About Melanie Kolkin

Melanie is the Research Coordinator for the Clergy Health Initiative, and has a background in biomedical and public health research. She has an undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature from Emory University, where she pursued additional concentrations in biology, medicine, and psychology. In her spare time, Melanie enjoys hiking at the Eno River with her dog, Sailor, cooking, painting, cheering on the Green Bay Packers, and weekends at the beach in Emerald Isle.

Grandma’s daily meditations


My grandmother was a wise, exceptionally well-read, open-minded, grandmapragmatic, spiritual, anti-dogmatic woman whose car proudly bore a “Catholic Woman for Obama” bumper sticker in a heavily red-leaning part of Eastern North Carolina.

Madelon Leaman Hyman passed away in January 2011. A few of her mementos that I have held onto include that bumper sticker and a photocopy of three daily meditations that she kept taped up in her bathroom. These meditations are beautiful in their simplicity, and I read them daily.

I am sharing this one with you in the hope that it brings you the same peace and perspective that it brings to me:

Ever in my inmost being, eternal, absolutely one, whole, perfect, complete, indivisible, timeless, ageless, shapeless, without face, form or figure, is the silent presence fixed in the hearts of all wo/men.

Anonymous meditation

–Melanie Kolkin

Mediterranean diet helps decrease risk of cardiovascular disease


A new, large-scale study with over 7,000 participants (aged 55-80) at high risk of heart disease, has concluded that eating a traditional Mediterranean diet can significantly reduce the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease among those predisposed to them.*  

All study participants had either type 2 diabetes or at least three of the following major risk factors: smoking, hypertension, elevated LDL, low HDL, overweight or obesity, or a family history of premature coronary heart disease.

What is considered a traditional Mediterranean diet?

  • High intake of extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, beans, fruits and vegetables
  • Moderate intake of fish and poultry
  • Low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets
  • And wine in moderation with a meal


Below are excerpts from the New York Times article reporting the research findings:

“About 30 percent of heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease can be prevented in people at high risk if they switch to a Mediterranean diet…

“The findings, published on The New England Journal of Medicine’s web site on Monday [Feb. 25], were based on the first major clinical trial to measure the diet’s effect on heart risks.  The magnitude of the diet’s benefits startled experts.  The study [conducted in Spain] ended early, after almost five years, because the results were so clear it was considered unethical to continue.

“The diet helped [reduce the risk of major cardiac events in] those following it even though they did not lose weight and most of them were already taking statins, or blood pressure or diabetes drugs to lower their heart disease risk.**

“The researchers were careful to say in their paper that while the diet clearly reduced heart disease for those at high risk for it, more research was needed to establish its benefits for people at low risk. But [Dr. Ramon Estruch, the lead investigator on the study and a professor of medicine at the University of Barcelona,] said he expected it would also help people at both high and low risk, and suggested that the best way to use it for protection would be to start in childhood.”

Do you eat a Mediterranean diet? 

The New York Times has posted the survey designed by the study’s researchers in Barcelona.  Use it to determine if your current diet is heart healthy.  Take the quiz.

Looking for recipes?  You can find lots of tasty suggestions for Mediterranean-style dishes you might enjoy on these and other websites:


— Melanie Kolkin


* At the time of enrollment, none of the participants had cardiovascular disease.

** It is important to note that the only health outcome researchers looked at in this study was the effect of the Mediterranean diet on major cardiovascular events (acute myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes) in high-risk individuals.  It did not assess the diet’s affect on the other physical and mental health or quality of life consequences associated with the heart disease risk factors mentioned in paragraph 2.  For example,  smoking can cause emphysema and various kinds of cancer, while being overweight or obese increases an individual’s risk of developing osteoarthritis, cancer, and complications during pregnancy.

Kolata, G. (2013, February 25). Mediterranean diet shown to ward off heart attack and stroke. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvadó J, Covas M-I, D.Pharm., Corella D, et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. New England Journal of Medicine. Online publication February 25, 2013.

(Image courtesy of USDAgov via Flikr)

Making Changes for 2013


The weeks leading up to Advent and Christmas come with a flurry of activity, and your healthcare benefits may be the farthest thing from your mind.  But whether you have a choice in health plans or not (or have a brief window of open enrollment in which to make changes), thinking ahead to how you’ll use your benefits can save you money in the coming year.

Ready to dive in? Below are some things to consider:

Read up on all plans offered
Ask for plan materials from your benefits administrator, and check out the websites of any health plans that are offered.  Your benefits administrator may have an online tool to help you compare plan choices, too.  If it’s available, use it!

