Writhing in agony in his hospital bed, Dr. John Reeves thought back on his life.
He thought back to his days in West Lafayette, Indiana as a Plant Molecular Virology student working towards his PhD at Purdue University, which he would later put to use in a variety of successful careers. He imagined the crisp air that framed his childhood in Southern Illinois — hillbilly country, as he refers to it — where he developed a lifelong love for the outdoors and began to recognize the natural world’s innate ability to reconnect him with himself. Finally distracted from the sounds of beeping monitors, Dr. Reeves dreamed of being in the wilderness, hunting and fishing. He thought about the feeling of returning home from those hunting and fishing trips, greeted by his wife, daughters, and, more recently, 16 grandchildren, smiling and hugging at his legs as he walked through the front door.
He’d had plenty of time for hospital bed-based reflecting. He’d been in that very bed for 21 days, and the days ahead were as unclear as ever. As memories flooded his mind, so did one echoing thought: would the ceiling of this hospital be his final memory?
Dr. Reeves had survived two massive heart attacks in his time – heart attacks which doctors described as widow-makers, telling him it was a miracle he’d survived either incident. He’d lived through other “minor” heart attacks that struck between the “widow makers.” He’d overcome back surgeries, a knee replacement, a gallbladder removal and more. Through it all, Dr. Reeves emerged smiling and confident that tomorrow would be better. Today, however, he teetered on the edge of hopelessness. This time it was not his heart that cast a shadow over his future, but inexplicable pain in his back and groin.
He had run headlong through a gamut of medical hardships, but none of them had brought the sort of suffering and despair he now felt. His back and groin had been locked in excruciating pain for five days. Doctors worked day and night to uncover an explanation, testing for bowel obstructions, conducting X-rays and suggesting medications.
But there were no obstructions, the X-rays revealed nothing, and Dr. Reeves was allergic to opioids.
After nearly a week of brainstorming, the doctors were stumped. Nothing showed up. Nothing they tried brought any relief. As the pain gripped his body, Dr. Reeves dug his nails into the thin mattress below him and wondered, “Is this really how it ends for me?”
“I was depressed,” explained Dr. Reeves, looking back on those dark days. “I’d gotten so weak. I was 25 pounds lighter than I am now, and I looked like a ghost. I could see how hard it was on my family. They had already been through so much with me, and still I couldn’t do anything. I hadn’t even fully recovered from my heart problems and now here I was, wondering if I would ever get out of this dang place again.”
When a local medical student completing his rotations in the hospital walked into his room and asked if he could take a look, Dr. Reeves said “go for it, it can’t get much worse.”
Thomas Pentzer, an osteopathic medical student at Pacific Northwest University, smiled at that response. He’d heard those words before.
“I introduced myself to Dr. Reeves and explained that I was a DO student at PNWU. Thankfully he cut me off and said, ‘You’re preaching to the choir, I’m friends with PNWU founder Dr. Butler.’”
After explaining osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT) and the fascial distortion model (FDM) to Dr. Reeves, Pentzer rested his thumb above the area that Dr. Reeves had pointed to as the pain location. He then warned of the brief rush of pain that would accompany the treatment. As he pressed down into the soft tissue of his thigh, Dr. Reeves gritted his teeth in agony. The pain was piercing. Then, suddenly, it was gone. All of it.
The room fell into a hushed awe. Even Pentzer’s preceptor stood by, wide eyed. Pentzer once again smiled, his voice breaking the silence.
“Mind if I take a look at your back now?”
Growing up in rural Idaho, PNWU student Thomas Pentzer became accustomed to doing things by hand. His family lived about an hour outside of Lewiston — the closest “major” city, which boasts a population of about 33,000 people — and the idea of relying on expensive equipment to accomplish a task wasn’t realistic. When he began considering a career in medicine, he exercised that same guiding principal, discovering his calling in osteopathy and, more specifically, osteopathic manipulative treatment (OMT).
OMT is a set of hands-on techniques used by osteopathic physicians — commonly referred to as DOs — to diagnose, treat, and prevent illness or injury. DOs move a patient’s muscles and joints using osteopathic manipulative techniques that include stretching, pressure and resistance. In other words, DOs rely on the power of their own hands — a lot.
“Growing up in such a rural place, I’d been raised to rely on my own physical abilities,” Pentzer explained. “Those same lessons often apply to medicine. Sometimes we don’t have to wait for the lab to open, or for the MRI, before we can provide a patient with relief. All of those things are necessary and vital to the way we practice medicine, but I have a certain sense of autonomy that using osteopathic manipulation treatment gives me with patients.”
OMT often serves as a complement, and sometimes even a replacement, to drugs or surgery. As he learned more about osteopathy, Pentzer became fascinated by a particular model of diagnosis and treatment called the Fascial Distortion Model (FDM).
“FDM is an additional way of looking at the body,” explained Dr. Todd Capistrant, PNWU’s Regional Assistant Dean in Fairbanks, Alaska. Dr. Capistrant regularly contacts medical schools and regional medical associations to introduce FDM to more physicians around the US. “The fascial system has been overlooked for many years as a source for pain or decreased function, and FDM provides a framework that practitioners can use to think about when evaluating musculoskeletal pain and other types of pain.”
