Each day at noon, chimes begin to peal over the loudspeaker at Tai Sophia Institute in southern Howard County, and activity in the building comes to a quiet halt.
"We've gone silent at noon ever since 9/11 - to stop and breathe, and to remember that we are blessed to be alive," said Robert Duggan, president of the graduate school of healing arts and sciences.
"When people come here, I'm the first to say, 'Slow down and take a breath,' " he said. "Medicine costs a lot, but breathing is free."
Yesterday, Duggan was scheduled to receive the Richard G. McCauley Leadership Award from the Horizon Foundation, a decade-old health and wellness philanthropy based in Columbia. The award is named for the foundation's first chairman.
Also honored at the annual awards breakfast, held this year at the Howard County Conservancy at Mount Pleasant Farm in Woodstock, were Howard Community College's Allied Health program, community activist Peg Browning and Leadership U.
At Tai Sophia - which also houses a library, bookstore and clinical services center amid herb and meditation gardens - the emphasis is on integrated medicine, which focuses on healing the whole person instead of treating only the symptoms of disease.
The institute, on 12 acres off U.S. 29 in Laurel, takes its name from the Chinese word tai for great and the Greek word for wisdom. Each half of the institute's name serves double-duty as an acronym, as well - Traditional Acupuncture Institute, School Of Philosophy and Healing In Action.
"We are part of a rapidly expanding wellness movement in the United States," said Duggan, a Columbia resident. "Preventable chronic illnesses are costing us $1.2 trillion a year. Our 'disease care system' is not serving us well."
At 68, he heads the only academic institution in the country to offer a master's degree in herbal medicine, along with degrees in applied healing arts and acupuncture. A broad variety of community and continuing education programs are also offered.
"Modern medicine is only around 60 or 70 years old," said Duggan. "We [at Tai Sophia] are creating a university based on ancient wisdom and the observation of nature."
Richard M. Krieg, president and chief executive officer of the Horizon Foundation since 1998, said, "When I first came to the county from Chicago, I noticed that a lot of people subscribed to complementary medicine, and this was new to me."
Krieg, who has a doctorate in health policy and administration and was formerly Chicago's health commissioner, said Duggan was selected for the award because "he has elevated the discussion of complementary medicine's approach to health on local, state and national levels."
Through Tai Sophia, "Bob has built a graduate degree program around the certification and rigorous training necessary in a field where there isn't always as much quality control as we would like," Krieg said.
Fifty-one students graduated Wednesday in a commencement ceremony held at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School. Students come from across the United States and other countries to earn degrees, and then take jobs in hospitals, wellness centers, medical clinics and the like, or open practices.
The leadership award is not the first time Howard County has taken notice of Duggan's contributions and the widening influence of the institute he co-founded in 1975 with Dianne Connelly, who is chancellor.
Organizers of Healthy Howard, the county's health care access plan for uninsured residents, will collaborate with Tai Sophia to train wellness coaches, who will assist participants in making lifestyle changes that reduce the need for medical intervention.
Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, county health officer, said he is "intrigued by the mission and philosophy of the institute," which he said he and County Executive Ken Ulman toured after announcing creation of the plan, which is to be launched this fall.
"As a physician, I buy into alternative medicine maybe more than most," he said. "We [at Healthy Howard] will certainly be encouraging our clients to partake of the wellness activities offered at Tai Sophia."
The school has partnerships with Howard Community College, where Duggan helped to establish a Wellness Center, as well as with Howard County General Hospital, the Morgan State University School of Public Health and Policy, the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, among others.
Dr. Lana R. Warren, vice president of clinical programs and inpatient services at Kennedy Krieger, is an alumnus of Tai Sophia's applied healing arts program, for which she served as director for three years after graduating in 2004.
"I certainly think Bob is a visionary, and he always challenges people to challenge their own assumptions about wellness," she said. Kennedy Krieger offers complementary medicine to its inpatient rehabilitation patients - in the form of massage therapy, acupuncture and 10-minute seated massage - and many families take advantage of those services as stress reducers, she said.
"When I first met Bob and his staff," Warren said about beginning her studies at Tai Sophia, "I felt they had a different view of the world, one that was more caring and more filled with possibility - and one that I wanted to have."
Krieg agreed that as a practitioner, "Bob is a gifted healer who understands the importance of human interaction in a therapeutic setting."
Duggan, a native of New York City, launched a nationwide search in 1973 for the best place to locate a healing arts clinic, after intensive study of Chinese medicine in England.
Research led him to choose Howard County, for its central location between Washington and Baltimore, short distance to an airport and proximity to the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins University. He and Connelly opened the clinic in 1975 in the American City Building, near Lake Kittamaqundi.
The 29-year resident of Oakland Mills said he had also been drawn to the area by James W. Rouse's vision of Columbia, along with the mechanics of the Columbia Medical Plan, an HMO that was "predicated on having clients take care of themselves."
Since then, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has certified all three master's programs at the institute, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
"From a Howard County point of view, we have the resources to change from disease care to wellness," Duggan said. "We have the wherewithal to lead the union and cause health care costs to drop."
His plans remain the same - "staying very focused on enabling the county and state to provide unique leadership to all of America, as we change the political conversation from disease care and insurance to expanding every citizen's ability to live well."
While working to achieve that goal has long-held profound meaning for Tai Sophia's president, his motivation has shifted slightly.
"My wife, Susan, and I have five young grandchildren, four of them in Howard County," he said. "Will they grow up to live in a world where you have to get diseased to get help, or where wellness comes first? There will be no future without changing our current concepts, which are not sustainable. That makes it all very personal for me."
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