Touch Me, Heal Me

in Features

In the beige glow of an operating room at Yale- New Haven Hospital, doctors lean over the body of Ken Welch, a 61 year-old New Haven resident with colon cancer. Nurses, anesthesiologists, and assistants are present, aides to the invasive procedure. Among them is Claire Bessinger; and although she is not a medical practitioner, like the surgeons she is here to heal. The patient cannot speak for himself now, but before the surgery was scheduled, he asked Claire—his Reiki Master—to be present from pre-op to recovery room. For her, it is an awesome privilege: During the surgery, she performs Reiki on Ken, using touch to harness the natural energy of his body, so that it might respond more positively to this trauma and heal. At one point, the surgeon turns to Claire and asks: “Claire, would you please tell everyone here what it is you’re doing and how it helps.” Claire is using her fingers. The surgeons are using forceps. In this one small operating room, East meets West.

It is speculated that the Reiki technique originated in the distant traditions of Buddhist, Tibetan, and perhaps even Christian monks, who used soft touch and massage to relax and heal the body with its own natural energies. A Japanese term for spiritually guided life and universal force energy, Reiki was conceived in its modern form by Dr. Mikao Usui. His Usui System of Natural Healing outlines a series of tenets for the practice of Reiki based on a mystical experience he had on Mount Karuma in 1914. Today, it’s practiced at Yale-New Haven in a fledgling program that may change the way the hospital relates to its patients.

* * *

Having Reiki during his surgery was an obvious choice for Ken. As one of Claire’s disciples, he experienced the power of Reiki during training sessions. He had practiced it on his wife—improving her knees, reducing her headaches, relieving her aches, and putting her to sleep. Last February, when Ken had a colon resection at Yale-New Haven, the doctor, he says, was not his only “advocate.” Claire was by his side from the moment he arrived at the hospital. “I was not anxious once Claire got started. I felt more confident that things would go right—there was a sense that my body would be less traumatized and it certainly reduced my stress,” he recalls ten months later.

Though he cannot definitively say that the duration of his hospital stay was shorter because of Reiki, Ken strongly believes “Reiki played a role in the speeding up of the healing. Yes, the Reiki has an effect on the body.” In spite of the skepticism it inspires, who can say Ken’s triumph is not due to the contribution of Reiki? “People look at me and say ‘you look great.’ I have a sense that it’s all behind me and I have thirty or forty years ahead of me.”

Reiki, as conceptualized by Dr. Usui, was intuitive—it was, after all, based on a mystical experience. But after its arrival in the United States, the healing methodology became more structured. Today, Reiki has been lumped together with other Complementary Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies, such as aromatherapy and herbal baths. None of these therapies is ailment specific, which is why I’ve tried them; they are general medical practices that promote relaxation and relief. Call me a Zen seeker, trendy, or Type A, but I have been known to seek out treatments that promise this kind of healing. So though I have never needed them to cure illness, having healing hands on my body is something I’ve grown used to. Reiki, however, was new to me, and, like all choosy consumers, I was skeptical. I had never tried acupuncture or hypnosis, and Reiki seemed closer to these less mainstream, but potentially more powerful therapies. Burdened with preconceptions, I set off to determine if it was the answer to my quest for calm. Theoretically, anyone will benefit from Reiki—even me. Ken certainly believed in its power. Maybe I could too.

* * *

The Amadeus Center for Health and Healing where Amanda Wilson works is a scene that aligns closely with stereotypes of alternative therapy. Inside the small cottage-turned-wellness center, shelf upon shelf is weighed down by herbs, vitamins, potions, creams, salves, oils, and pills: diabetes control, diet formula, diet support, muscle-joint support, digestive system, allergy and sinus, cold and flu relief, immune builders, mood support, Chinese herbs. Welsh musician Enya’s “Smooth Operator” lulls in the background. I look up at the “Evergain Chi Machine.” It is on sale for $249—a hundred dollar discount. Too bad I don’t know what it does.

Centers like Amadeus, though perhaps not as pretty, have cropped up throughout the Elm City, responding to a need and reacting to a trend. On a simple level, wellness centers are havens from the rigors of the everyday world, luring stressed-out seekers like me. They also cater to the popularity of “alternative,” organic, and holistic lifestyles that have become more mainstream in the past two decades. But there is a wider context for the prevalence of the CAM industry rooted in its tenuous relationship with Western medicine and the evolution of that relationship over time. People have been using Chinese herbs for centuries. But recently, with the health care industry, and specifically pharmaceutical companies, driving costs up, CAM therapies have become a popular alternative to expensive traditional medicine. The bottom line is that, at least psychologically, you will feel better after one affordable hour spent with an acupuncturist than you would after ten pricy minutes spent with an internist. On the one hand, CAM therapies are seeking a marriage with Western medicine. On another, they are seeking a divorce.

