Mercy Missionary

updated 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Vjollca Berisha, 37, sits silent and rigid in the one-bedroom apartment she shares with her 9-year-old son and seven other relatives in the war-devastated village of Suhareka, Kosovo. Although she does not speak, her American visitor tries to coax a response. "Your friends are concerned," Dr. Jim Gordon says softly. "I know you've been through a terrible tragedy."

Finally, Berisha looks up and, with tears in her eyes, describes the day in March 1999 when rampaging Serb soldiers killed her husband, Sedat, her son Drilon, 13, and daughter Dafina, 16. "I saw them but couldn't go to them," she whispers. "And then I see them kill my daughter. I see the bullets enter her heart."

Gordon, 58, director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., nods silently at the all-too-familiar tale. During the past year he has ventured to Kosovo nine times, funded mostly by private donations, to help Berisha—who lost more than 50 relatives in the slaughter—and many more like her with meditation, guided visualization, breathing exercises and other holistic healing methods. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the war in Kosovo has left nearly a quarter of its 2 million citizens suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric illness whose symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares and physical problems ranging from an increased heart rate to insomnia. "When the bullets were flying over our heads, we formed mechanisms of survival," says Elife Krasmiqi, 21, an Albanian Kosovar who now works with a variety of organizations to help rebuild his country. "You had to be strong. But now we need help."

Gordon answered the call. A Harvard-trained psychiatrist who teaches at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., his credentials are surprisingly mainstream for such a passionate advocate of nontraditional treatments. But he says he has found that even chronically depressed patients can be transformed by the physiological effects of exercise, dietary changes, herbal supplements and regular sessions of acupuncture and psychotherapy. So transformed, in fact, that they can abandon the chemical antidepressants—such as Prozac—many psychiatrists now consider essential in battling depression. "We have a great and largely untapped capacity to improve our own health," Gordon says.

Some colleagues don't approve of an excessive reliance on alternative medicine. But others, particularly those impressed by a recent wave of studies showing the relationship between a patient's mood and his immune system, are paying attention. So is President Clinton: Last month he appointed Gordon chairman of the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy.

Gordon's methods can seem astonishingly simple. A couple of hours' drive from Pristina to the rural town of Savrovë, Gordon visits an elementary school, where he teaches 100 young students—many of whom lost parents in the war—a "shake and dance" meditation to help unleash the anger and anguish in their bodies. Back in the capital city of Pristina the same afternoon, he leads a two-hour meditation workshop for high school students. "Your only job is to sit and breathe," he tells the teenagers. "If there are tears, accept them. If anger comes, that's okay. If pleasure comes, that's great."

The next day, in the village of Poklek, he meets a woman hobbled by chronically painful knees since the murder of her daughter. After performing acupuncture to relieve her pain and help calm her, he instructs her husband to buy her watermelon, which Gordon explains will stimulate her kidneys and thus soothe her aches. "In Chinese medicine the knees connect with the kidneys, and the kidneys connect with fear," he explains.

To some, Gordon's prescriptions seem a bit too simple, given the profound suffering he confronts. "There are no quick fixes," cautions Dr. Stevan Weine, a Chicago psychiatrist who has also worked in Kosovo. "We should be open to innovative approaches." But he adds, "Kosovars need to decide what fits with their system of values." Still, in a nation with almost no health care system, any help at all is an improvement. Red Cross counselor Fisnik Sopjani, a former refugee himself, has been teaching some of Gordon's methods for six months. "At first I thought they were strange," he says. "But they are practical and effective ways of dealing with trauma."

Healing is a family tradition for Gordon, The eldest of three sons born to Jules, a surgeon who died in 1993, and Cynthia, 83, a retired public relations executive, Gordon grew up in New York City. "My father told me, 'When you're a doctor, you can do anything you want,' " he recalls. "That sounded good to me." But at Harvard Medical School, Gordon felt constrained by Western medicine's focus on the physical. After an Indian acupuncturist helped him recover from a recalcitrant back injury in 1974 with needles, Epsom-salt baths and an all-pineapple diet, Gordon decided to become what he calls "a bridge between the modern medical establishment and the new medicine." As part of a research team for the Carter Administration in 1979, Gordon spent two months studying local healing traditions in India, and from 1994 to 1997 he led the advisory council for the National Institutes of Health's Office of Alternative Medicine.

A hard worker, Gordon, who has no children, runs his Center for Mind-Body Medicine as well as a private practice out of his comfortable Washington, D.C., house. Split since 1993 from Sharon Curtin, his common-law wife of 15 years (and still his coauthor), Gordon tries to promote his views with facts, not fanaticism. His latest book is Comprehensive Cancer Care: Integrating Alternative, Complementary and Conventional Therapies. "He's very gentle," says Sen. Tom Harkin, who has championed alternative medicine in Congress. "But he's also very persuasive.

As for Vjollca Berisha, she still has a long road to travel: She remains plagued by depression, headaches and chest pains. But by the time Gordon leaves, she can offer him a sad smile and a few words of assurance. "I'm feeling better," she says. "And it has felt good to talk."

Peter Ames Carlin
Nina Biddle in Kosovo

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