One Chiropractor’s Harrowing, Hopeful Journey
Posted by in Press on Feb 18, 2013
Posted on February 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm
Portsmouth Patch: http://portsmouth-nh.patch.com/blog_posts/one-chiropractors-harrowing-and-hopeful-journey
Exeter Patch: http://exeter.patch.com/blog_posts/one-chiropractors-harrowing-and-hopeful-journey
BY Jim Cavan
Dr. Jessica Caruso didn’t go to Harvard Medical School, although she has read Gray’s Anatomy. She’s never directed an open-heart surgery, though numerous “Top Doctor” awards have graced her mantle.
There are few whose journey through the medical world have been more all encompassing—or more mettle testing—than Caruso’s. It’s a journey that’s taken her from death’s cusp to surgeon’s knife, from addiction to redemption and just about everywhere in between.
Today, Caruso oversees a 3,000 square-foot multi-faceted chiropractic center in Londonderry, a second “community chiropractic” office in Portsmouth, and a loving family that recently welcomed its latest addition—baby Jackson—into the fold.
It’s a life at once charmed and fully charged. And it almost never was.
Even nearly two decades of distance can’t de-crystallize the memory: In 1996, when she was in college, Caruso was hit head-on by a drunk driver. The resulting injuries required more than two years of regular physical therapy, not to mention myriad cortisone shots, painkillers, and muscle relaxers.
They may have helped mask the trauma, but it wasn’t long before the medication began exercising its own vise-like grip on Caruso. Before she knew it, she was hooked.
“When one medication stopped working, they gave me another, until it got to a point where my quality of life just started going downhill,” recalls Caruso. “I’d be walking around in a cloud all day, and that doesn’t even account for the physical side effects – the hair falling out, the digestive issues. It became apparent that this stuff was totally toxic.”
Caruso says experience with painkillers helped her come to grips with a fundamental flaw of the health care system—the ad nauseum prescribing of medication for another’s side effects that amounted to “putting a band-aid on another band-aid to no end.”
Just a few months after her own accident, Caruso learned that a childhood friend had been struck and killed by a drunk driver. The incident jarred Caruso, who at that point began looking at her own survival in a new—and bracing—light.
“I’d spent a lot of time and energy trying not to be angry, and something like this happens and you realize, ‘I could have died,’” says Caruso. “That’s what really made me re-evaluate the treatment I was getting.”
A few years after her accident, during a routine trip to a local gym, Caruso was offered a complimentary spinal screening by a local chiropractor. Little did she know the experience would change her life forever.
“Just by putting her hands on me, she pinpointed a lot of my issues almost immediately,” Caruso says. “As she started explaining how the nervous system works—how it connects literally the whole body—a light went off in my head.”
Within two weeks—or roughly six “adjustments”—Caruso began feeling better, physically as well as psychologically. As the need for painkillers slowly waned, Caruso noticed her quality of life improve rapidly.
At the time, Caruso—who ironically enough was working as a member service rep for a large health insurance company—couldn’t afford to continue with the admittedly intensive process of follow-ups. Once again, her chiropractor stepped in, helping Caruso land a job working at the front desk of Dr. Bill, a fellow chiropractor in Weymouth, where she could continue treatment for free as an employee benefit.
As her health and well being improved, Caruso realized she wanted to pursue her own future in the field that had given her so much. For the next two years, she would work from five in the morning until one PM as a personal trainer at the gym, steady the chiropractic desk for most of the afternoon, and attend pre-med classes at a local community college in the evenings.
“I was literally working around the clock,” Caruso chuckles, at once nostalgic for and happily distant from those halcyon days. “But I knew it’s what I need to do.”
After three-plus years at New York Chiropractic College—during which she conducted her internship with Dr. Bill—Caruso became an officially licensed chiropractor in January 2005. Having grown up just outside of Boston, Caruso had begun to set her sights on “a smaller life, a kind of fresh start,” ultimately settling on Southern New Hampshire as the genesis point of a new career and new life.
