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Healers in the Operating Room

Breast program welcomes alternative practitioners before and during breast surgery.

Sheldon Feldman
Sheldon Feldman, MD, Chief, Breast Surgery Division

Physicians, surgeons, and nursing staff at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia understand that emotional well-being plays an important role in healing, and they do as much as possible to address the full scope of patients' needs before, during, and after surgery. Sheldon Feldman, MD, Chief of the Breast Surgery Section, believes so strongly in the importance of patients' overall well-being that he is spearheading a program to welcome healers into the operating room during breast surgery.

In this program, healers such as energy workers or reiki masters may be present while a patient undergoes mastectomy or other surgical procedures. According to Dr. Feldman. "Patients may be going through very difficult problems, such as accepting the loss of a breast or the ability to breastfeed. Healers can help patients on the emotional level, which helps on the physical level. The positive impact on healing after surgery can be potentially huge."

Patient Carolyn Dwyer could not agree more. Diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in the summer of 2009, Carol enlisted the help of Reverend Diane Epstein, a longtime friend and transformational healer. Carol had previously received occasional massages from Diane, but was not aware of the full extent of Diane's healing work. Upon her diagnosis, they set to work with great focus. First, Diane helped Carol use imagery to welcome into her body the chemotherapy medications she was receiving to shrink her tumors. "I chose for these medications to save my life," Carol explains. "This was very empowering to me. All along, I wasn't nearly as wiped out by chemotherapy as other people who undergo the same treatment." She reached a point in her work with Diane that she felt the doctors were not doing things to her, but for her. The chemotherapy effectively shrunk her tumors in both breasts and her spine, where it had spread. With the tumors at their smallest, she was ready for surgery.

During Carol's double mastectomy in January 2010, Diane was present in the operating room, along with Dr. Feldman and the surgical team, doing energy work. "Dr. Feldman was focused on my body, and Diane was focused on my energy, my spirit. I felt like I was in such good hands from top to bottom," says Carol. Had she not worked with Diane, Carol believes that the entire process would have been frightening and overwhelming, and that she would not have been able to proactively direct her healing process. "I wouldn't have understood that I needed to visualize the story of my healing." Today, Carol exudes confidence, happiness, and peace. "I am fine. I honestly am fine." To hear Carol's voice leaves no doubt in one's mind that she truly is doing well and living a life of vitality.

The NYP/Columbia program carries the torch from its Integrative Medicine Program, which included healers in the operating room during heart surgery. Led by Mehmet Oz, MD for 15 years, this program in complementary medicine continues to provide massage therapy, music therapy, and other healing techniques to patients undergoing heart surgery.

"Before surgery, patients always ask what they can do to get ready, to be prepared. Working with a healer can be very helpful," says Dr. Feldman. "We instituted this program so that this option can be available to everyone who wants it, not just the exceptional patient." The program is accessible to patients of all backgrounds: like yoga, healers may assist with relaxation and energy, regardless of one's religious beliefs or affiliation.

As another patient explains it, the presence of Reiki master Raven Keyes felt like having a 'surgical doula' it made complicated procedures "not only tolerable, but a healing experience." Before her lumpectomy, this patient also read affirmations and prayers with everyone in the operating room. According to Dr. Feldman, "The team loved it. It made the whole environment more healing. It engaged the staff on a very personal level and elevated their awareness."

Both patients worked with their healers before and after surgery, but patients may choose to enlist a healer as many or as few times as they wish. They may enlist the help of Diane or Raven, who already work with Dr. Feldman's surgical team, or they may request that a new person be present, if they already have a relationship with someone. Dr. Feldman's initiative strives not only to make healers in the OR accessible to patients, but also to study the effect of healers in the OR in order to objectively measure their effect.

For information about the Breast Surgery Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, visit www.breastmd.org