Premium increases
Look to see whether your share of the monthly premium for employer-based health insurance is increasing.  That’s the amount of money taken directly from your wages.  If you can’t afford the premium for your current plan, consider less expensive coverage options from your employer or an individually-purchased plan.

Deductibles, copays and out-of-pocket costs
Since your real health care costs involve more than just monthly premiums, check to see whether your plan’s copayment amounts for prescription drugs or office visits have changed.  Look at the annual deductible too, and your annual out-of-pocket maximum.  Sometimes rising premiums are offset by increasing your liability in other cost-sharing categories.  (Cost saving tip: be sure to ask the doctors who prescribe your medications whether there is a generic version of the drug you are taking, and if so, whether it is a good alternative for you.  Generics are typically less expensive than brand drugs.)

Changes to your benefits  
As a result of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, you may now be eligible to receive additional benefits and options, such as keeping your child on your health plan until the age of 26.  Find out what is changing, and when.  Also: know your rights and protections.  Find out what insurance companies can and cannot do when it comes to changing or cancelling your coverage.

Spouses and dependents
Make sure your employer is still extending coverage to spouses and dependents, or whether they have changed their contributions toward dependents’ monthly premiums.  If you have an adult child under the age of 26 on your plan, find out how much is contributed toward his or her monthly premiums and compare that with the price of other coverage options.  If your spouse has employer-sponsored coverage too, find out if it’s more cost-effective to insure all or certain family members under your spouse’s plan instead.

Learn plan features you do and don’t want
Try the Health Plan Matchmaker tool.  It helps you pick plan features that are most important to you.  Just thinking about your health needs outside of medical care covered under a standard plan — like dental or vision — can help you choose the right plan for all of your health care needs.

Make a list of the benefits you used (and didn’t use)
If, for example, you visit your family doctor much more often than specialists, a plan with referrals and lower costs may be your best option.  When you figure out what parts of your plan you use most (and what you don’t) you can spend your health care dollars where you really need them.

Your health care needs
Have your own or your family’s health care needs changed over the last year? If the answer is yes, it may be time to consider a health insurance plan with a different balance of benefits.  Find out which private insurance plans, public programs and community services are available to you.

Budget for future health care costs
Consider a health savings account (HSA) or a flexible spending account (FSA).  These are two types of health funds that let you save money to pay for certain medical expenses tax-free.  When deciding on the amount of money to put into the account for 2013, keep in mind that you have until December 31st of the same year to spend it on eligible expenses, or the remaining balance will be forfeited.

Explore all your benefits options
Even if you have only one choice for a health plan, look for anything else you’re entitled to.  For example, find out if your health plan offers discounts for services like dental care or eyewear.  These programs aren’t insurance.  But they can offer great savings on services you’re already paying for.

Here’s to a healthy 2013!

–Dwight Tucker (posted by Melanie Kolkin)

Photo by Alan Cleaver/Flickr

Meditate, Move, and Breathe Stress Away


Whether we’re concerned for a loved one’s health, rushing around because we’re late for work and can’t find those darn keys, or have a deadline looming, we all experience some form of stress every day.

To a certain degree, stress is an inevitable part of life, but how we approach and manage the things that make us anxious can make a big difference in the effect stress has on our well-being.

If you’re like me, you are eager to find relaxation methods but ironically find yourself stressed(!) about how long they might take. Well, my fellow relaxation seekers, I have good news!  It truly is possible to fit in one or two simple stress-relieving practices each day.

As I was looking through the Duke HR website this week, I came across a section with information on a few techniques that I found helpful — mindfulness meditation, relaxation poses, and breathing exercises. I also found a series of videos on YouTube that demonstrate three simple stretches you can do almost anywhere to help prevent or relieve stress and pain.

One of our wellness advocates also leads a session of simple chair exercises here.  After trying some of the breathing and stretching exercises, I will definitely be making them a part of my daily routine from now on.

Let us know if you try any of these relaxation techniques or would like to share some tips of your own!

Melanie Kolkin

(Photo by Flickr user Alan Cleaver)

Your Favorite Song Could Improve Your Health


We all have that one song that never fails to lift our spirits or melt away our stress – even if it’s just for a little bit.  The song might change over time (I know mine has!), but that perfect song has a way of bringing warmth to your heart every time you hear it. What’s yours? For me, it could be almost anything sung by Michael Bublé.  But if I had to pick just one, it would be “Come Fly With Me” by Frank Sinatra.  Even the name is uplifting!

