Martha Stewart Takes on Health Care

The domestic doyenne dishes about the opening of her visionary medical center for seniors, her own health challenges, and the lessons learned while coping with the loss of her mom.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 01, 2008
8 min read

The Martha Stewart Show often takes a personal turn -- but neverquite so personal as on December 17, 2007. That day, Stewart said farewell toone of her show's most beloved recurring characters, her own mother, "BigMartha."

Martha Kostyra, who passed away on Nov. 16 at the age of 93 after sufferinga strokeearlier in the month, had appeared on more than 40 episodes, preparing herfamous pierogi, cheesecake, and meat loaf recipes, learning how to use acomputer, and demonstrating her exerciseroutines. Each time, the merry, gentle interplay between Big Martha and herdaughter warmed the stage.

But on that December day, Stewart, wearing a simple brown ruffled blouse andsupported in the audience by a dozen or more family members, had to introduce atribute instead of show segments starring her mom. In typical Stewart fashion,there were no tears or breakdowns -- just a few wistful smiles at fond memoriesof Big Martha. But she stumbled on her words a few times, finding it hard totalk of her mother in the past tense. "My mom is so modest -- was somodest," she corrected herself.

A few days before the tribute aired, Stewart spoke with WebMD, and then,too, had difficulty putting her loss into words. "It's just -- make themost of every day. What else can you say?" she said. "Time sometimesruns out, and you don't realize how precious it is."

The year 2007 was a rough one for Stewart -- although perhaps not as roughas 2004, the annus horribilis when she spent five weeks on trial for chargesrelated to insider trading and then began a five-month term at Alderson FederalPrison Camp in West Virginia. Still, in addition to losing her mom last year,she faced health challenges of her own: Progressive damage from torn cartilageled Stewart to seek hip replacement surgery in June. Fortunately, Stewart hadalready begun laying the groundwork for a major new focus of her powerfulpodium: not just gracious living, but healthy living, with a special emphasison health care needs as we age. Her personal experience over the past yearhighlights just how important that is.

In October, Stewart cut the ribbon on the new Martha Stewart Center forLiving at The Mount Sinai Medical Center, a geriatric outpatient facility inManhattan. Big Martha's health kept her away from the grand opening, but shewas the primary inspiration for the center -- and Stewart's tribute videofeatured film of her mother in a hard hat and wielding tools as constructionbegan.

"We want to help people devise a way of life that will get them throughold age healthily and happily -- in good shape and in good humor," saysStewart. "That's something the center can help with tremendously. Duringthe three years my mom had to do rehab and various procedures, none of thoseplaces was where you'd want to spend your time."

Funded by a $5 million donation from Stewart and dedicated to her mom, thecenter, with its bonsai tree symbol and Stewart design touches, feels more likean upscale spa than the depressing, fluorescent-lit outpatient clinics mostseniors visit. The 7,800-square-foot facility houses a staff of 20 geriatricspecialists, social workers, an integrated wellness program, and a memoryevaluation clinic.

Other specialists, including cardiologists, nephrologists, rheumatologists,and psychiatrists, are available onsite and can be consulted as needed --eliminating multiple trips to different offices. (Care is covered by mostinsurance plans.) And the medical center's patients can take an active role intheir own health and wellness, participating in activities such asmindfulness-based stress reduction, yoga, taichi, and nutrition programs.

"We wanted to create a place that feels good, that treats you nicely,that makes you think somebody cares about your experience there," saysStewart.

Stewart's right about the need for coordinated senior care, says KnightSteel, MD, a pioneer in geriatric medicine who now heads the division ofgeriatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. We all couldbenefit from having our doctors under one roof -- but the elderly have the mostto gain from coordinated care. "There are issues related to aging per se,and then there are issues related to diseases and organ systems, so you need acardiologist, a neurologist, a pulmonologist, and so on. It's clearly best tohave a place where you can be managed comprehensively, rather than having carefragmented at different locations and practices," he says.

Stewart learned about this issue firsthand while helping care for hermother. "My mom went to four, five, six different doctors, and she wasn'talways totally open about what medications she was taking, or not taking," shesays.

The more medications a senior takes, and the more doctors prescribing them,the greater the opportunity for error -- for example, prescribing medicationsthat have dangerous interactions. More than half of fatal hospital medicationerrors involved seniors, according to a 2004 report in U.S. Pharmacist."That's the value of a senior center with excellent geriatricians who lookat a person's health in a comprehensive way, rather than having them diagnoseand prescribe independently," says Steel.

Ultimately, Stewart hopes the new center at Mount Sinai will serve as amodel for similar geriatric centers across the country. She's working withBrent Ridge, MD, her company's vice president for healthy living -- they firstmet when Ridge, then a Mount Sinai geriatrician, approached her with the ideafor the center -- to make that happen. "We want to show other hospitalsacross the country how they can go about creating the same kind of excellentprogram, where the aging population can be taken care of well," shesays.

"Being healthy is all about being prepared," agrees Ridge. "Ourhealth care system is not prepared, and the vast majority of individuals arenot prepared. Having someone with Martha's clout and her ability to speak willraise awareness of this issue. Just like they look to Martha for planning otheraspects of their lives, we think they'll look to her for this aspect aswell."

