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Super Healing

You may not know it, but your body has an amazing ability to repair itself after serious illness or injury. A Harvard doc—and former cancer patient—reveals the secrets to tapping into your own powers of recovery.

In the fall of 2006, Arlene and David Rubin were flying home to Boston after a vacation in northern California wine country. But somewhere over the Midwest, Arlene looked up from her magazine and got the shock of her life. Her 80-year-old husband’s eyes were rolling around in his head, his skin was purple, and his tongue was blue.

“I’ve never seen anyone that color before. It was very scary,” Arlene recalls. “I yelled, ‘David, David, David!’ but he didn’t answer. Then I yelled, ‘Help!’ and the flight attendant told me, ‘Get out of the way!’”

David’s heart had stopped completely. But three strangers were determined to save his life. A doctor and a nurse who were passengers worked side by side with a flight attendant trained to use an automated external defibrillator. The pilot made an emergency landing in Milwaukee, where David underwent open-heart surgery.

Today David has returned to his work as a highly successful Boston real-estate developer. Remarkably, he was able not only to survive that life-threatening episode but, just as important, to heal from it and regain his strength.

How did he do it? His body’s natural healing processes did most of the work. Each of us possesses a surprising capacity to bounce back from illness and injury, under the right conditions. But David also took specific steps to help the process along. These steps—suggested by scientific research—can help anyone weakened by trauma or disease to find the strength to heal.

Healing is my specialty. I’m a physiatrist, a doctor in the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation. The first physiatrists helped injured World War II soldiers. Modern-day physiatrists treat people with a variety of serious illnesses and injuries, including strokes, spinal cord injuries, and lower-back problems. Two words summarize what we do: we help people to “physically recover.” (The American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation makes it easy for people to find physiatrists by providing a map on its website, When you click on your state, you will see a list of doctors to choose from.)

Your body will work hard on its own to help you recover—even if you do little to help the process along. Thousands of chemical and biological reactions occur throughout the day and night to help you to heal. When you’re injured, white blood cells called neutrophils rush to the site, to ward off infection. Other blood cells called monocytes transform themselves into scavengers (macrophages), to engulf and devour dead tissue and help to control inflammation. If you break a bone, bone cells called osteoblasts kick into action to knit the rough edges back together. And cell damage caused by illness—or by harsh therapies, in the case of cancer, hepatitis, and other diseases—gets mended by the same hordes of microscopic miracle workers. There are so many cells assisting us in healing that we could never count them all.

But even though these processes are involuntary and automatic, there are things smart patients can do to speed and strengthen their recovery. The best healing occurs when you are able to optimize your immune system to avoid infections; encourage the healing of skin, bones, muscles, nerves, and tendons; and build strength and endurance.

In my practice, I have developed an eight-part strategy to put patients on the path to optimal healing. And at the heart of this strategy are three fundamentals: how you eat, how you sleep, and how you move.

We physiatrists have a saying: “Good health is a temporary condition.” So I fully expected to face serious illness myself at some point. But that didn’t make things much easier when, at age 38, my time came. I vividly recall the day the surgeon came into the exam room with tears in her eyes. I wanted her to say what other doctors had told me in the past: “Go home; you’re fine.” Instead, she softly said, “You have breast cancer.”

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