The ability of music to bring joy and reduce stress has been recognized for centuries by cultures all over the world.  Many texts, including the Bible, frequently reference the beauty of music, singing, and dancing and their positive effect on our moods.  One such example is Isaiah 30:29.

         You shall have a song
         As in the night when a holy festival is kept,
         And gladness of heart as when one goes with a flute,
         To come into the mountain of God,
         To the Mighty One of Israel.

Over the years, researchers have explored the various ways in which listening, playing, and dancing to music can help improve our physical and mental health.  As it turns out, there are quite a few!

Studies have found that too much or too little of certain hormones, such as cortisol, oxytocin, β-endorphin, and serotonin, can increase stress, blood pressure, anxiety, depression, risk for heart disease.  Music, however, appears to counteract many of these health problems by reducing stress, which has been shown to:

  • Alleviate or prevent episodes of anxiety and depression
  • Promote healthy activity (i.e., dancing, exercise)
  • Encourage feelings of relaxation
  • Calm and sedate (which promotes sleep)
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Improve auto-immune response
  • Improve communication (particularly in those with Alzheimer’s)
  • Enhance memory
  • Reduce pain sensation
  • Shorten recovery time after surgery
  • Reduce some drug dosages for pain by up to 50% among hospital patients

So turn on some music while you’re cooking dinner.  Attempt a few notes on that instrument you’ve been meaning to pick up again.  Go dancing. Sing along to the radio on your drive home or to your children as you tuck them into bed at night.  Whatever kind of music tickles your fancy, odds are, it’s good for your health – so crank it up (though not too loud — got to protect those ears!)

And with that, here is a little something to get you going.


Melanie Kolkin


Music, Health, and Wellbeing by Raymond MacDonald, Gunter Kreutz, and Laura Mitchell

Music therapy provides mental, physical benefits by Mark Canny

The benefits of music in hospital waiting rooms by RL Routhieaux and DA Tansik

Music enhances the effect of positive emotional states on salivary IgA by Rollin McCraty, Mike Atkinson, and Glen Rein

(Photo by Flickr user craigCloutier via Creative Commons)

A ‘Thrival Kit’ for Clergy Families


Being part of a clergy family comes with a unique set of joys and challenges.

While we’ve heard that many clergy spouses feel a unity of purpose with their husband or wife, identify with their spouse’s work, and experience their own calling from God, they also face feelings of isolation, high expectations from congregants, a lack of barriers and sacredness of family time, and ambiguity of their role and identity.

Being a preacher’s kid isn’t easy either. They too are under a great deal of pressure to be “perfect” and must learn to accept the long and often hectic hours that their parent works.

That’s all a lot to manage, and resources on how to do it well are scarce.  But one that is particularly well done is the Florida Conference’s Thrival Kit.

The Thrival Kit is a kind of survival guide on how to thrive as a pastor (single or married), clergy spouse, or family in the United Methodist Church. It offers a wealth of useful resources, information, and commentary on topics such as:

  • The appointment system
  • Family dynamics and the ministry
  • Moving
  • Wellness and wholeness
  • Where to turn for help
  • Finances
  • Pensions and benefits
  • Where to find other useful resources

One aspect of the Thrival Kit that I find to be unique and especially helpful is the inclusion of stories and insightful advice from actual pastors and spouses.  For example, on her list of “Survival Tips from Our House,” one pastor writes, “We are not supposed to save the world—Jesus already did that. Pray, rest, play, and enjoy each other. Ministry is an important part of your life and your identity—but it is not everything.”

A common theme in the Thrival Kit is an emphasis on the importance of self-care and balance, both personally and professionally.

In the section on wellness and wholeness, the authors write that balancing our spiritual, emotional, and physical health, “offers an opportunity for us to receive and experience all the goodness, which our Lord wants for us.”

They offer suggestions on ways for readers to pursue this delicate balance by providing information on resources that can help: low-cost vacation and retreat options for individuals, families, children, or couples (some of which are in or near North Carolina); continuing education; counseling for children, clergy, spouses, or couples who plan to divorce; health initiatives; and more.

While the Thrival Kit was put together by the Florida Conference, most of its content is relevant and helpful for all clergy families regardless of their denomination or location. I strongly recommend taking even a few minutes to skim through the pages of this guide. I think you will find it a pleasurable and enlightening read. Enjoy!