Martha Stewart Takes on Health Care

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The Martha Stewart Show often takes a personal turn — but never
quite so personal as on December 17, 2007. That day, Stewart said farewell to
one of her show’s most beloved recurring characters, her own mother, “Big
Martha.”

Martha Kostyra, who passed away on Nov. 16 at the age of 93 after suffering
a stroke
earlier in the month, had appeared on more than 40 episodes, preparing her
famous pierogi, cheesecake, and meat loaf medications she was taking, or not taking,” she
says.

The more medications a senior takes, and the more doctors prescribing them,
the greater the opportunity for error — for example, prescribing medications
that have dangerous interactions. More than half of fatal hospital medication
errors involved seniors, according to a 2004 report in U.S. Pharmacist.
“That’s the value of a senior center with excellent geriatricians who look
at a person’s health in a comprehensive way, rather than having them diagnose
and prescribe independently,” says Steel.

Ultimately, Stewart hopes the new center at Mount Sinai will serve as a
model for similar geriatric centers across the country. She’s working with
Brent Ridge, MD, her company’s vice president for healthy living — they first
met when Ridge, then a Mount Sinai geriatrician, approached her with the idea
for the center — to make that happen. “We want to show other hospitals
across the country how they can go about creating the same kind of excellent
program, where the aging population can be taken care of well,” she
says.

“Being healthy is all about being prepared,” agrees Ridge. “Our
health care system is not prepared, and the vast majority of individuals are
not prepared. Having someone with Martha’s clout and her ability to speak will
raise awareness of this issue. Just like they look to Martha for planning other
aspects of their lives, we think they’ll look to her for this aspect as
well.”

Steel, for one, hopes Stewart can bring these issues to the forefront —
because he sees a tidal wave coming. By 2050, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau, nearly 87 million people in the United States will be older than 65 —
more than 20% of the projected population. “I can tell you that American
geriatric medicine has gargantuan problems,” Steel says. “There’s too
much expensive hospital care, and there needs to be more care at home. But
unless we have places like Stewart’s center that can make good outpatient care
for seniors possible — and good geriatricians to provide it — there will be a
serious crisis in geriatric care.”

Big Martha, RIP

She may have had her own struggles with the health care system, but Martha
Kostyra, in many ways, was just about the perfect example of living well into
your later years — still active and energetic as she approached her 93rd
birthday. She seemed indomitable, so her death was likely a shock to her
daughter, says Pamela Sollenberger, MS, a certified grief counselor who serves on the advisory board for
the American Academy of Grief Counseling.

“When someone has been very ill for a long time, we’re a lot further
along in our grieving when that person dies,” she says. “But if it’s a
relatively sudden loss, we have no time to prepare.’

The loss of a parent is particularly devastating. “It doesn’t matter
what age you are, you end up becoming that orphan,” says Sollenberger.
“We look to our parents as the protector, the guide, the nurturer, the
unconditional love source.”

And just because Stewart isn’t wearing her grief on her crisply ironed
sleeve doesn’t mean she isn’t struggling in private. “Your grief is unique
only to you. Yours is different than mine, Martha Stewart’s is different than
ours,” Sollenberger says. “We may go through the same stages of grief,
but we do it differently. The process takes a lot of time, and nobody can tell
you when it’s time to move on.”

One way of grappling with loss is to channel energies into something that
honors that person and creates a legacy for them. For Stewart, this could mean
deepening her involvement with the Martha Stewart Center for Living, which
mattered so much to her mother. Others, says Sollenberger, might work with
underprivileged children, fund a scholarship, or contribute their efforts to
some other cause that was important to the person they lost. Some people engage
in what Sollenberger calls “instrumental grieving,” which could be
anything from chopping wood to hoeing the garden to kickboxing. “Sometimes
it’s easier to exercise your grief than to talk about it,” she says.

Martha’s Health Plan

That may also be a good outlet for Stewart, who is committed to a healthy
workout routine. “I do more exercise than I ever did before, but that’s
because I am living a very hectic life that requires exercise. I feel I need
it,” she says. She’d squeezed in an early-morning workout and then another
hour of yoga with a trainer the day she spoke with WebMD. “That’s a lucky
day. Usually I get about an hour a day. But I have to insist on it.”

Her fierceness about fitness likely contributed to her quick recovery from
that surgery back in June, when ongoing pain
from torn cartilage of the hip spurred her to get the hip replacement. Stewart
was riding her horse the day before the procedure and was back at work five
days after (not the five-week break her doctors insisted she’d need).

“I get zillions of emails from all over the country asking what I did
for Martha,” says her surgeon, Steven Stuchin, MD, director of orthopaedic
surgery at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases. “In terms of
technique, I did some very cool stuff. But what’s really important is what you
do before and afterward. Martha went into this in as good a shape as she could
be.”

And afterward? “That’s when the process really starts with a joint
replacement surgery,” says Stuchin. “Some people think they’ll just lie
down on the table and they’ll be good to go, but the real work is what the
patient does afterward. If you go to rehab two or three times a week, but
you’re not exercising every day, you’re not going to get the maximum results.
Martha went into this saying ‘I want to be a good patient, I want good
results,’ and she got them because she worked at it.”

But c’mon, now. Does Stewart have any health flaws herself? After all, this
is a woman who doesn’t drink much, eats from her own organic garden, and has
made healthy living a core initiative within the Stewart empire that promises
to span all of her magazines (yes, even Martha Stewart Weddings), as well as
her television show and web site. “I don’t eat a lot of artificial foods
and never have — I don’t open a lot of cans and bottles,” she says. “I
just refuse to imbibe or eat things that I think are dangerous.”

But even Martha’s not perfect. She confesses there’s one thing she probably
neglects: “Sleep.
It’s an exhausting lifestyle, and I always say sleep can go,” she says.
“I never stay in bed late — I can’t! In my house, the first people arrive
at about 6:30, and I have to be up well before that.” Could she perhaps
turn in a little earlier at night? “Well … I like watching David
Letterman.”

She also admits that, while she relaxes with yoga and insists on at least an
hour of exercise every day, she doesn’t have a true personal formula for really
unwinding. “I wish I had one!” she laments.

Then she thinks about the question a little longer. “Although, when I
get on my horse and go out into the woods, the thing I always say is, ‘It
doesn’t get any better than this.’ That’s a good little motto. We all need to
look for those moments when we can say that.”

It’s all part of Stewart’s personal philosophy for aging well, which she’s
hoping to spread broadly through the center and her new multimedia health
initiatives. “You have to find the path to wellness. Drugs and medical
attention are a part of that, but it’s also about diet,
and exercise, and a calm way of thinking about your everyday challenges.

“That’s much more appealing to me.” 


Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue of WebMD the
Magazine
.