When you meet Dr. Anne Weisman for the first time, it’s difficult not to think that she has been blessed with uninterrupted good health, that she has only dealt with people whose lives are largely untouched by frightening pain and sorrow.
Yes, the UNLV School of Medicine’s Director of Wellness and Integrative Medicine welcomes you with a broad smile and a simple, but, oh, so sincere greeting — “It’s another great day, isn’t it?”” — together they wonderfully convey that all is right in the world, that the glass is always half full, never half empty.
Yet this is a woman who nearly died in a car accident that left her with a massive skull fracture in 1999, who was in a coma for nearly a week, whose traumatic brain injury played havoc with her memory — a woman who has spent more than a decade caring for people living with HIV/AIDS, and working with hospice patients.
“The prognosis coming out of that car accident at Lake Tahoe (she was then a student at the University of Nevada, Reno) wasn’t very good,” she said recently. “They initially thought I would need care all my life.”
Months of physical therapy, combined with her own readings on the workings of the brain and healing systems of other cultures, helped her regain the physical, mental and emotional strength to continue with college, this time at UNLV, closer to family. Though she received a degree in communications, her heart was no longer in pursuing a career in public relations.
“I decided I wanted to be a massage therapist,” she said. “I knew what it was to suffer. I told my parents I was going to go to massage school and you can imagine they weren’t that excited. But it was the best decision I ever made.”
The first day she volunteered to work with HIV/AIDS patients had a lasting effect on her.
“This man I massaged started to cry, said he had never been touched in such a caring way,” she said. “That man changed my life. I realized how much touch meant in healing, in caring for a person. I started to work with terminally ill patients, in hospice, too.”
As she worked in massage therapy — in 2007 she was awarded the Jefferson Award for Public Service in Las Vegas for her volunteer work with HIV/AIDS patients — Weisman also did academic work in public health, earning her M.P.H. & Ph.D in the discipline.
In 2015 she was named to her position with the medical school, where she teaches medical students that state of the art conventional medicine may be combined, or integrated, with other healing systems and therapies — yoga, meditation, deep breathing and massage among them. They are acquired from ideas and cultures both old and new, therapies she’s found useful in dealing with her own brain injury, that have kept her positive — that she believes can help physicians deal with their often stressful profession.
“I’m alive because of traditional Western medicine,” Weisman said. “So I’m certainly not trying to diminish its importance. Yet there are other health strategies that can be beneficial. ”
What she hopes, she says, is that medical students will see that there is evidence that healing strategies which include dealing with the psychosocial and spiritual dimensions of patients’ lives have a significant role to play in patient care, though she stresses it’s not something they will have to use in their own practices.
“In essence what we’re able to do with our new curriculum at UNLV is give students a sense of how dealing with the whole person can be helpful to patient care,” said Weisman said.
Given her interest in the role of the psychosocial and spiritual dimensions in healing, it isn’t surprising that Weisman wondered what role mind-body medicine could play in the wake of the Oct. 1 massacre in Las Vegas, where a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concert goers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival on the Strip, killing 58 and injuring more than 800. Weisman said that talks with students and other faculty convinced her that there would be a long term need in Las Vegas for a way to deal with the trauma of the tragedy.
An associate in New York told her that strategies used by The Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington D.C. may be able to help Southern Nevadans deal with post traumatic stress syndrome. The center was founded by Dr. James Gordon, a Harvard educated psychiatrist, whose programs have become world-renowned for helping traumatized children and families in Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, Haiti, post-9/11 New York City, post-Katrina southern Louisiana and with American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Weisman, who flew to Chicago and Houston to see how Gordon’s program worked with the victims of the Windy City’s gun violence and Houston’s hurricane victims, now plans to bring Gordon to Las Vegas in March to help train more than 100 Southern Nevadans to work with groups of traumatized Las Vegans in breathing, meditation and movement techniques — modalities that often help individuals resume productive lives free of paralyzing fear.
“The beauty of this is that the people who are trained do not have to be professionals,” Weisman said. “The longer some of the people go without help, the more likely they are to self-medicate and that can be dangerous. It is important that we reach out to help them.”