The Whole Story

Quick, guard your Valium! Cling to your Viagra! Hide your Hydrocodone! Alternative medicine has infiltrated the Golden Triangle.

Story Jason Browne | Photographs Kelly Tippett & Luisa Porter

Registered pharmacist Robert White is the ringleader of this holistic invasion. After opening Robert’s Apothecary in Columbus more than 30 years ago, he turned his highly trained eye to natural remedies 15 years ago and opened the floodgates. Now he’s got an in-house massage therapist — one of more than 10 in the Triangle — set up in his building and works with (gasp) an acupuncturist in Starkville.

“I guess I’m viewed as the old hippie among pharmacists,” said White. “In fact, until two years ago I had a long ponytail. But my wife kept complaining that I couldn’t have a ponytail growing out of the back of my head with no hair on top.”

White likes to tell jokes, but his credentials are anything but. He’s a 1976 graduate of the University of Mississippi pharmacy school, son of a Delta pharmacist and is friends with Dr. Ken Roberts, former dean of the Ole Miss pharmacy school.

Continuing education — keeping up with emerging medicine — was already a big part of his practice. But after Roberts took a six-week trip to India 15 years ago, he raved to White about herbal medicine.

“So I brought in and studied 10 natural products that could fit on one shelf. Now everything you see (on the shelves) is natural,” said White.

He estimates 75 percent of his business comes from filling conventional prescriptions, and he refuses to undermine a doctor’s recomendation. But if you ask his opinion about what to take, he’ll point you toward something natural. Furthermore, any medicine he puts in his own body is all natural.

As a convert to holistic medicine, White keeps up with emerging natural therapies with the same diligence he applies to his study of prescription medication.

Dr. Jo Anne Turner, MD, is no different. After 27 years in psychiatry, the Houston, Texas, native tired of prescribing drugs with troubling side effects to treat her patients, many of whom were children. In 2002 she turned to holistic medicine to treat all aspects of her patients’ health, which led her to the University of California at Los Angeles to be trained in acupuncture.

Since setting up her acupuncture practice in Oktibbeha County, Turner and White have developed a partnership, referring patients to one another.

“She’s a godsend,” White said of Turner. “She recommends some natural products I have and I stock things for her patients.”

Because Mississippi requires a medical degree prior to licensing an acupuncturist, Turner doesn’t have a lot of competition in the area, but it’s only a matter of time. White said 1999 marked the last year more U.S. patients visited medical doctors for assistance than alternative practitioners.

“It’s a trend that’s grown, as evidenced by everything out there being natural,” he said. “We encourage a healthy lifestyle, diet, healthy food, cutting out fast food, the Mississippi diet that’s so unhealthy. Then we combine that with exercise and good supplements and vitamins from organically grown foods.”

And when holistic practitioners claim they treat everything, they mean everything. Allergies, hypertension, high cholesterol, muscle pain, migraines and much more serious problems.

Despite the perception that acupuncture is rooted in some sort of eastern mysticism, Turner says the proof is in the pudding.

By inserting hair-width needles shallowly into a network of passages in the body called meridians, she claims she can treat everything from physical handicaps to mental disorders.

The procedure isn’t cheap. Turner charges $165 for a single hour worth of work and prefers to deal in three-hour blocks for $330. But she says she needs the time to get to know the complete patient. She spends the first hour covering the patient’s history and every present medical problem.

Patients without much time or money can get a 15-minute ear session for just under $100.

“The ear has your whole body on it, so I can hit the shoulder point (through placing a pin at the correct point on the ear),” she explains.

Turner would love to charge less for her time, but the price is so high due to the equipment she has to buy. Acupuncture, it turns out, isn’t just about pins these days.

Turner has several electronic devices which work in conjunction with the needles. One clips to the needles to send electrical impulses through them. Another piece shaped like an ear thermometer shoots a laser that, when passed along the ear, makes a clicking noise to indicate where the problem spots are in a patient’s body.

Another piece of equipment she uses is a body canopy which serves as a sauna, “providing the heat of the sun without the ultraviolet rays.”

Speaking of heat, Turner will also light mugwort atop the needles, which smokes like incense, and sends heat through the meridians.

Finally, she also practices acutonics, which utilizes tuning forks that treat ailments through vibration.

Doug Jones, a landscaper who lives and works near Turner’s office, was skeptical about acupuncture but figured it couldn’t hurt. He went to Turner for a myriad of problems from back and shoulder pain to trouble sleeping and, after one session, “slept like a baby.”

The next day, said Jones, he awoke and began mowing his lawn without even realizing his aches and pains were gone. Another time, he said Turner helped him clear up some nagging sinus pain.

Although insurance companies have been slow to catch on to acupuncture, Turner says Veterans Administrations commonly spring for the procedure for former and current soldiers. She said the ear acupuncture is even used in the field at times to get soldiers back on the battlefield.

Despite the high prices and lack of insurance coverage, Turner says she’s as busy as she wants to be with patients. She treats adults and some children who have a long history of seeing various doctors and difficulty dealing with medication.

“The fact of the matter is I’m usually the last person they get to. So when they get to me they say ‘I wish I had done this earlier,’” she said. “I don’t have too many skeptics anymore.”