Melanie Burke always thought of herself as a healthy person. But several years ago, the 30-something social worker started experiencing a host of physical problems: She had trouble moving her shoulder; her muscles ached and tingled; she had migraine headaches and a racing heartbeat.

Burke ’87, M.S.W. ’91 sought out specialists for her ailments, visiting two endocrinologists, a cardiologist and a neurologist. After undergoing a frightening and expensive battery of tests, she wasn’t getting any better.

“It was terrifying. It was really affecting my life,” Burke says.

Remembering a physician she’d seen more than a decade before for back pain, Burke contacted Ka Kit Hui ’71, M.D. ’75 at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. “When I told Dr. Hui all that I’d been experiencing, he said, ‘I’ve seen this before.’ It was such a calming and validating thing to hear,” she says.

Hui made the connection between Burke’s symptoms and fertility treatments she’d been receiving, which were causing her to produce unusually high levels of adrenaline.

“When nobody could give me answers, he was really able to see the full picture and integrate all of these fragmented pieces,” says Burke. “He helped me understand that I came to the situation already [physically and emotionally] depleted ... and was somebody whose life wasn’t really in balance. My body reacted to all that, so that all I needed was something like this experience with fertility drugs to be tipped over the edge.”

Hui, an internist, clinical pharmacologist and geriatrician, established UCLA’s Center for East-West Medicine (CEWM) in 1993 to bring together the best of modern Western and traditional Chinese medicine. As a youth in Hong Kong, he benefited from conventional Western medicine as well as Chinese herbalists, and became intrigued with the chemical basis of herbal medicine.

“My original intention was to be a chemist/pharmacologist and to develop a Western drug from herbal medicine,” says Hui, noting that there are more than 10,000 Chinese herbs, each with multiple uses. “The beauty of herbal medicine is how the herbs are mixed together and used in total.”

This philosophy — that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts — drives Hui’s approach to the CEWM and to medicine in general.

“Western medicine has made great advances in the treatment of infectious diseases and acute trauma, but has been less successful against chronic illnesses. On the other hand, Eastern healing traditions have been found to be helpful in many chronic illnesses,” he says. Combining the two — Western approaches for such critical events as heart attack or injuries, for example, and Eastern methods for wellness and prevention focusing on the interconnectedness of the body — offers an innovative, flexible, effective and less-invasive approach to health and disease.

At the CEWM’s Santa Monica clinic, Hui and his colleagues put this integrated approach into practice. There, patients seeking relief from chronic pain, arthritis, sports injuries, depression, anxiety and a wide variety of other health problems that have resisted conventional treatment benefit from Western procedures alongside traditional Eastern techniques such as acupuncture, acupressure, therapeutic massage, herbal medicine and tai chi. The clinic administers more than 7,000 patient visits annually.

But the CEWM does not stand on its own. The center is under the umbrella of the UCLA Collaborative Centers for Integrative Medicine, which links research and clinical programs campuswide that are dedicated to the practice, teaching and science of mind-body, complementary and alternative medicine. Programs within the larger center include the UCLA Center for Neurovisceral Sciences and Women’s Health, UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, UCLA Pediatric Pain Program and UCLA Stiles Program in Integrative Oncology.

There is a growing recognition of the value of such approaches to medicine. Philanthropist Gerald H. Oppenheimer, for example, recently pledged $9.6 million to support the integrative-medicine center and its constituent programs.

“Taking these concepts and integrating them with Western medicine, we can gain the best from both worlds,” says Oppenheimer, who learned from Hui how to apply acupressure to keep himself healthy. The East-West Center is just one example of an innovative approach that “is changing the whole way of thinking behind current medical practices,” he says.

In one of the simple, unadorned exam rooms, Hui examines a 41-year-old woman who is complaining of shoulder pain. After talking with Jeanne Davis M.S.W. ’94 to learn about her current life situation and activities — listening to patients is critical — Hui prescribes a course of treatment that begins with a 15-minute massage from acupuncturist Jun Liang Yu. After the massage, Hui returns to the room and deftly slides two slender acupuncture needles into Davis’ legs about two inches below her kneecaps. The session concludes with injections of minimal amounts of the anesthetic lidocaine in the area where Davis says she is feeling discomfort.

Along with the therapies, staff at the center strive to educate patients about new frameworks for looking at their health. Most learn to adjust their diet, utilize self-massage and change their exercise routine. Burke, for example, turned from vigorous workouts to less strenuous exercises such as yoga, swimming and walking. She started eating more regularly and broadened her counseling practice so that she wasn’t exclusively seeing difficult sexual-abuse victims.

“We try to put health back into the patient’s own hands, encouraging them to appreciate their role in maintaining their own health,” says Hui.

For Hui, the clinic demonstrates how integrative medicine can be effective on a broad scale, and he is committed to promoting the concept worldwide. Looking at health care with the same all-encompassing eye that he uses to examine patients, Hui sees a system urgently in need of a new, holistic infrastructure. In 2001, more than $1.3 trillion was spent nationally on health care; that same year, more than 41 million Americans were without health insurance. Health-care costs overwhelm families and businesses alike. And an aging boomer generation and increasingly expensive new technologies will further exacerbate the crisis.

The situation, Hui says, “is unsustainable.” Yet he sees a simple answer: Not only can integrative medicine promote the health of the individual, it can promote the health of the entire system. With its emphasis on maintaining health and enhancing the body’s natural resistance to disease, Eastern medicine offers low-tech, low-cost methods that can avoid more invasive, riskier and costlier treatments. The current crisis exists “not for lack of money, but for lack of a framework that will allow us to appropriately allocate resources to solve health care for the patient and for the health-care system,” says Hui. An integrative model “has the potential to help millions of people with safe, effective, accessible and affordable health care.”

To promote this model, the CEWM teaches medical students, interns and residents about integrative medicine through classes and clinical rotations. A clinical fellowship program grooms future integrative-medicine teachers and practitioners. In addition, the center hosts a professional conference attended by health practitioners from around the globe. (This year’s conference, in the fall, will be geared to the public.) Hui has served as a consultant to government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, international entities such as the World Health Organization, and to universities and health-insurance companies.

His goal is to build a bridge between two cultures, one ancient and one modern.

“UCLA is a world leader,” Hui says. “We are in a unique position to influence transformation of the health-care system.”