Why you should care
Because he’s bringing a new style of medicine to an old-school organization — the U.S. military.
As Dr. Fred Foote winds his gray Honda Civic up 10 floors of concrete, the normally Zen Navy physician allows himself a moment to gripe. “I hate parking garages,” the 67-year-old recent retiree says. “I want to paint them all with murals of whales and stuff.” So far, the military hasn’t approved his request. But the unaesthetic journey to the top of the parking garage is a necessary evil to get an aerial view of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, the flagship military hospital where Uncle Sam’s latest medical advances are workshopped before being adopted by dozens of hospitals serving roughly 9 million soldiers and veterans nationwide.
From here, Foote can point out the fruits of his efforts. The gleaming hospital buildings, barely a decade old, use evidence-based architecture, such as single-patient rooms, to improve health outcomes. When families are allowed to live with the patients and help determine their medical care, you cut mortality in half, Foote says, so whole suites, including laundry services and kitchens, have been built to accommodate them. There is an integrated care center, where doctors work as a team rather than focusing only on their organ of expertise. Below is a path winding through a forest, dubbed the military’s first “healing green space” project. Even acupuncture is being taught to combat nurses. “They slap needles on troops in Afghanistan now,” Foote says.
Because nontraditional therapies are hard to measure, the medical community is often reluctant to take them seriously.
If these sound to you like strange forms of treatment for the buttoned-up military, you’re not alone. “For a long time, I was considered a kook — although an amiable kook,” Foote says, laughing. Not anymore. Foote’s brand of holistic medicine — one that tries to avoid surgery and drugs — has gained steam as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left veterans with new traumas. A rise in roadside bombs led to a surge in cases of brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder. Not only was Foote tasked with suggesting new approaches to treat wounds that aren’t visible but he also had to develop a system to prove his methods actually worked. Recently, he published a paper doing exactly that — laying groundwork for the first scientific approach to measuring the effects of holistic healing.
Because nontraditional therapies are hard to measure, the medical community is often reluctant to take them seriously. Foote’s work, however, is changing that. His research shows integrative care and changes in diet and exercise can reduce the duration of patients’ hospital stays and more quickly improve their performance on various cognitive assessments. A new method of assessment developed by Foote and several other “mad scientists,” as he calls them, also shows the benefits of holistic medicine to the entire body. Foote and his team have developed different metrics for measuring therapeutic effects, including genomics, analysis of language, machine learning and stress biomarkers. Using these mathematical evaluations, Foote has begun reliably measuring the efficacy of holistic medicine.
Foote was born in Arlington, Virginia, but grew up all over the country as a military brat. When his father retired, the family returned to the D.C. area, and Foote joined the Navy — his passive rebellion against his dad’s Air Force career. For decades, Foote jumped among medicine, the arts and military duty. He attended Middlebury to study poetry, then St. John’s College in Annapolis, the University of Chicago and Georgetown medical school. Eventually, he became chief resident at Yale School of Medicine and then returned to the Navy, where he worked as a physician aboard the supertanker-turned-floating-hospital USNS Comfort.
Deployed to the Persian Gulf aboard the Comfort in 2003, Foote was expecting to treat wounded American soldiers but ended up caring primarily for wounded Iraqis instead. It was difficult to heal “the enemy,” Foote says, but by the end of treating the soldiers, he often felt an emotional connection to them — no matter their nationality.
In Iraq, Foote learned just how devastating the effect of bombs can be on those who survive. Amid an ill-equipped military’s struggles to handle brain injuries, Foote was tapped to develop a new, whole-body approach beyond medications and surgeries.
At Walter Reed, Foote and his team have put holistic healing into practice in a variety of ways. They teach art, music and poetry. The green space offers healing through nature — wheelchair-accessible paths wind through untamed woods with streams and deer.
Over the past few years, the federal government has become one of the biggest testing grounds for holistic care largely because of Foote’s efforts. “Many people would say it can’t be done, but Fred just keeps on going,” says Dr. Brian Berman, president and founder of the Institute for Integrative Health, who has worked with Foote for 15 years. “He’s not afraid to take risks.”
Such methods still face plenty of skepticism. Timothy Caulfield, a professor in law and public health at the University of Alberta, cautions against the narrative that modern medicine only focuses on treating symptoms. “Of course, this is nonsense,” Caulfield says. “Science-informed practices are also focused on prevention — we know what preventative strategies work because of science!” While Caulfield is glad more people are thinking about healthy lifestyles, he warns that too much focus on holistic approaches can distract from science-informed strategies on how to live healthfully. “Don’t smoke, exercise, eat real food, sleep,” says Caulfield.
But Foote isn’t trying to replace modern medicine. Art, exercise and nature can work in addition to medication and surgery, he insists.
Outside of the factual evidence, there is the anecdotal proof. Take the journal left on a bench in the green space, where veterans reflect and write about how the space helps them process the complex emotions of the wounded. Some notes are positive, some are sad. “It’s a wonderful place and very calm,” says one entry, while another reads, “I love someone who is far away. Will I ever see her again?”
Foote’s methods can’t answer all of the questions, but expression itself is part of the mission.
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