For the past 15 years, the once-grand Crystal Bay Hotel that hosted Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe in its heyday has been an inexpensive stay for seniors, a low-rent flop house, a promised luxury resort that ended in foreclosure, an illegal refuge for the homeless, a training ground for SWAT teams and even a "For Sale" listing on Craigslist.
But now, after a $1 million renovation, the 98-year-old property at 7401 Central Ave. has a new life as the Crystal Bay Hotel Spiritual Retreat for Wellness and Healing. It will cater largely to cancer patients. For owner Mark Tong, who bought the hotel in 1996 planning an assisted-living facility at first and then spent many years trying to sell it, the timing is finally right.
"I've been a natural healer all my life," Tong, 55, said. He has spent the past few years working as a healer at Utopia Wellness, an Oldsmar medical center offering holistic treatments. "I saw the need. … Having everything under one roof makes it simple."
Crystal Bay guests get one-on-one sessions with Tong and access to meditation, yoga and other group activities. The hotel serves healthy foods with ingredients believed by some to fight cancer and has a demonstration kitchen where guests learn to prepare similar meals for themselves when they return home.
Rates at the Crystal Bay start at $125 a night, including breakfast. The price for an all-inclusive week ranges from $1,800 to $2,250 per person. This includes three meals a day and one each of sessions focused on coaching, spiritual counseling, emotional therapy and spa services.
The spiritual healing entails Tong talking with patients and helping them come to peace with issues in their lives that are causing them stress.
"What I found was each and every one of the patients (he worked with at Utopia) had significant emotional events prior to the first symptom of cancer. I developed a technique to identify the emotional events, and when you bring it to their awareness … and they see how they manifested the cancer, that they brought it on themselves, they can be at peace," Tong said.
He encourages patients to get treatments recommended by their medical doctors, such as chemotherapy or radiation, but believes the mind must heal before those treatments can heal the body.
Tong earned a master's and doctorate degree at the College of Metaphysical Studies. The 1,300-square-foot school is in an office building next to a used car lot in Clearwater. It has three people on its faculty.
There is considerable debate about the value of spiritual healing.
Moffitt Cancer Center's Dr. Heather Jim has studied the relationship between spirituality and cancer as well as the relationship between the body and the mind for 15 years. While studies show a patient with a positive attitude or strong spiritual beliefs can have less severe symptoms associated with cancer, she said there is no proof that spirituality of any kind can cure cancer.
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"There weren't enough studies looking at survival and recurrence to know for sure. That work still needs to be done," she said. "No studies showed tumors disappeared."
She questions Tong's assertion that a person who isn't handling high stresses in their life is more prone to cancer.
"We know people who are less stressed tend to eat better. They tend to take better care of themselves," Jim said, adding that meditation and exercise are good for the mind and body. "But cancer is a disease of DNA mutations … and environmental and genetic influences. It's not that simple."
Tampa General Hospital started an integrated health medicine program in 2004 to help manage patients' pain through a variety of means, including massage, mindful meditation and music, according to spokesman John Dunn.
"It's not a replacement for their normal medical care; it's more like an enhancement. We don't make any claims about any curative powers. The sole focus is to help patients cope with their pain," he said.
Tong has clients, such as Larry Jackson, who swear by his natural and spiritual healing. Jackson credits Tong for healing his cancer of the tongue in 2013.
"I was raised with a religious grandmother who dragged me to church every time the door opened. But once I was grown, I didn't do too much with it. My first thinking with Mark was, 'This guy is going to get on me about not going to church,'" Jackson said. "But that wasn't it. He was amazing. He teaches you how to forgive people on things and how to forgive yourself."
Tong doesn't have access to records at Utopia to know the outcome of each patient he's worked with but said he will track that at Crystal Bay. Some of his past clients have died, he said.
"But if they did pass, they passed in peace. I've had family members call me and tell me when the person came home, they were so happy and so full of joy here with stage four cancer."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.