Holistic nursing: The focus is on compassionate care, for the patient, as well as the practitioner

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  • Veda Andrus, left, and Marie Shanahan, who are the vice president and president/CEO of The BirchTree Center for Healthcare Transformation, respectively, work at their office in Florence. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marie Shanahan, left, and Veda Andrus, who are the president/CEO and vice president of The BirchTree Center for Healthcare Transformation, respectively, work at their office in Florence. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Veda Andrus, left, and Marie Shanahan, are the vice president and president/CEO, respectively, of The BirchTree Center for Healthcare Transformation in Florence which trains nurses in the holistic specialty. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Veda Andrus, left, and Marie Shanahan, are the vice president and president/CEO of The BirchTree Center for Healthcare Transformation, respectively, at their office in Florence. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Veda Andrus, left, and Marie Shanahan, are the vice president and president/CEO of The BirchTree Center for Healthcare Transformation, respectively, at their office in Florence. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Diane Carter-DiPietro, left, of Westfield, and Paula Gudell, of Sunderland, sample a scent from a vial of oil during "Essential Oils for Weight Loss Support", a class offered by Nora Zinan, a holistic nurse, at Pioneer Valley Ideal Weight Loss and Wellness in Hadley. Zinan is the owner of Western Massachusetts Natural Health and Wellness. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vials of scented oil rest on a table during a class offered by holistic nurse Nora Zinan called "Essential Oils for Weight Loss Support". JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nora Zinan, a holistic nurse, speaks during her class titled "Essential Oils for Weight Loss Support" at Pioneer Valley Ideal Weight Loss and Wellness in Hadley. While using alternative health methods is part of holistic nursing, the bedrock is basic nursing principles: being grounded, fully present, to create an environment for active listening, healing and compassionate care. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paula Gudell, left, of Sunderland, and Diane Carter-DiPietro, of Westfield, attend a class on essential oils taught by Nora Zinan, center, a holistic nurse at Pioneer Valley Ideal Weight Loss and Wellness in Hadley. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nora Zinan, a holistic nurse, speaks during her class titled "Essential Oils for Weight Loss Support" at Pioneer Valley Ideal Weight Loss and Wellness in Hadley. While using alternative health methods is part of holistic nursing, the bedrock is basic nursing principles: being grounded, fully present, to create an environment for active listening, healing and compassionate care. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nora Zinan holds a package of essential oils during her class in Hadley, April 24. JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 6/5/2017 3:00:53 PM

Not long ago, the term holistic nursing would raise eyebrows.

In the ’70s and early ’80s it was an underground movement, says Marie Shanahan, a holistic nurse who trains practitioners at the BirchTree Center for Healthcare Transformantion which she founded in Florence. “People thought it was touchy feely voodoo.”

Even today, though it is recognized as a legitimate nursing specialty by the American Nurses’ Association (ANA), many people remain confused, she says. Some assume it focuses on alternative methods like herbal treatments, reiki, aromatherapy or tai chi which it does not, says Veda Andrus, vice president, education and program development for the BirchTree Center.

“There is still this myth that you must learn one or all of these modalities to be a holistic nurse, and that is not true,” she said.

Yes, those practices can be part of it, Andrus says, but they aren’t the bedrock upon which holistic nursing rests. A holistic nurse must be grounded, fully present, and create an environment for active listening, healing and compassionate care, she says. The American Holistic Nurses’ Association (AHNA) defines the practice as “healing the whole person as its goal.”

According to the organization, holistic nurses are legally licensed nurses who use their knowledge, expertise and training, in a way that demonstrates authentic compassion, respect, understanding and focus that values and acknowledges each person’s physical, mental, emotional, cultural, spiritual and environmental circumstances.

Getting back to basics

Shanahan and Andrus, who each have received the American Holistic Nurses Association’s Holistic Nurse of the Year award, were part of a panel at Elms College in Chicopee recently to talk to nurses about the specialty. The speakers also included Jan Lucier, assistant clinical professor of nursing at Elms.

Holistic nursing is not as much about what one does, but rather how she or he does it, the women told their listeners. It encompasses education, communication, self-help, nutrition, medication and a host of complementary treatments such as massage, breathing techniques, yoga and meditation, among others. It is designed to provide safe, professional patient care while ensuring that an individual feels heard, understood, accepted and valued as a full human being and not just seen as an illness to treat, they said.

While holistic nursing as a specialty for health-care practitioners might be new, it is actually deeply rooted in the traditional core values of nursing.

“Really, holistic nursing is about getting back to basics,” Shanahan said.

Often lost in the demanding, fast-paced, technologically dominated and profit-driven arena of modern health care, are the human connection and compassion that are key to the healing equation in the holistic approach.