Steel, for one, hopes Stewart can bring these issues to the forefront --because he sees a tidal wave coming. By 2050, according to the U.S. CensusBureau, nearly 87 million people in the United States will be older than 65 --more than 20% of the projected population. "I can tell you that Americangeriatric medicine has gargantuan problems," Steel says. "There's toomuch expensive hospital care, and there needs to be more care at home. Butunless we have places like Stewart's center that can make good outpatient carefor seniors possible -- and good geriatricians to provide it -- there will be aserious crisis in geriatric care."

She may have had her own struggles with the health care system, but MarthaKostyra, in many ways, was just about the perfect example of living well intoyour later years -- still active and energetic as she approached her 93rdbirthday. She seemed indomitable, so her death was likely a shock to herdaughter, says Pamela Sollenberger, MS, a certified grief counselor who serves on the advisory board forthe American Academy of Grief Counseling.

"When someone has been very ill for a long time, we're a lot furtheralong in our grieving when that person dies," she says. "But if it's arelatively sudden loss, we have no time to prepare.'

The loss of a parent is particularly devastating. "It doesn't matterwhat age you are, you end up becoming that orphan," says Sollenberger."We look to our parents as the protector, the guide, the nurturer, theunconditional love source."

And just because Stewart isn't wearing her grief on her crisply ironedsleeve doesn't mean she isn't struggling in private. "Your grief is uniqueonly to you. Yours is different than mine, Martha Stewart's is different thanours," Sollenberger says. "We may go through the same stages of grief,but we do it differently. The process takes a lot of time, and nobody can tellyou when it's time to move on."

One way of grappling with loss is to channel energies into something thathonors that person and creates a legacy for them. For Stewart, this could meandeepening her involvement with the Martha Stewart Center for Living, whichmattered so much to her mother. Others, says Sollenberger, might work withunderprivileged children, fund a scholarship, or contribute their efforts tosome other cause that was important to the person they lost. Some people engagein what Sollenberger calls "instrumental grieving," which could beanything from chopping wood to hoeing the garden to kickboxing. "Sometimesit's easier to exercise your grief than to talk about it," she says.

That may also be a good outlet for Stewart, who is committed to a healthyworkout routine. "I do more exercise than I ever did before, but that'sbecause I am living a very hectic life that requires exercise. I feel I needit," she says. She'd squeezed in an early-morning workout and then anotherhour of yoga with a trainer the day she spoke with WebMD. "That's a luckyday. Usually I get about an hour a day. But I have to insist on it."

Her fierceness about fitness likely contributed to her quick recovery fromthat surgery back in June, when ongoing painfrom torn cartilage of the hip spurred her to get the hip replacement. Stewartwas riding her horse the day before the procedure and was back at work fivedays after (not the five-week break her doctors insisted she'd need).

"I get zillions of emails from all over the country asking what I didfor Martha," says her surgeon, Steven Stuchin, MD, director of orthopaedicsurgery at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases. "In terms oftechnique, I did some very cool stuff. But what's really important is what youdo before and afterward. Martha went into this in as good a shape as she couldbe."

And afterward? "That's when the process really starts with a jointreplacement surgery," says Stuchin. "Some people think they'll just liedown on the table and they'll be good to go, but the real work is what thepatient does afterward. If you go to rehab two or three times a week, butyou're not exercising every day, you're not going to get the maximum results.Martha went into this saying 'I want to be a good patient, I want goodresults,' and she got them because she worked at it."

But c'mon, now. Does Stewart have any health flaws herself? After all, thisis a woman who doesn't drink much, eats from her own organic garden, and hasmade healthy living a core initiative within the Stewart empire that promisesto span all of her magazines (yes, even Martha Stewart Weddings), as well asher television show and web site. "I don't eat a lot of artificial foodsand never have -- I don't open a lot of cans and bottles," she says. "Ijust refuse to imbibe or eat things that I think are dangerous."

But even Martha's not perfect. She confesses there's one thing she probablyneglects: "Sleep.It's an exhausting lifestyle, and I always say sleep can go," she says."I never stay in bed late -- I can't! In my house, the first people arriveat about 6:30, and I have to be up well before that." Could she perhapsturn in a little earlier at night? "Well ... I like watching DavidLetterman."

She also admits that, while she relaxes with yoga and insists on at least anhour of exercise every day, she doesn't have a true personal formula for reallyunwinding. "I wish I had one!" she laments.

Then she thinks about the question a little longer. "Although, when Iget on my horse and go out into the woods, the thing I always say is, 'Itdoesn't get any better than this.' That's a good little motto. We all need tolook for those moments when we can say that."

It's all part of Stewart's personal philosophy for aging well, which she'shoping to spread broadly through the center and her new multimedia healthinitiatives. "You have to find the path to wellness. Drugs and medicalattention are a part of that, but it's also about diet,and exercise, and a calm way of thinking about your everyday challenges.

"That's much more appealing to me." 

Originally published in the March/April 2008 issue of WebMD theMagazine.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Martha Stewart.

Knight Steel, MD, Chief, Division of Geriatrics, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, N.J.

Pamela Sollenberger, MS, GC-C, grief counselor, Exeter, N.H.

Laura Mosqueda, MD, professor of family medicine; director of geriatrics, University of California-Irvine.

Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, New York City.

U.S. Census Bureau.

American Geriatrics Society.

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