Windber Trip

A New Kind of Hospital Care

by Chrystal Benson, Certified Massage Therapist

A few weeks ago, Jennifer Micija and I represented the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association in a visit to Windber Medical Center, a hospital that is distinguished for its combination of conventional medicine with holistic therapies.  We were excited and inspired by this example of integrative medicine in Pennsylvania and wanted to share what we learned in this issue of The Natural Connection.

The Winder Medical Center ( is an independent, 82-bed, community-based hospital affiliated with the Conemaugh Health System.   It is part of the Planetree Alliance, a national network of hospitals dedicated to treating the mind, body, and spirit.  Planetree was founded in 1977 by Angelica Thieriot, whose personal, traumatic experience recovering from a serious illness in a conventional hospital environment led her to develop a vision of a different kind of health care that would “combine the best of spas with the best of hotels and the best of hospitals to become a truly healing environment, where just being there is healing”.  The term “Planetree” comes from the 2000 year old story of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who sat under a sycamore (planetree) teaching his medical students about the importance of patient-centered medicine and a healing environment.   Since 1977, Planetree has become an internationally-respected pioneer in combining the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of healing with the most recent advances in modern medicine.  

As a Planetree hospital Windber Medical Center embraces the philosophy that patients need to complement their conventional medical care with an active role in achieving and maintaining their own wellness through natural modalities.  Their Integrative Medical Center provides patients with the tools to empower people to help heal themselves.  Modalities include acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, reflexology, Reiki, psychotherapy, biofeedback, and music therapy.  There is also the innovative Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease, which focuses on comprehensive lifestyle changes that can slow or even reverse heart disease without drugs or surgery.  Windber Medical Center also features HealthStyles, a complete fitness and therapy center for patients, employees, and community members that offers Tai Chi, yoga, nutritional counseling sessions, and jogging tracks. The center, which opened in January 2002, now generates approximately $500,000 in revenue annually. Windber has also raised more than $50 million in public and private funding and has developed research partnerships with the Walter Reed Army Health System and the University of Pittsburgh, among others.

Jennifer and I experienced the Planetree difference the minute we walked in the door and saw the fountains and living foliage plants.  We took a seat in the waiting area, which was decorated in a relaxing fashion.  We both agreed that it did not look or smell like a hospital.  A hotel manager is responsible for overseeing the housekeeping, entertainment and other services, which adds a spa quality to the hospital. We were then greeted by Lesa Skotnicki, the Director of Marketing and Public Relations.  She took us down a corridor to the Complementary Therapies waiting area where we met several talented women, trained in the medical field as well as areas of integrative health. They were enthusiastic about the offerings of Windber’s integrative health approach to wellness.   While talking with the professionals in the waiting area, a massage therapist offered Jennifer and me a massage on our necks and shoulders. The massage, aromatherapy and other complementary health techniques are implemented for the patients, as well as the staff and employees.

We then continued the tour, viewing the multiple massage rooms.  In addition to massage, Reiki and acupuncture are performed here.  One of the nurses, certified in Reiki and aromatherapy, showed us her cart of fragrant oils and relaxing and invigorating essential oil blends that she shares with patients and employees.  The multipurpose room, which was utilized for yoga, aerobics, and Tai Chi, opened up to a kitchen for healthful cooking classes.  We then proceeded upstairs to experience the HealthStyles fitness center, which has an indoor walking track and a large therapy pool.  HealthStyles also offers outpatient rehabilitation services, including physical and occupational therapy and cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation services.

We were then led downstairs to the Hospice Care Unit.  Each room was very pleasant.  Instead of the typical white sterile sheets, the bed ensemble consisted of a beautiful handcrafted quilt and pillow.  Each room had an additional sitting area with a TV and comfortable furniture.  There was a balcony with a sliding glass door that overlooked the town of Windber.

Who would ever have suspected that four years ago this hospital was about to close its doors?!  That’s when Nicholas Jacobs became the CEO.  Nicholas was a former band director who appreciates the healing power of music.  The Windber Medical Center became a Planetree hospital, and the rest is history.

The trip was a wonderful experience, and we recommend visits by others in our community.  Blending holistic therapies with mainstream medicine is of value for increasing quality of life for patients, hospital revenue, and community growth and business developments.  With the wealth of both conventional and complementary practitioners in the Huntingdon area we have the resources to explore a new paradigm in health care.  The Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association invites input and participation from all those interested in pursuing this vision.

For more information on the Huntingdon Health and Wellness Association contact Jennifer Micija, president, at 814-667-2097 or