OKEECHOBEE — Dr. Ramesh Kumar is originally from India but has been in the United States since the ’80s and has been in Okeechobee since 1994. He is an oncologist — a cancer doctor — and his practice is called Big Lake Cancer Center. For 25 plus years, he was a traditional medical doctor taking care of cancer patients, but the issues he found that were not being handled well were the cancer survivors.
“If you’ve been treating patients for 25 years, you’ve got a lot of cancer survivors. They have their own battles — physical pain, emotional pain and suffering — even though the diagnosis of cancer was decades ago. The residual effects continue on, whether it’s cognitive, physical, sexual, whatever. That is something traditional medicine has not paid attention to.”
He explained that people had pain with their cancer 20 years ago, and the doctors gave them pain medications, and 20 years later they were still on the pain medications, because they had the diagnosis of cancer. Once they had that diagnosis, no one questioned or evaluated them, but most of them don’t really need those pain medications anymore. So now, it is an addiction issue, but it is not recognized. “The tragedy is that people don’t even know they are hooked on these pain pills,” he said.
About four or five years ago, he started paying attention to this — to the quality of life of cancer survivors. He started getting involved in an area where traditional insurance-based medicine was really of no help. It’s outside the realm of traditional medicine.
“The way I explain it to people is, we are here in the present day, and if patients have an issue, they go to a medical doctor or specialist. They get the results. A typical example is someone with a backache. They end up having back surgery done. They feel better for a week, two weeks, two months, then the backache comes back again. Now what do they do? Put them on pain medicines. If the pain resolves, well, then, good. You’re done. For a large group of patients, the pain persists or comes back and gets worse, and what do the doctors do? They can’t do anything. You had the surgery. What more can we do? Go back on pain medicine. That’s where I came in.”
He went to Harvard Medical School to learn acupuncture and began using it to help his patients. He has not prescribed a single opiate medication in the last four years, he said. “One needle to the ear will do the trick. It takes a millisecond to get the pain out. Insurance does not pay for it, but for every one of my cancer patients, I will do it for free. I will not let them suffer.”
Dr. Kumar went from being one of the largest prescribers of opiate medications five years ago (from cancer patients) and has come down to near zero.
Not every acupuncturist does what he does, though, he explained. He calls it the Harvard Medical School Way of doing acupuncture. It’s minimalistic. It is only for traditional medical doctors with additional training in acupuncture. They are not acupuncturists first. They are medical doctors first. “Any time a patient comes in, I put on my M.D. hat first,” he said. “I evaluate them to be sure we are not missing something major from the medical side, then once we have tried everything else and nothing is working, that is when I step in with acupuncture.”
He began doing this for his cancer patients, but then the word spread. Now, patients are bringing in their grandmothers. She is in a wheelchair and has not walked in years. What can he do? He gets her up and walking. In addition, he teaches his patients they do not have to depend on him. There are things they can do at home to help themselves. This can help any type of pain, he said, as long as they have already tried traditional medicine first. “I am not a substitute for traditional medicine. I add to whatever else they have going on.”
Even his new cancer patients are not prescribed pain medications. “There are so many options we have. Acupuncture is just one of those options,” he said. He also prescribes medical marijuana. The state of Florida has guidelines on how medical cannabis can be used on selected patients, he said. “It’s not for everybody. I get calls from all kinds of people. Oh my little toe hurts!” The criteria are very strict, but for a lot of cancer patients it helps with their quality of life, making them feel better and ease off on other medications.
Another topic no one talks about but which is a hidden epidemic among cancer survivors, he said, is sexual dysfunction. He is focusing right now on prostate cancer survivors, and said there are solutions for them beyond traditional medicine.
He looks back on history, and acupuncture started in China, and meditation started in India. Yoga started about 5,000 years ago. He brings the best of each thing into the modern world, and most of it comes from Harvard Medical School. They have a mind/body program every year, and he learns a lot about how the mind affects the body and the body affects the mind. If anyone questions what he does, he can back it up, because it came from Harvard Medical School. He does want people to ask questions, though, and get answers before they just jump into things, because there is a lot that goes on out there that is quackery. “If it fails science, I don’t go near it,” he said. “You have to filter it through the lens of science for it to be implemented in a medical doctor’s practice.”
There are treatments out there for many things, he said, but they are not recognized by insurance-based practices, but I don’t limit myself to that. “People ask me what kind of doctor I am — alternative medicine, complementary medicine? I call it good medicine. If it works, it works. That’s it in a nutshell.”