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So far, the response from patients and hospital staff has been overwhelmingly positive. "We certainly both have and had our share of skeptics," says Dr. Louis Harrison, clinical director of Continuum Cancer Centers of New York, of which Beth Israel is a part. "But the more we do, and the more we see the results with our own eyes, the more the skepticism diminishes."
If seeing is believing, doing can't hurt either. So to launch the program, Karan arranged for the hospital staff including the management executives, who showed up in suits and ties to get onto a yoga mat for a daylong workshop on meditation and other alternative therapies.
That was enough to persuade the hospital to give Karan's plan a try. Greeting patients now as they arrive on the renovated floor is a sign that reads welcome to the optimal healing unit, and dispersed throughout the ninth floor are electric aromatherapy pods gently releasing a rotating assortment of soothing scents, from ylang-ylang to lavender. The most obvious new addition is a lounge designed by Karan, with bamboo walls and a cork floor, where patients, their families and the staff can meditate, practice yoga or simply escape.
In the patient rooms, yoga therapists conduct modified yoga practices with patients, many of them in their beds. Juanita Ayala, a 59-year-old grandmother of two and a breast-cancer survivor, learns to arrange pillows while lying in bed to find postures that ease her back pain. "It feels amazing," she says after a 20-minute session. "I feel like I'm floating." Even the nurses are included in the program; they participate in regular yoga sessions in the lounge and can take advantage of the aromatherapy services as well.
For the patients at Beth Israel, the additional services are free; many are enrolled in the hospital's study to measure what impact the alternative therapies have not just on a patient's state of mind but also on a patient's ability to heal and recover. If the study is successful, Karan and the team at Beth Israel hope to persuade the National Cancer Institute to fund more trials of the program at hospitals around the country. "We want to measure, describe and document the impact that an integrative approach to caring for cancer patients can actually have, so we can share that information with other hospitals," says Dr. Benjamin Kligler, research director of integrative medicine at the hospital. Kligler has culled data from the experiences of 90 patients before the renovations to the unit and will compare them with data from a similar group that was able to take advantage of the added integrative therapies. The hope is that these patients not only will feel better and potentially heal more quickly but actually may be able to reduce the amount of pain medications they take and be discharged sooner.
"We are at the seed, seed, seed level of a dream," says Karan. "Do I have all the answers? I don't. Do I have the desire and passion to make this happen? Yes. It's a journey that we have begun. We know what the problem is. We think we know what the solution is. So now we've got to manifest it." The journey, as Karan likes to say, is to be continued.