As a medical student in New Orleans, Dr. Mary Hardy did many of her clinical rotations in Charity Hospital. Her patients, she found, believed as strongly in the use of cod liver oil and blackstrap molasses to treat their maladies as they did in the use of traditional medicine. Although most lived in the city, they had strong family ties to the country and folk healing traditions.
It was Hardy’s first exposure to folk medicine and it set her on a journey that would take her to the Amazon, China and Kenya and, finally, lead her to UCLA.
“I was exposed to people and belief systems that were different than anything I encountered in my upper middle class upbringing,” said Hardy, who serves as medical director for Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Medicine at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “My patients practiced folk medicine and it was very important to them, a key part of their healing process. I realized I had to meet the patients where they were. I couldn’t expect them to join me in my world.”
Today, Hardy is helping cancer patients to better deal with their treatment and their lives after cancer. She advises them on nutrition and dietary supplements and can suggest alternative therapies such as massage and acupuncture. A trained physician, she evaluates each person individually and tailors her advice based on the patient’s lifestyle, treatment regimen and emotional and physical condition.
"When patients develop cancer, everyone who loves them offers advice. They often get overwhelmed and confused and that’s stressful,” Hardy said. “I’m here to be a reliable, authoritative source of information about the staggeringly broad array of dietary supplements and alternative therapies available.”
There’s also the health information available on the Internet, some of it reliable and some of it not.
"There is a lot of good quality research out there and a lot of information without enough foundation,” she said. “Patients have trouble telling the difference. That’s where I can help.”
Medicine runs in Hardy’s family. A fifth generation physician, Hardy’s father and grandfather were physicians, her mother a nurse. She remembers going on rounds with her grandfather and knew from a young age that medicine was her calling. She attended Vassar College and later, she was one of only 17 women in her Louisiana State University medical school class.
Hardy did her residency in Boston at Tufts New England Medical Center, going from her practical and pragmatic experience in New Orleans to a more academic setting. But the hospital sat on the edge of Chinatown and Hardy found herself seeing many unassimilated Chinese patients. While Hardy was digging for her stethoscope to perform examinations, her patients were rolling back their sleeves, unbuttoning the buttons around their navels and sticking out their tongues.
“What they called an exam, what they called health, was not the system I was being trained in,” Hardy said.
Following her residency, Hardy went to China. There, she saw a woman undergoing brain surgery, the top of head removed. The woman was awake and talking, with only a couple of needles in her ear for anesthesia.
“That was the paradigm breaker for me,” Hardy said. “I thought if this was possible, what else is out there? I knew I had to be flexible, because life was a lot more mutable then I thought it was.”
Hardy’s first practice was located in Cambridge, Mass., a liberal area where alternative therapies were embraced. She let her patients teach her. She found out what alternative therapies they were doing, and gradually she learned what therapies worked for what conditions. When no good medical treatments were available, for a condition like premenstrual syndrome, for example, Hardy would explore other strategies such as nutritional changes and herbal supplements.
Along the way, Hardy trained with mentors in the Amazon, Kenya, China and South Africa. She also learned from more traditionally trained mentors such as pharmacists. As her practice matured, she found herself straddling the gap between traditional and alternative medicine.
“I was truly bilingual,” she said.
In 1988, she moved to California, married and started a medical practice in Glendale. As the years passed, she developed a network of alternative practitioners to whom she referred patients - acupuncturists, energy workers, herbalists, Chinese medicine advocates, massage therapists. In the late 1990s, she was recruited to Cedars Sinai Medical Center, where she founded an integrative medicine center that combined research with clinical practice using a multidisciplinary team.
Hardy joined UCLA in 2002, initially to serve as associate director of the Center for Dietary Supplement Research in Botanicals. She moved in 2005 to her current position with the Simms/Mann-UCLA center.
Prior to seeing Hardy, patients fill out an extensive, seven-page questionnaire that covers everything from their lifestyle, stress levels, food supplements and family medical history to their sleeping habits. Hardy reviews the questionnaires and scours medical records prior to seeing patients. In visits that last between 75 and 90 minutes, Hardy offers advice on how to get through treatment and prevent cancer recurrence.
“When I see them I have a rough idea of how much calcium and fiber they get in a day, or if they’re not eating enough fruits and veggies,” Hardy said. “If they’re in the middle of therapy, I know what chemo they’re taking, and I know the side effects profile. If they’re coming to see me before surgery, I have a preparation protocol that helps them get ready for the procedure and heal more quickly afterward.”
Since joining the center three years ago, Hardy has counseled more than 500 patients, who pay for the services themselves. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The patients love the fact that they can get their questions answered by someone they know is taking their individual medical issues into account,” Hardy said.
When she’s not seeing patients, Hardy is a voracious reader who also loves to paint and make jewelry. She also serves on the external advisory committee of the Natural Health Product Directorate, the government agency that regulates dietary supplements in Canada.
-By Kim Irwin