And a big part of that, Andrus says, is teaching nurses to take the time to take care of themselves so they can be fully attentive to their patients.

“The fact is that nurses are still 93 percent women. In our western culture we are taught to care for children, significant others, husbands, wives, pets, friends, our churches, synagogues and what have you, while self-care might come in at about number 13 on the list,” she said.

The problem, she noted, is that a nurse who is stressed, tired or angry, who has not taken a break, or has low blood sugar because she hasn’t had a chance to eat all day, is not going to be able to provide quality patient care or have quality relationships with colleagues.

Nurses and other medical professionals too often seem too rushed to introduce themselves, fail to explain their role or even make eye contact, the panelists said. They don’t smile or appear caring, pay more attention to a computer than the person being treated, ignore family members, and focus primarily on the task at hand rather than the patient.

Clinical Nurse Supervisor Kerry-Beth Garvey, an audience member who works in a Northampton medical practice, said she is familiar with those situations.

“At times, I have unfortunately had more kind recognition and genuine attention from servers in a restaurant than from a medical care giver,” she said. “There is something wrong when a meal is served with more intention and care than you get from a person with whom you entrust your health when you are vulnerable and in need of help.”

Still, she and other nurses at the talk, were quick to point out that the rigorous demands of the profession can make it difficult not to become “task oriented.”

“The bottom line is that we have been given a lot of support to take care of everyone else, so there is a lot of fatigue and burnout and we find that we are not able to do the kind of quality work that we want to,” Andrus said.

And that is where the real work of holistic nursing comes into play.

Self-care key

Once characterized as selfish, particularly in nursing circles, nurse well-being has been reframed by holistic nursing as an integral component of compassionate professional care for others.

“Holistic nursing is not only about the nurse and her or his way of practice, but how they are in the world,” Andrus said.

Holistic nurses are trained to learn and use holistic principles and philosophies to facilitate self-care, self-reflection and self-responsibility, in their daily lives as well as in clinical practice. Andrus and Shanahan say that this helps them to be compassionate, authentic and effective healers, able to handle the stress of their jobs and to model healthier behaviors for their patients and colleagues.

Shanahan, who has been a nurse for 40 years and is also a reiki master/teacher, said that after integrating holistic principles into her life she morphed from a type A person to a more relaxed, focused, present, joyful being and began to bring that into her practice.

Spreading the word

The BirchTree Center provides continuing education for nurses in the holistic approach and integrative health, leading to board certification.

The center also assists healthcare organizations to re-orient their values, behaviors and group practice ethics, by helping them create positive work environments.

Shanahan said the center has worked with organizations such as the Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Boston University Medical Center, The Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Illinois and New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

“We have trained over 10,000 nurses both on an individual basis and within health care organizations,” she said, noting that programs typically take between six to 10 months to complete.

Registered nurses trained as holistic nurses not only apply the principles to patient care, but also take those skills into their organizations and institutions to advance the practice.

Cathy Alvarez, an RN and board-certified holistic nurse, who works as the assistant patient services manager at Yale New Haven Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Center, is a BirchTree certified grad who did that.

“If I am that nurse with her hair on fire, my nurses are never going to take care of themselves,” Alvarez said during the panel discussion. “If we as individuals are not taking care of ourselves we can’t expect others to do so.”

Alvarez oversees a monthly retreat called “Nurture the Nurse” that helps nurses learn how to feel healthier, revitalized and better able to avoid burnout at work.

At the retreats, participants learn self-care through a variety of methods that can include good nutrition, yoga, self-reflection, movement, discussion, presentations, journaling and guided imagery.

The hospital supports the program, and nurses who attend one of the eight-hour retreats earn six continuing education credits.

“It’s about time that people stop thinking that holistic nursing is some “woo-woo out-there practice” when what it is, is good nursing,” Garvey said adding that she plans to pursue holistic nursing certification.

Standard for all

Non-nurses at the Elms talk were impressed by what they heard. Alicia Bernard, 33, of Enfield, Connecticut was there with a friend, who is a nurse. Bernard said that she believes holistic nursing should be the standard for all nurses. She said she is grateful that she was cared for by a holistic nurse following a skiing accident in Colorado. “It made a huge difference in my sense of trust, my feeling of safety, and the confidence I had in the quality of care,” she said.

The recognition and practice of compassionate, mindful and intentional care to bring about healing and overall well-being seems like a win-win for both patients and practitioners.

“Some day I hope we will be able to drop the word holistic and call it “nursing” because that is really what nursing is,” Andrus said.

Fran Ryan is freelance writer who lives in Easthampton.




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