Jewish Home adds Chinese medicine to the menu

Every Tuesday at 4 p.m., Jewish Home resident Edith Sadewitz lies on a table from 10 minutes to half an hour. She meditates or allows her mind to “just relax” as acupuncture needles are placed in different parts of her body. She describes the treatment as “very simple, very painless,” and Kaylah Sterling’s manner as “caring and attentive.” Afterward, Sadewitz sits up with a sense of calm and well-being, although, “I feel activity [in my body] going on.”

Sadewitz is one of about 30 residents of the San Francisco facility taking advantage of its new integrative medicine program, combining traditional and Eastern approaches. Sterling, a licensed acupuncturist who serves as clinic dean of American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, began directing the program in February. She spends 20 hours a week at the Home, in a program funded with a grant from the Jewish Community Endowment Maimonides Fund of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The collaboration between Western and Eastern approaches at the Home began several years ago. As clinic dean of the college, Sterling believes student clinicians needed to gain experience in traditional Western settings. She coordinated an externship program for her students with Dr. Jay Luxenberg, the Home’s medical director.

“Many residents have ailments that Western medicine isn’t great at treating,” including arthritis, nausea and itchiness, for example, or chronic illnesses, Luxenberg says. The normal practice of traditional physicians is to prescribe medication, and the average number of medications each resident takes is nine. “It seemed nice to offer an alternative that might allow some cutting back of Western medicines that aren’t that effective.”

The externship program was a big success, Luxenberg recalls. Residents began receiving treatment for conditions like depression, anxiety, shortness of breath and memory loss. “Those who were getting treatment didn’t want to stop. We were unable to meet the demand.”

That enthusiasm continues with the new program. Within a month of starting her job at the Home, Sterling’s schedule was completely booked and there was a waiting list.

Sterling’s interest in acupuncture and Chinese medicine came about as a result of her own experience with back pain. She sought treatment from an acupuncturist and later began studying Chinese medicine. She also explored Eastern religions, specifically Taoism (which is the philosophical basis for Chinese medicine) and Buddhism.

“The more I studied Buddhism, the more it started to remind me of the spiritual aspect of Judaism,” says Sterling, who is Jewish. She is currently studying the Zohar and Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that she finds “very similar to the spiritual side of Chinese medicine.”

Chinese medicine utilizes a variety of modalities. In addition to acupuncture, Sterling uses cupping, the placement of glass cups to suction particular areas of the body. This can be especially helpful for pain management and treating upper-respiratory conditions. Moxibustion involves the burning of specific herbs around an acupuncture point, which can stimulate the immune system or bring relief from certain pain patterns. Sterling plans to introduce topical herbal lotions and later to bring in the exercise part of Chinese medicine, such as tai chi and qigong.

The patients Sterling treats range in age from 75 to 93. She sees the majority of them in their rooms. She gathers a pertinent health history of each, taking into account pulse, complexion, appearance of the tongue and palpation. At the start of each acupuncture treatment — before placing the needles — she asks them to breathe with her and not to think during the session. “Let the needles and let the energy in your body really begin to balance and heal you,” she tells them.

Unlike her visits with other medical practitioners, Sadewitz looks forward to her time with Sterling. Sometimes the sessions focus on her osteoporosis condition, which is systemic. “I’m 83 and my bones are beginning to tell me how old they’re getting.”

Other times Sterling concentrates on improving her vision impairment. “She treats me in areas where I tell her I’m uncomfortable,” says Sadewitz, who acknowledges that Sterling has “quite a choice of areas to work on.”

Sadewitz is grateful to benefit from Sterling’s services. “She is so knowledgeable and she finds the points where she can give me relief. We are so lucky that our medical staff is progressive enough to put her on the staff here.”