“So What Is It, Exactly, That You Do?” Reflections on Hospital-Based Holistic Medicine

I didn't always know what response I would get from other health care practitioners when I showed up in a patient's room. A referral would come in from a nurse or doctor stating, "Patient in such-and-such room is really anxious, can someone from your team come up and work your magic?"

And I, or one of my colleagues, would show up at the patient's bedside, prepared to re-direct their attention away from pain, anxiety, or insomnia with an array of "mind-body medicine" tools.

At times I wore a white lab coat, black shoes, and put my hair up, and would be mistakenly addressed as "Doctor." At other times, I wore "business-casual" and entered the patient's room with a certitude that I belonged there, no matter how I looked or what letters were behind my name.

But then, there were the times where I realized I had been holding my breath (the antithesis of what I was there to teach others), waiting for the doctor or surgeon to kick me out of the patient's room once he or she entered.

As a trained social worker, I was used to working with people in crisis, employing active listening skills, and allocating resources. But my role at NYU Langone Medical Center differed from previous jobs I'd had in large institutions.

Stranger in a Strange Land

I was brought in primarily for my expertise as a yoga & meditation instructor, as an ambassador of the holistic paradigm and its application in clinical settings. The directive of NYU Langone's new Department of Integrative Health Programs (initially the Mindbody Education & Patient Care Program) was to treat patients, care partners, and staff with mind-body healing modalities.

To my surprise, most of the physicians, if not all of them, were happy to see me, often bidding me to stay—sometimes even deferring to my presence with the patient, saying they would return after I was done with my "relaxation session."

The surgeon would tilt his head to the side, look down at the patient and intone, "The Relaxation Therapist will work with you for a while now, and I'll be back in a few minutes to check on you."

I would be laughing internally at the sound of that description, but grateful to be acknowledged at all.

Of course, many times, no one knew quite how to describe me to their patients, nor could I always find the right words to succinctly explain what was my role at the hospital and how I could help them.

Presence as Medicine

Often, nurses would glance at me when I entered the room, look down at my nametag and title, and then back at my face with a blank look. Health Educator: Integrative Health Department, my tag read.

"Are you a nurse?" They would ask. Or there would just be plain confusion, "What is it exactly you do?"

I would find myself prevaricating, trying to come up with what sounded like the most legitimate, medically viable job description. "I work with the Department of Integrative Health Programs. We do mind body modalities. You know, Integrative Health."

Sometimes their faces would go from blank to confused. "So you do massage then?"

No. Not really.

How to explain what I did, exactly?

I was present with people. Sat with them. Listened to them. Guided them into deep relaxation. Taught them to meditate, breathe deeply, to let go of fears and anxiety. I saw myself as a bridge to presence, to an experience of love, self-awareness and human connection. I helped people transcend the momentary situation, to go beyond the circumstances by focusing their mind on the positive, on beauty, on things they were grateful for.

I recall visiting one patient at the bedside shortly after he was discharged from surgery. He was trying his best to get some sleep in the midst of a cacophony of machinery, moans of other patients, and a haze of break-through pain. It's hard to imagine sleep even being possible in such circumstances, yet after leading him through deep breathing and guided imagery, I remember him drifting off to sleep, a barely imperceptible smile on his face.

Together with my colleagues who were mostly nurses trained in integrative modalities such as Reiki, I offered services that addressed the mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional levels of the person. For some, I was the "relaxations." For others, an angel. I was, for many, "that young woman who came yesterday who does the meditation. Can you ask her to come again? I felt so much better after our session."

Much of my time was also taken up with the Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster™ workshops I did for people before surgery, giving them hour-long hypnosis sessions, combined with other mind-body techniques, like guided imagery and relaxation breathing. I also taught gentle yoga to groups of outpatients, guided the staff in weekly meditation sessions, and gave weekly creative movement classes to women with disabilities.

Overcoming Doubt

Despite the frequent positive feedback with which patients often showered me, I sometimes labored under a belief that my talents and services were somehow less valuable than those of doctors or nurses, or at least that's how I thought I was being perceived in the pecking order of the hospital environment.

It took some time and a lot of positive reflection from my colleagues before my confidence increased. Their feedback was invaluable on a personal and professional level.

I remember a particularly challenging wound debridement case, in which the patient was screaming in agony. I was called in to help her relax during the procedure, in part so she wouldn't move as much during the delicate process.

Standing alongside the patient's bed while the nurses worked on her, I gently guided her through deep diaphragmatic breathing, counting down muscle tension, and distracting her from the pain by asking her to visualize her favorite place (a common guided imagery technique). I had her describe in detail her last vacation, from the sounds at the beach, to the color of the water and sky. At one point, she gripped my hand and said, "Thank you so much, you're an angel. May the Lord bless you for helping me."

This alone made me very happy to hear, but then later, one of the head nurses came up to me and thanked me. "You made our job so much easier. We're lucky to have you. You're a real healer for all of us."

That was the day I truly felt like an integral part of the team, one of the finest examples of interdisciplinary collaboration I experienced during my tenure at NYU. I left knowing that even the simplest intervention has an impact, both on the patient and on the other medical staff.

I learned that even if the letters after my name weren't "MD," my contribution held its own in the hospital environment--for both patients and staff.

I have since left my position at NYU Langone Medical Center to start SOMA Wellness Arts, my own practice. But I am forever grateful for the countless positive experiences I had in my time at NYU Langone—experiences that serve as fuel to encourage further interdisciplinary collaboration with conventionally trained medical professionals.

Mutual respect seems to be the key, and everyone stands to benefit.

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Anita Boeninger, BSW, RYT, is a New York City-based integrative health educator with a background in Clinical Social Work, Mind-Body Therapies, Performing Arts, and Somatic Movement Education. She was a Heath Educator in the Department of Integrative Health Programs at NYU Langone Medical Center for nearly five years, and is the founder of SOMA Wellness Arts, using a range of mind-body modalities to connect clients with their innate healing intelligence and full potential. She specializes in working with clients to increase body-mind integration for vibrant health, creativity and heightened somatic intelligence. Anita was a recent guest on the Dr. Oz show & Dr. Radio.
www.somawellnessarts.com