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Santa Fe doctor has team of alternative practitioners to ease pain, anxiety

By Eric Billingsley
Journal Staff Writer
          Cosmetic surgery is no superficial affair, at least when it comes to the act of getting a tummy tuck, breast augmentation, rhinoplasty or liposuction.
        The procedures can take weeks of planning, hours of surgery and a long time to heal. Nonsurgical regimens, like Botox injections, are also no walk in the park.
        Santa Fe plastic surgeon Dr. Daniel Ronel says he has devised a way to help ease patients' pain and anxiety: Blend cosmetic procedures with acupuncture, aromatherapy, homeopathy, medical aesthetology, nutritional counseling, psychotherapy, reflexology and Thai massage.
        "When you sign up for a face-lift, you get the whole team," says Ronel, who has practiced in Santa Fe for four years. "I think improving patients' nutrition, stress management and self-image is critical to a healthy recovery and happy life."
        Only in Santa Fe, right? The city's New Age and upper income population is no doubt a prime market for such a practice. But Ronel, patients and some of the alternative medicine practitioners involved say blending holistic and Western medicine simply makes sense.
        "The way I think about it is if there are people out there who really want to change their lives and be more healthy, that's what I'm here for," nutritional counselor Mark Wood said. "I think it really is the wave of the future."
        Dolly O'Leary, 68, recently had a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. Ronel, who did not perform the mastectomy, then did restorative breast augmentation and a tummy tuck.
        "Isn't this something ... I take it out and now I'm putting it back in," O'Leary joked as she waited for a follow-up visit with Ronel.
        On a serious note, she said she had a lot of anxiety about going under the knife again. So for the tummy tuck, Ronel's staff prepared her stomach with dermabrasion and an herbal wrap. An aromatherapist mixed up a personalized vial of essential oils that, when sniffed, would bring O'Leary to a "place of peace."
        "The herbal blankets relaxed me," O'Leary said. "The aromatherapy worked really good. I smelled it prior to the IV. I'm scared to death of needles, and with this IV, I wasn't even scared ... now that I think about it."
        She was also given Arnica, an herbal medicine to help with bruising, inflammation and wound healing.
        Loren Haynes received a reflexology treatment — massage that stimulates nerve endings in the feet — as he waited to see Ronel. The actor and director recently got a black eye, and because his job requires being on-screen, he was being injected with a "filler" to mask the trauma.
        "With stuff like this, it's just a 'freshening' because the camera doesn't lie," said Haynes, adding that he tried unsuccessfully to cover the black eye with makeup.
        As Ronel injected the filler, reflexologist Tess DeGange increased the intensity of the foot massage. She said stimulating thousands of nerve endings in the feet calms people and helps the physical healing process.
        "When people come in their hands are clenched, but after the massage they are immediately relaxed," DeGange said.
        "That wasn't so bad," Haynes said after the filler injection. "I think the touch alone will relax you. It helps absolutely."
        Nearly 11.7 million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in the U.S. in 2007, according to The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. The most frequently performed procedure was Botox injections, and the most popular surgical procedure was liposuction.
        Ronel, who was a pediatrician prior to becoming a plastic surgeon, said he integrated alternative medicine into his practice about a year ago by teaming with eight practitioners from the Santa Fe area.
        "I think surgical techniques have improved over the past 10 to 20 years but plateaued," said Ronel. "I want to take healing to a higher level, and to do so requires the integration of practices from other schools of thought."
        The alternative services are provided at no extra charge, although they can be purchased separately. The average cost of a tummy tuck is $9,000, a face-lift is $14,000, and breast augmentation $6,000. The cost of liposuction varies.
        If patients choose to use alternative medicine, they are given an individualized pre- and post-surgery plan, Ronel said.
        "After the first or second visit is when I decide how to use the team of alternative practitioners," he said. "I also tell patients that it's not guaranteed to help ... but it can't hurt." He added that an increasing number of people are coming to the office just for the alternative medicine services rather than cosmetic surgery.
        But are holistic medicine and cosmetic surgery compatible?
        "I think it's very important to blend Eastern and Western medicine because I don't want to be drugged," said 40-year-old Carmen Quintana, who will undergo a rhinoplasty in the near future. "I want the alternatives."
        Wood, the nutritional counselor, said tummy tuck patients need to adjust their diets and exercise to keep the weight down after the operation. A diet rich in whole foods, antioxidants and vitamins can also help the body more efficiently heal wounds from procedures like breast augmentation.
        "We try to supplement as little as possible and try to address the diet first," Wood said, adding that he consults patients about how they eat, what they eat, their metabolism, blood type and ethnicity. "Sometimes people coming in may need even more help than others."
        Melissa Lee, an aromatherapist, says she's surprised to find herself working at a cosmetic surgery office. After all, her practice is a far cry from Western medicine.
        But she said she meets patients on a psychic level, where they are most vulnerable. The smell of the essential oils is just a "doorway in."