Yoga, Aromatherapy Among New Offerings at Beth Israel Medical Center

Woodson Merrell, MD, and fashion designer Donna Karan with nurses from the Inpatient Cancer Unit at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.

“We believe integrative medicine can provide more optimal healing than medicine alone”, May 18, 2009, by Susan Meyers  —  Walking into Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City for the first time, you might notice a few things that appear out of the norm for a traditional hospital setting. People stroll down the hallways with dogs; small groups of musicians carry instruments, stopping at patient rooms to play a short medley of music; you might even catch a glimpse of a patient and nurse in meditation or in a yoga pose.

Integrative medicine therapies have been working their way into the mainstream of traditional medicine at Beth Israel Hospital for the past eight years, and Beth Israel is embracing it.

“This area is being driven by demand from patients and doctors,” says Richard Freeman, executive vice president and chief operation officer at Beth Israel Medical Center. “We believe there are various approaches to provide quality care to our patients. As time goes on, more and more people are choosing alternative medicine therapies in conjunction with traditional medicine. We believe that this can be an important adjunct to care that can enhance the healing process.”

Beth Israel offers integrative medicine therapies to all of its cancer patients, in combination with conventional treatments, in a yearlong pilot program to determine whether therapies such as yoga, relaxation, and breathing techniques can help alleviate common side effects of treatment such as pain, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, constipation, and fatigue. The program is being funded by Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation, which is dedicated to incorporating Eastern healing practices of yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy with Western medicine.

The foundation was created after Karan’s husband and several close friends died of cancer. During his battle with the disease, Karan’s husband used several Eastern techniques that Karan says were helpful in relieving treatment symptoms and providing inner peace. Through this pilot program, which includes a research component, the Urban Zen Foundation hopes to demonstrate that integrative therapies can work effectively in combination with chemotherapy and radiation to reduce common cancer symptoms and promote healing.

“We believe integrative medicine can provide more optimal healing than medicine alone,” says Joanne Heyman, executive director of the Urban Zen Foundation. “It has much broader applications than just treating cancer, but we wanted to focus on this disease first because of Donna’s personal connection.”

The program is providing specialized training to 15 yoga teachers who will become experts in providing therapy to non-terminal cancer patients. It focuses on yoga, aroma therapy, healing touch, nutrition, and awareness of death and dying in hospital and private settings. Training is being provided by Karan’s yoga masters, Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee, who also will oversee yoga therapy during the pilot study. Nurses on the oncology floor also are being trained in relaxation techniques including meditation, imagery, aromatherapy, and breathing.

The program also funds a nurse navigator who guides the patient and family through the medical system and orients them to services on the unit; a yoga coordinator and assistant to oversee therapies; and a research director to coordinate the research component.

Heyman says Beth Israel was particularly suited for the program because of its long-standing commitment to integrative medicine. The hospital has been offering alternative therapies to patients for many years, primarily through the Continuum Center for Health and Healing, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive academic integrative medical center. The department is headed by Woodson Merrell, MD, who has been specializing in integrative medicine therapies for more than 20 years and is one of the country’s leading experts on holistic medicine. Merrell believes there is significant evidence to validate its usefulness and that using this approach to empower the patient and provide compassionate, relationship-centered, integrative care is critical for transforming the nation’s ailing healthcare system.

Reflecting an increasing interest and growth in holistic medicine, Beth Israel’s integrative medicine center recently was elevated to departmental status, providing it with more autonomy to grow and expand.

Ed Dailey, RN, a registered yoga teacher, is one of 15 yoga instructors receiving specialized training through the Urban Zen Foundation and is a believer in the healing power of alternative medicine. A nurse for 14 years and a yoga instructor for 10 years, Dailey has seen yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation and integrative medicine provide inner strength, calmness, and healing to his patients. Since undergoing formal training, Dailey and other therapists have been offering yoga and relaxation therapies to patients on the head and neck surgical floor at Beth Israel Medical Center with positive results. The therapies are provided at the bedside, using a very flexible definition of yoga. Patients are guided through simple yoga movements and postures while never being touched by the therapist.

“It was believed we could be of service to patients prior to the start of the clinical study,” Dailey says. “We’ve provided therapy to up to 500 patients so far, and I’ve seen patients become calmer and more relaxed, sleep better, [and] experience fewer bed sores, less nausea and constipation, and less anxiety.”

For instance, breathing and relaxation techniques recently brought relief to a young father who had been diagnosed with cancer. “The family was extremely anxious and stressed,” Dailey says. “I provided relaxation interventions to him and his wife, which they now practice at home.” Dailey used the body scan relaxation technique, in which he helps the patient focus on areas of the body that have tension. “It really has a calming effect on the mind, body, and nervous system. It can help relieve stress levels, which can interfere with the healing process. They both became calmer, happier, and much less stressed.”

Dailey says the program also targets staff. “Our goal is to put health back into healthcare,” he says. “Nurses can become depleted [by the demands of their jobs]. How can they provide quality healthcare when they are depleted themselves? Our goal is to encourage staff to take short breaks throughout their day and use yoga and other relaxation techniques to reduce stress levels and re-energize.”

The oncology floor also is undergoing physical changes funded by the Urban Zen Foundation to provide a more healing environment that includes larger spaces for quiet and meditation for patients and staff. The meditation room includes banquette seating, a large flat-screen TV for imagery, and personal MP3 players for music and relaxation sessions. A small kitchenette for families also has been upgraded and expanded. In addition, a small reception area was created so when patients enter the floor, they are greeted by a patient navigator who provides floor tours and guides the patient through the care process.

Integrative medicine is a growing trend, and Heyman says she is seeing growing interest among hospitals in developing integrative medicine services. She says she expects that trend to increase as more research is unveiled that demonstrates the positive benefits of integrative medicine in relieving pain and enhancing healing.

Susan Meyer is a freelance writer.


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