Lourdes class teaches surgery patients to lower stress levels

December 15, 2011


When Joe Knorr was diagnosed with prostate cancer in August, he says he was "flooded with emotions — all of them negative.

"My dad died in hospice care from the same disease, so I knew there was nothing positive about the word 'cancer,'" recalls Knorr, 65, a stationary engineer at Camden County College in New Jersey. "I was anxious, angry and depressed."

Nevertheless, when he finished preadmission testing for a robotic prostatectomy at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden and was invited to join its free, two-hour "Prepare for Surgery" program, he wasn't sure he wanted to participate.

"The class is supposed to help patients get ready mentally and physically for surgical procedures by stressing holistic healing," he explains. "I was an Air Force medical corps technician, so I was pretty skeptical about combining mainstream and alternative medicine."

Despite his doubts, Knorr attended the workshop and listened to holistic health nurse Coleen Naylor discuss everything from breathing techniques and imagery to acutonics and reflexology.

"When she passed out rose quartz stones and worry stones, I wondered if we were going to smoke a peace pipe next," he laughs.

Still, Knorr was impressed enough to listen to Naylor's "Relax Into Healing" CD before, during and after his operation on Sept. 15. He did the suggested deep breathing, focused on the pain as instructed, and, he admits, "wore the worry rock down to a grain of sand."

Knorr's surgery and recovery went so smoothly — he was back to work by

mid-October — that he's now offered to return to Naylor's class to pass along his own post-op tips to prospective patients.

"The class is so beneficial; it's part education, part group therapy. And I've learned that holistic medicine is a whole different bear. My experience has made a believer out of me," says Knorr.

Mood improvers
Knorr's change of heart is not surprising to Naylor, 59, who has been offering the "Prepare for Surgery" program at Our Lady of Lourdes since 2004. "The mind and spirit have a powerful influence on our physical health," she says. "When you engage in relaxation techniques, you benefit from increased endorphins that work to not only improve your mood, but also strengthen your body's immune system."

Naylor, a graduate of Lourdes' nursing school, has worked at the medical center for 21 years, spending much of her time in cardiac units and in outpatient cardiac rehabilitation. Her experiences in caring for heart patients is what first led her to explore holistic healing techniques at the Lourdes Wellness Center, she says. The center is an off-campus site offering programs and education.

"When I began my nursing career, I noticed that when I was assigned to the night shift, where I generally had more time to talk with patients, I could help reduce their anxiety simply by allowing them to tell me their story and then comforting them," she said. "I knew then that I needed to learn more about the mind-body connection."

Over the next 18 years, Naylor studied everything from massage and meditation to energy work and therapeutic touch. And as she incorporated some of those practices into her nursing, she saw patients benefit in a number of ways.

"Alternative techniques helped with everything from lowering blood pressure to managing pain, controlling nausea or constipation and improving postsurgical stamina — all without standard medications," she says.

Evidence-based techniques
Naylor's personal observations about improved patient outcomes with holistic healing have been reinforced by investigations conducted at leading research institutes, from the division of behavioral medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center — a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School — to the Preventative Medicine Research Institute in San Francisco, led by Dr. Dean Ornish. Study after study shows that relaxation training can be used as effective therapy for ailments from mild hypertension to insomnia, emphysema, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic, severe pain linked to back problems, kidney dialysis and cancer chemotherapy.

In 2003, Naylor was given a $40,000 grant to design a pilot education program for open-heart surgery candidates at Lourdes. She divided patients into two groups, one that received training in relaxation techniques and another that served as a control group. She found that patients from the holistically trained group had less post-op complications, were released from the hospital 2.4 days earlier than patients in the control group, and had a better sense of ownership in their own health.

Those results helped Naylor design her "Prepare for Surgery" program, offered first to joint replacement and bariatric patients and then gradually expanded to include all patients preparing for a hospital admission for a scheduled surgery. The class, offered from 10 a.m. until noon four days a week, mixes general information about hospital stays with specific relaxation techniques patients learn to employ before, during and after surgery.

"Knowledge fosters comfort as well as empowerment for patients," says Naylor.

Setting expectations
Generally, she divides her class into two, one-hour segments. The first hour she gives patients practical tips about what to pack for the hospital, why they may find themselves wearing compression boots or using incentive spirometers after their operations, and how to prepare their homes to create healing environments after surgery. The second half she delves into therapeutic ways to cope with anxiety, with lessons in deep breathing, imagery, meditation and more. All participants receive a copy of

Naylor's CD to help them prepare mentally for their medical procedures.

When Ed Pierzynski, 62, a retired business executive from the greater Philadelphia area, was told he needed triple bypass surgery last spring, he says he "unfortunately" knew what to expect as a hospital patient. For one thing, his wife, Susan Pierzynski, is a retired operating room nurse at Our Lady of Lourdes. And he had already experienced hospital stays for cardiac stent and gallbladder surgeries. But his interest in "new age" medicine — he was already dabbling in alternative techniques like aromatherapy — piqued his interest in Naylor's "Relax Into Healing" CD and her suggestions for controlling pain through guided imagery.

"Without the positive reinforcement I got from the CD, I think I would have been freaking out before surgery. And the

anxiety-relieving techniques really helped with my recovery as well," he says.

"Ed is a very high-stress, Type A personality," confirms his wife. "The positive mental picture Coleen provided helped give him the right frame of mind to get through the procedure and heal quickly."

And that, of course, is exactly the reason Our Lady of Lourdes supports Naylor's innovative program.

"The core of the hospital's mission is to treat people in a holistic manner," says Naylor. (The hospital spells holistic with a "w," as wholistic, to emphasize it is caring for the whole person.) "Every aspect of our patients' well-being is important to us — not just their physical body, but their emotional, mental and spiritual state as well."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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