Judy Hilyard, a registered nurse at Ashland Community Hospital, conducts reiki therapy on knee-surgery patient Kay Cutter. The practitioners of this Japanese alternative therapy believe they are transferring healing energy to the patient. - Photos by Jim Craven

Hospitable Hospital

Maybe it's a stereotype, but the place where you're supposed to do some of your biggest healing — the hospital — has a long-running reputation as a sterile environment with bad food and a devotion only to technology-based treatments, with nothing too warm and fuzzy.

Well, take another look. Hospitals more and more are evolving into places for "complementary medicine," meaning that alternative treatments such as massage, music, guided imagery and organic, locally grown food are complementing regular medical treatment.

At Ashland Community Hospital, a broad-based complementary team of nurses, staff members and alternative treatment volunteers from the community are providing a range of supra-scientific modalities, such as reiki (Japanese hands-on stress reduction), healing touch and aromatherapy.

If it sounds magical, well, maybe it is. An array of nurses and patients swear by it. Take aromatherapy, for instance. Hospital practitioners have found that nausea is helped by essential oils of ginger and peppermint, nervousness is reduced by cedarwood or lavender and relaxation is enhanced by bergamot or frankincense.

These alternative healing modes are not a fringe, sometimes thing. They're based on the 30-year-old Planetree model and are offered to everyone — including the entire hospital staff. All 435 ACH employees attend a day-long, quarterly workshop on such modalities at EdenVale Winery.

"It's a way to treat the whole person," says Kathi Wilcox, vice president for organizational transformation. "People are more than their body. We're recognizing the body, mind and spirit as part of the healing environment."

The Planetree model addresses the personal and spiritual needs of patients and their families, bringing artists-in-residence and art carts (with music CDs, art supplies and books) to bedsides and waiting rooms, which have been renamed "comfort zones" and supplied with large-screen TVs, Internet, pull-out couches and a refrigerator full of microwaveable meals.

In larger comfort zones, you'll usually find live harp or guitar music. A health information center invites patients and family members to broaden knowledge in a library and on the Internet — as well as to send e-mails.

You'd naturally expect every little courtesy to show up on your medical bill, but it doesn't. It's all performed by volunteers, including professionals in the alternative healing fields.

ACH is responding to the regional market, which is becoming more and more sophisticated in self-healing with alternative modalities, says reiki master and intensive-care nurse Judy Hilyard, co-facilitator of the ACH complementary therapy effort.

"These are ways to treat the whole person. Scientific medicine is wonderful, and we don't try to do without it in any way," says Hilyard. "But people are a lot more than their physical bodies. They need a healing environment that recognizes things like color, lighting, comfort of seating and also takes care of family members."

"It (reiki) relaxes me, gives me a sense of well-being. I got a shoulder massage before it, very nice," says patient Kay Cutter, following knee replacement. "I got healing touch, too. All the people who come in to do massage therapy are very nice."

While hospital food has never tended to win medals, ACH wants to break that stereotype, noting in its brochure on patient-centered care that nutrition is critical to healing — and food must be a source of "pleasure, comfort and familiarity."

"You can eat what you want, when you want it," the brochure reads.

The hospital recognizes that people follow many spiritual paths, especially in a town as diverse as Ashland, and offers a meditation room and other resources "for reflection and support of your spiritual needs."

Some tools, like guided-imagery CDs, spoken by nurse Jodine Turner, offer the soothing sound of ocean waves and verbally suggest relaxation, lessening of anxiety, decreased pain, rapid healing and less bleeding during surgery.

"It suggests blood go away from the area during surgery, then come back afterward to heal the area. The anxiety level goes down," says Hilyard. "The research says it cuts the hospital stay by one day."

At a recent training, clinical aromatherapists Caryn Gehlmann and K.G. Stiles trained ACH staff members in aromatherapy.

While inducing mood states by smelling may seem a stretch to some, the practice goes back 2,000 years and has a scientific basis, as it "triggers neural receptor response," says Gehlmann.

"The (medical) industry is seeing patients spending more money on alternatives like this, and CEOs are seeing the results — the bodies respond better in a calm state," Gehlmann says.

"It results in less pain meds and quicker recovery time," adds Stiles.

The Planetree philosophy, according to its Web site, was founded in 1978 as a holistic way to ensure quality health care by using compassion, caring, freedom of choice, full knowledge of health information and addressing the needs, not just of the body, but also of the mind and spirit.

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