by ZACH KAYSER
At 65, Dr. Karen Vrchota is about to hand over the reins of her holistic medicine practice to the next generation.
Vrchota has a background in conventional medicine, having graduated in 1985 from the University of Minnesota and completed her residency at Hennepin County Medical Center. But her 19 years in the field of alternative medicine began at a conference in 2002, where Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum was speaking on his forte, chronic fatigue syndrome. She was so inspired that years later, Vrchota still gives her patients copies of Teitelbaum’s seminal “From Fatigued to Fantastic.”
She then dipped her toe into the water of alternative medicine, treating chronic conditions with a limited scope of “fat chart patients,” that is, patients with a long medical history that stumps many doctors. For a while she did this even as she continued working in an E.R., but after seeing results from the alternative treatments, she decided to do it full time.
“It was scary, but I would say, medicine isn’t working for most people,” she said. “Most doctors, most nurses, most patients are not happy, with the things the way they are. I am a prayerful person — I prayed to God for direction, and this is the door that opened for me. As long as I stay on the path that I’m shown in my prayer, things go right.”
It was a spiritual force that pulled her to Winona in the first place, Vrchota said. As a small girl she had drawn a picture of the home she wanted to live in one day, and when she was looking at houses many years later, the same place she had drawn — the same features of the house, the same landscape — appeared before her near Winona. That, combined with the fact many of her friends already lived there, signified to her she was meant to live in the area. So Vrchota and her husband bought the house, and after being turned on to alternative medicine, she created a private medical practice from scratch.
The residents flocked to her practice, she said. It only took a small amount of local media coverage — write-ups in the Post and in the Daily News — and word of mouth did the rest.
The arguable appeal of alternative medicine practices like Vrchota’s Integrative Health Care is the degree to which they’re different from going to a conventional health system. For example, Vrchota sees many fewer patients, which she says gives her the time to investigate pathologies — that is, the causes of the symptoms patients present. Vrchota often points to environmental factors such as mold, toxins, lyme disease; as well as behavioral factors, such as poor sleep and diet. Figuring out pathologies takes a great deal of investigative legwork, for which Vrchota’s approach is uniquely suited. She compared herself to fictional TV pathologist Dr. Gregory House, who on the show is a sort of medical detective, trying to uncover the mysterious pathologies that stump his peers.
“House” only ran for eight seasons but Vrchota’s practice has lasted for almost 20 years so far. Her indomitable will to carry on, along with that of her husband, who assists her in the clinic, as well as her other support staff, is a prime example of the aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The team has persevered through tragedies like the Third Street fire in 2015 which displaced not only Integrative Health Care but a number of other downtown businesses and organizations as well. But it was less than a week before another location opportunity came up on Sarnia Street, and the ad hoc arrangements turned into the practice’s permanent home for the last six years.
“We were closed exactly five days for the fire,” Vrchota said. “That’s how my life rolls. God closes a door and opens a window.”
Despite the appeal of getting treatment away from the conventional health care system, Vrchota’s practice is still strongly linked to that system. Just like any doctor, she is licensed through the state Board of Medical Practice. Her policy is that a potential patient must also have a primary care doctor before he or she can start seeing Vrchota.
However, there are also some stark differences from the regular system. For example, Integrative Health Care does not take most forms of insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid. Asked whether that limits her patients, Vrchota said she still gets blue-collar people coming in for care, and that if they really want the treatment, they usually find a way to pay.
Vrchota said she plans to keep her website and continue updating her blog even after retirement.
Starting this summer, newcomer Dr. Soleil Arrieta — who currently works at Gundersen’s St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Wabasha — will take over for Vrchota and start seeing patients in Vrchota’s place.
Asked if she will feel a sense of grief when she hands over her practice, Vrchota said yes. “It’s my identity, it’s what I’m on Earth here to do,” she said. “But it’s also what Soleil is on Earth here to do. Other than being able to live forever … but that one’s been ruled out. Next best thing is, you get to pass on everything you learned in life.”