. I was still in the Western paradigm. Then Rauni King, the nurse for the research project and my cofounder at the integrative medicine center, said, “Let me do some Healing Touch on your shoulder.” So I had a Healing Touch treatment and went to yoga class twice a day. By the end of the retreat, my frozen shoulder was no longer frozen.
Q: You became a vegetarian. Why?
When I came back to San Diego, I also participated with the patients in the research project. These were really sick patients who should have had bypass surgery, so I thought I was participating in case there was a medical emergency. Instead, I went through my own transformation. I listened to the lectures and did the yoga, and I became a vegetarian. Meanwhile, if patients had chest pain, they would go sit by Rauni, and she would do energy work, as well as give nitro — and they would become totally relaxed, and their pain would be gone. I witnessed this, and I’m saying to myself, “Okay, (laughing) something is really going on.” When the project was finally over, Rauni and I looked at each other and we said, “We can’t let this program go.” So we created the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine.
Q: What’s our biggest health problem now?
Based on the current use of pharmaceutical therapy, we have a country that’s psychotic, depressed, and has heartburn and high cholesterol. I mean, what are we doing? The wake-up call for me has been about getting out there and empowering people to be passionate about their own life and their own health. When I teach my patients, I show them a picture of a fruit tree and ask them what they would do if their tree were sick. And they talk about all the great ways they would heal the tree: checking the sunlight, the water, and the soil. So I say, imagine that this branch is diabetes, and this branch is depression, and this branch is heart disease, and this branch is reflux. Would you go cut off the branches, bypass them, and throw out the sick fruit or fill it full of drugs?” And they say, “No, no, that doesn’t make sense.”
Immediately they realize we need to check the soil. Put in this perspective, people suddenly get it: they get how micro and macro nutrition interact with their genes, determining whether they’re going to be diabetic, determining whether they’re going to have inflammation that leads to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and arthritis.
Q: If you had to pick one practice for this entire country, what would it be?
Meditation. Because I firmly believe when people have peace inside, when they go in and they feel connected to something larger than themselves, they have much less addictive behaviors. When you look at what is really driving a lot of illness, it’s addiction. It’s about addiction to food; it’s about addiction to alcohol, to drugs, to gambling, to sex, and tobacco. I mean, the list goes on and on and on, and of course on the other side, the research shows that those who meditate are more willing to give up their cigarettes; they give up their alcohol; they start to have healthier behaviors. I have really changed from looking at health from a physical outside-in to a spiritual inside-out.
Q: What’s the future of health care?
I have a slide where I show a faucet running over, and two doctors wiping up the mess with a mop but never reaching up to turn off the faucet. What we really need to do is reach up and turn off the faucet. It is probably going take a radical grassroots movement, like the plastic bag campaign, to make this to happen. Women are the solution to this, by the way. I don’t say that to pick on the guys, but women make 80 percent of the medical decisions. They make most of the decisions of the household; they’re still the ones deciding what food is going on the table. Women will be the change.
Join Dr. Guarneri in San Diego from January 21 to 24 at her seventh annual conference on natural supplements. For more information, go to scripps.org/events.