According to Dr. Capistrant, the pain that people experience is often communicated consistently through a universal language that includes gestures and verbal description. The practitioner uses these to guide treatment and provide relief.
Now in his fourth year at PNWU, Pentzer’s passion for FDM and doing things by hand has landed him a role as an Undergraduate Fellow and secretary of the University’s Osteopathic Principles & Practice (OPP) lab. Even before his time as a leader in the health sciences university’s OPP lab, Pentzer had plenty of chances to put his passion for manual medicine to use. “Because we have Dr. Capistrant on faculty, I’ve really been spoiled here at PNWU by the number of classes I’ve been able to take in FDM,” said Pentzer.
According to Pentzer, FDM centers on not just listening to the patient with your head down taking notes, but actually watching the patient.
“The body language the patient uses to describe their symptom is indicative of what’s going on and how I’m going to fix it,” he explained. “When we go to places like the Union Gospel Mission and we’re treating, we often have patients that don’t speak English, which makes communicating complex medical information a challenge. However, what we almost always find is patients drawing the exact same line along their arm with their fingertips, or pushing in the same spot with two fingers. It seems to be pretty universal.”
Pentzer happened to be rotating with an MD in the same hospital that hosted Dr. Reeves. When he heard that his preceptor was getting an ultrasound of something for a patient, his curiosity took over.
“I wanted to see the process in action,” he admits of his first interaction with Dr. Reeves. Soon, however, his preceptor asked if he wanted to take a look for himself, well aware of his passion for manipulative treatments. After all, Pentzer wasn’t shy about his belief in the treatment, and wore that passion for OMT on his sleeve every day, despite the fact that his preceptor was not an osteopath. After asking a few questions, Pentzer watched Dr. Reeves explain the pain he was feeling and, right away, knew that he could help.
“He gave me this florid sign that — if I could describe it as anything, it would be a blinking neon sign that read ‘RIGHT HERE!’” As Dr. Reeves pointed to the spot, Pentzer was entirely certain that the FDM-type gesture he was witnessing indicated that he could do something to make it better.
“It wasn’t kind of wishy-washy,” Pentzer said. “If there was a textbook for FDM signals, what he was doing would have been the picture in the textbook. There was no mistaking that it was a gesture for a particular dysfunction, and I knew exactly how to fix it.”
Pentzer told Dr. Reeves that he could help, but that it would be uncomfortable. Skeptically, Dr. Reeves responded: “Go for it, it can’t get much worse.”
“To be honest, I had no idea why Thomas was even coming into the room,” explained Dr. Reeves, “but I honestly figured it couldn’t get much worse. Today I’m 67 years old, and my only wish is that I was ten years younger so I could go back and embark on getting myself trained in OMT.”
Dr. Reeves’ situation landed in Pentzer’s lap during his internal medicine rotation, at a time when he was overwhelmed by the amount of complexity thrown at him.
“We had patients with electrolyte problems, with too much sodium, not enough sodium, all this other stuff; thing after thing that I either got backwards or had to look up and relearn,” Pentzer explained. “Eventually, a little bit of self-doubt has a habit of creeping in. You begin to wonder, ‘have I just somehow managed to slip through the cracks thus far?’ And then you make somebody feel better like that.”
After treating his groin pain, Pentzer performed another FDM treatment on Dr. Reeve’s back and, after about 15 minutes, all of the pain that had cast a shadow over his life was gone.
“The thing that I did was really cool, and easy to learn, and everybody should learn how to do it,” Pentzer says today. “If you’re going to have a parade, have it for that, not for me. All I did was use this really cool thing that I was lucky enough to learn because I was accepted into this school where they’re teaching it more often than in other places.”
“We get to make people feel better,” he continued. “We can actually make people feel better — actually effect the patients’ lives — really early on in our educations. That’s a very life-affirming thing. The FDM applications for things like sprained ankles, and for things like Dr. Reeves was experiencing, have a strikingly rapid resolution. Consequently, you get the most ‘wows,’ and I’m always really quick to say: ‘It’s not magic, it’s FDM.’ I want other people to learn about it. It’s too good not to share.”
“I saw a dark future for myself lying there in that hospital bed,” explained Dr. Reeves, sitting proudly in a local coffee shop in an interview often interrupted by friends who can’t help but walk over and say hello when they see his smiling face across the room. “My future is bright. I’m happy. I think the people who know me know that I’m finally back to being ‘me’ again.”
“It seems like everyone who’s experienced this sort of treatment has a remarkable story to share, and I’m proud to say that I’m a part of that group,” he continued. “I was about at wits end and getting nowhere. After about 15 minutes with Thomas that was gone. Today I’m back home, surrounded by the love of my 16 grandkids, five daughters and wonderful wife. We play a lot, and we’re going to keep doing that. Everything is good. Life is good again.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Learn more about Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, a Yakima Valley Pippins partner, at www.pnwu.edu.