It was then, during an 18-month associate-ship with a Manchester-based chiropractic office, that Dr. Jess began dating Brian Caruso, who she’d met while on a White Mountain camping trip. Dr. Jess had already begun laying the groundwork for a brand new Londonderry practice—Healing Hands, a name she says she’d always kept in her back pocket for the day when having her own practice became reality—and commissioned Brian to help build her website.
Thanks to an all-encompassing approach—everything from pregnancy, pediatric and family-focused chiropractic care to reiki, massage therapy and childbirth education—Healing Hands took off. But the stress of having to manage both ends of the business began taking a toll. One night, tried and tired, Jess and Brian had what a former called a “heart to heart” about where all of it was headed.
“We sat down, and just talked about what my dream practice would look like,” recalls Caruso. “By the end of it Brian decided to leave his job and help me run the business, and Healing Hands became our first baby.”
The comparison is an apt one: the business doubled in size within its first year. All the while, Dr. Jess’s chiropractic perspective—honed from having grown up experiencing many of the health issues now commonplace in modern society – began to take on a more family-focused flavor.
“Chiropractic isn’t just about treating back pain,” exclaims Caruso.“It’s about getting families to understand how to embrace a good, healthy lifestyle, and that means engaging them from the prenatal stages all the way through. Today we are seeing more and more cases of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Something needs to change.”
In January 2010, Caruso received a letter informing her that Healthy Kids, New Hampshire’s Medicaid program for children, would no longer be covered by the state. Now, instead of $15 or $20 co-pays, families had to shell out upwards of $50 per visit, per person—a difficult calculus for even financially comfortable patients.
Rather than choose to combat the country’s health care crisis exclusively on its own terms, the Carusos instead decided to parlay their flagship practice’s success into a second location on the Seacoast—one where individuals could pay what they could, when they could, while still receiving top-notch, progressive treatment.
“Every family is different, so it’s never about there being a right way or wrong way to do things,” says Dr. Jess. “There’s a balance to be had. Everyone should have a seat at the table when it comes to health care, and we thought that the Seacoast was the perfect place for that idea to really take hold.”
Today, Healing Hands Community Chiropractic—located on Pleasant Street in downtown Portsmouth—is a totem to the Carusos’ unwavering belief that a village is only so strong as its weakest citizen. Coupling traditional chiropractic services with a bevy of health seminars, workshops, community blog, and charitable initiatives, Healing Hands’ dynamic, community-oriented approach marks the culmination of a journey over a decade in the making.
But what truly sets Healing Hands apart from others in the industry is in their uniquely egalitarian financial model: Inspired in a large part by programs including the People’s Organization for Community Acupuncture (POCA), Healing Hands charges on a sliding scale—anywhere from $20-$40, all without income verification or insurance company hassles.
Not only does such a system give patients the financial breathing room necessary to achieve improved health and wellness; it also helps establish a bond of patient-doctor trust so often lacking in today’s increasingly depersonalized medical world.
“We want the doctor-patient relationship to be a true partnership,” says Caruso. “And we feel like that sense of collaboration and community is something they can take back out into the world.”
Having launched two separate chiropractic practices in approximately six years—all in the midst of a still-dragging recession and an insurance landscape undergoing seismic shifts – Dr. Caruso knows better than just about anyone what’s at stake. She likens her work’s mission to an old parable about beached starfish: A stroller notices a boy picking up starfish washed ashore, watching him as he tosses them back into the water one at a time.
“You can’t possibly save them all,” says the beach stroller. “There are thousands on this beach. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
To which the boy replies: “But I just made a huge difference to that one!”
“It’s about fostering a liberating environment where the doctor-patient relationship is first and foremost,” says Caruso. “The health care system isn’t going to change overnight, but we have to start somewhere. This is our attempt to throw that first starfish back into the ocean.”
It’s an against-all-odds ethos that registers heavily with Dr. Caruso – not surprising, given her own years-long journey from pain to purpose; from uncertainty to razor-focused resolve—a journey much closer to its beginning than its end.
“I look back upon the car accident I was involved in close to two decades ago as a gift—a gift to help others,” she says. “To paraphrase the great Dr. Wayne Dyer: ‘How am I to help people overcome big things if all I ever get are small things?’’”
Learn more about Healing Hands Community Chiropractic at www.healinghandscc.org.