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Dana Reeve poignantly begins PBS program

Months before death, is ‘hopeful' in introduction to ‘The New Medicine’
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dana Reeve would live only about three more months after she taped an introduction to the two-hour PBS documentary “The New Medicine.”

The widow of paralyzed “Superman” actor Christopher Reeve was battling lung cancer diagnosed last summer, but was upbeat on that late November day of the taping.

“She was very hopeful at that point that she would survive,” director Muffie Meyer recalled. “She was buying Christmas presents for her son that day, and really had a tremendous amount of energy.”

In her introduction to the first segment of “The New Medicine,” Reeve tells viewers: “Your emotional state has a tremendous amount to do with sickness, health and well-being. For years, my husband and I lived on — and because of — hope. Hope continues to give me the mental strength to carry on.”

The project was the last she is known to have completed before her death March 6. “The New Medicine,” which debuts Wednesday (check local listings), looks at how mainstream doctors are embracing the idea that true healing involves treating the whole patient — not just the symptoms of a disease.

By airing after her death, Reeve’s appearance unintentionally underscores one of the central points of the documentary: Holistic medicine is a tool for fighting illness — not a cure-all.

“Part of the challenge is we get patients all the time that are really looking for a magic cure,” said Dr. Tracy Gaudet, an obstetrician-gynecologist who heads the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham and is featured in the PBS program. “We’re not in the business of magic cures; we’re in the business of good medicine.”

The idea behind her center, Gaudet said, is to use any available techniques — from alternative to mainstream — that might improve a patient’s experience. Accepted practices include herbal supplements, acupuncture, massage and meditation.

“The Science of Emotion,” the first hour of the documentary, follows Gaudet as she treats Tammy Patton following her hospitalization in the 25th week of pregnancy. Patton’s water has broken prematurely, exposing her fetus to the risk of infection and increasing the chance of premature birth.

Stress is known to raise the risk of infection and to spur early labor, so Gaudet led Patton through a series of relaxation exercises intended to hold off labor.

“We can help your mind take a little vacation,” Gaudet told her patient. Patton ended up carrying her baby boy four more weeks. So the birth was still premature, but the boy has a good chance of a healthy life.

Also featured in the program is Dr. Ralph Snyderman, the chancellor emeritus of health affairs at Duke who helped start the center. Snyderman said recently that before he was an administrator, he specialized in technology-driven, federally financed research.

“I was about as hard-nosed a physician-scientist as you could find,” he said. But he learned that patients had problems “beyond what was going to be solved through pure science and technology alone.”

Reeve, in an off-camera interview with the film’s producers on the day she taped her introductions, said she had consulted with integrative medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil and was doing “creative image work” — a technique in which patients learn to relax by evoking images and sensations.

With her doctors’ blessing, she said, she also was taking botanical supplements along with the medicines she was prescribed at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center.

The PBS film almost consciously avoids a New Age tone. There are a few shots of yoga classes and one segment in which scientists study the brain waves of a Buddhist monk as he meditates.

But there are no magic crystals, no “cancer diets” or trips to Mexico for treatments outlawed in the United States. Just a sincere effort to find something — anything — that will lead to a better quality of life for patients.