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The New Healers

The granddaddy of complementary medicine in New York is Dr. Robert Atkins, author of the best-selling Atkins diet books and founder of the Atkins Center for Complementary Medicine, a seven-story facility on 55th Street. Atkins has been in practice for 40 years and claims to have treated more than 60,000 patients, among them seventies diva Stevie Nicks (who credits Atkins's diet with helping her to shed 30 pounds for her recent comeback tour).

Atkins, 68, is a cardiologist by training, and his reducing diets are high-protein, low-carbohydrate regimens -- which have become popularized in best-selling books. Atkins's practice attracts the chronically ill, especially diabetics and people with allergies, cancer, and multiple sclerosis. His clinic offers nutrition, herbs, acupuncture, prolo therapy, and supplements in conjunction with Western drugs when necessary to treat chronic ailments, including allergies, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, cancer, pain, and gastrointestinal complaints -- as well as weight problems.

"For the first fourteen years of my career, when I saw a heart patient I would say, 'How have you done since your last visit?' And if they said 'No change,' I'd say 'Good,' " Atkins says. "Now if they say 'No change,' I say 'What have you been doing wrong?' The expectation of mainstream doctors is that heart patients don't get better. Here, the expectation is yes, they can. We are changing the world."

Like many of his colleagues, Atkins began exploring diet, vitamins, and nutritional medicine when he became frustrated with the results of traditional pharmaceutical medicine. Over the years, he has seen the popularity of alternative health care grow, especially in New York: "New York doctors are at the head of this, because more and more people here are looking for alternative doctors. On the West Coast, the problem is a high density. West Coast doctors are more vegetarian, and most of us here are more carnivorous -- that's a difference." Atkins also points out that on the West Coast the law is much stricter.

At first, complementary, innovative, or alternative practice drew the full scorn of the New York medical Establishment, and state law reflected that. Occasionally, practitioners had their licenses yanked by the medical boards, which judged a doctor's work by whether it coincided with the community standards of practice used by the rest of the profession. In 1994, New York's alternative-medical-practice act restated the standard of practice to whatever works -- within the parameters of safety, effectiveness, and informed consent. That change in the law made life much easier for New York doctors who want to prescribe herbs, yoga, acupuncture, or supplements instead of or along with pharmaceuticals.

"New York is a lot less paranoid than it used to be," observes Dr. Woodson Merrell, one of the city's leading alternative-medicine practitioners. Merrell, 50, a hale, outdoorsy fellow who tends to wear corduroys and flannel when he sees patients (many from the music industry), is another West Coast native actually weaned on homeopathy and organic food. He was born in San Francisco, the grandson of a Sierra Club member; his parents treated his infant croup with homeopathic medicine. In college in the sixties, Merrell took up yoga and studied political science. He went on to medical school intending to combine Eastern and Western healing techniques.

Now he "recommends" (not, he points out, "prescribes," because it is technically not allowed) herbs and supplements, yoga and meditation and acupuncture, nutritional advice and homeopathy, from his small office on 67th Street, where the walls are lined with books on Chinese and Tibetan medicine and herbs. He will prescribe pharmaceuticals when they're called for, but only at an absolute minimum. Many of his patients are referred by their doctors. "An allergist will have a patient on cortisone for the eighth time, and finally he will say, 'Go to Dr. Merrell; maybe he can do something.' "