An Holistic Hospital Experience

My mom was recently hospitalized, and the biggest impediment to her recovery was the very fact of being stuck in a hospital. The sterile green walls, linoleum floors, and all-business medical staff really brought her down, and she couldn’t wait to get out of there. Luckily, her hospital stay was limited. But what about cancer patients, who are often hospitalized for extended periods?

Numerous studies have linked positive mental attitude to better health and faster healing. So if cancer patients feel as depressed as my mom did during their hospital stays, this is obviously not conducive to their recovery. This is where famous clothing designer Donna Karan and her Urban Zen Foundation come in to save the day.

An October 2008 New York Times article describes Karan’s latest charitable venture – an $850,000, yearlong program at Beth Israel Medical Center’s cancer ward. Karan, herself a yoga fanatic, became interested in how yoga could both assist in relieving cancer symptoms and enhancing standard Western treatments after watching both her husband and a dear friend battle the disease.

“Everybody was dealing with his disease,” she told the Times about her husband’s cancer experience, which sadly ended in his death in 2001 at the age of 62. “Nobody was looking at him holistically as a patient. How do you treat the patient at the mind-body level?”

To answer this question, Karan’s foundation is using yoga, aromatherapy, and feng-shui into Beth Israel’s cancer ward. Hospital employees are being encouraged to take yoga classes, so that they can feel more comfortable with the changes taking place – changes that include the deployment of 15 yoga teachers into service treating non-terminal patients, the training of the ward’s nurses in relaxation techniques, and the hiring of a yoga coordinator and “patient navigator” who will help bring the different elements of this extensive program together.

But the changes don’t end there. Even the physical structure of the cancer ward is getting a yoga-friendly overhaul: according to the Times, feng-shui guru Alex Stark and architect David Fratianne are bringing in bamboo wallpaper, cork floors, and areas that can be used as yoga and meditation “retreats” for patients and their loved ones.

This program does not exactly make for a “scientific” study, but the hope is that if the results are favorable, it will pave the way for a more holistic type of hospital care in other parts of the country. We already know that yoga can help strengthen the immune system, ease stress and depression, and hasten healing. But this program goes beyond offering a few yoga classes to patients – it reinvents the hospital experience, making it (at least in my humble opinion) a far more pleasant, uplifting experience. Even those too sick to move can reap the benefits – yoga teachers can help them breathe more easily, provide some gentle manual stretching, or guide them through healing meditations. When asked by the Times if he thought that yoga could make an impact, one doctor who tried yoga for the very first time through Karan’s program said ““I think the personal touch and the personal attention to a patient absolutely works.” Even if the program succeeds on this most basic level, it will prove that a little attention to the spirit can do wonders for the physical body.

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