Though she was raised in the Methodist Church—her father was a pastor—Amanda has found a new source of spiritual strength in Reiki. It’s not necessarily religious, but there is an otherworldly component. “The great thing about Reiki and giving Reiki is that you’re always receiving as you’re giving.,” she said. “So the energy works through me as well as through the client. So I’m being healed as I’m healing.”

Amanda leads me into a candlelit room permeated by the scent of burnt sage and the harmonies of a “Reiki CD,” which she pops into an unobtrusive stereo. I take off my shoes and slide onto the treatment table. She covers me with a blanket, and I stifle a giggle. This is my first Reiki treatment, and I am determined to take it seriously. I try to relax my smile and let myself be taken in by the walls of the tiny treatment room. It takes a few moments. I never seem to feel anxious being worked on by the hands of an unfamiliar massage therapist. But lying in the dim pink light, I am not only fully clothed, but covered. It is the anticipation of the unknown that wrestles my mind.

Eyes closed, Amanda works down my chakras, sacred centers of my body that correlate to colors, feelings, and physical symptoms. These energy hot-spots are an important element of Reiki for Amanda. Sometimes she touches me lightly, other times her hands hover a few inches away from my body, redistributing my energy. I feel force and heat. “I’m just a conduit,” she says softly.

Time passes, and Amanda quietly finishes her work. While I attempt to rouse my limbs from the slumber they have slipped into, Amanda begins to offer me her diagnosis— what she felt and then dealt with during my treatment. I’m surprised— apparently, she has treated problems I did not know I had. She tells me I have an excess of energy in my throat center—it is blue in color and is associated with one’s ability to communicate. That seems reasonable. But, she says, there are blockages in my sacral center below the navel, and at my solar plexus. Blockages indicate a problem with the function associated with that chakra, like the throat and communication. The blockage in my sacral, Amanda tells me, may indicate turmoil in the way I relate to my family and friends, and on a physical level, may be connected to menstrual stress. The solar plexus relates to self-love, self-esteem, the color yellow, the number three, and digestion. My blockage means I am struggling with deficiencies or conflicts in these matters. I have an easy time putting all the pieces together; her diagnosis does seem plausible. But I can’t help but think that, like the prophecy of a fortuneteller shuffling through clients, her words are so general, they could apply to anyone.

“There is probably a psychosomatic component to all of this, but that’s not a bad thing,” says Amanda. The purple amethyst dangling from the pale skin of her neck sways to the sound of her melodious voice. Amanda came to Reiki by chance, an incident that helped her heal the wounds of a traumatic childhood. “It is a divine energy that is brought through the practitioner through the hands and into the client. But it’s believed that they don’t even need to believe in the energy in order for it to work,” she says compellingly, “because it’s always working.”

Amanda uses Reiki energy to heal the wounds of the everyday world. She had a client who was struggling to sell her New Haven home; Amanda did Reiki on the house—in a meditative state, visualizing the house and drawing certain symbols in the air—and it sold. When she is not at Amadeus, she sends distance treatments to the healing center in this same way—so that business will be sound. The power of Reiki helps her sister with adult ADD achieve a meditative state. “AIDS, HIV, cancer, all kinds of different pain, emotional physical— I would love to see Reiki be more of the number one healing modality used,” says Amanda passionately. “It’s helpful because it’s not invasive and you can experience change without feeling traumatic effects.” Here, at my first Reiki session, I did experience change. I don’t know if Amanda illuminated my wanting chakras with energy, but I did feel a sense of calm.

* * *

Amanda had told me, “You can’t OD on Reiki,” so that afternoon I drive across New Haven for more, without feeling like a junkie. For Claire Bessinger, Ken’s Reiki Master, the sense of intuition and mysticism associated with Reiki is secondary: Its power and importance lies in its physicality and palpability. Claire does not have to tell me that. It is evident in the way she guides her hands to specific points on my body, as I lie on the examination table in the quiet darkness with only the sound of Claire’s bare feet pattering on the linoleum. I breathe deeply. This afternoon, I am completely at ease, though it was only several minutes ago that this woman, now using her hands to generate heat in an area near my breasts, greeted me for the first time.

We meet in her office at 100 Church Street, where she has worked at Yale Medical Publications for 17 years. After a brief exchange, she leads me down several passageways into a harshly lit elevator. We are going to a quiet place, a room where she will give me a 35-minute Reiki treatment. She opens a door and reveals ten mock examination beds, with shiny instruments protruding like mangled limbs. It is a laboratory where, two hours later, obstetrics gynecology students from UConn Medical School will rehearse examinations and deliveries. Had I not experienced Reiki for the first time earlier that morning, I would have thought I was in for the worst.

Claire came to Reiki when she was training to be a volunteer at the Connecticut hospice in Branford in 2000. In February 2001, she continued her training at a public and optional class offered at the Yale School of Nursing. After that class, Claire was Reiki “one and two,” having mastered the second of four levels or attunements. “I said ‘this is really great.’ And I could go out and start using Reiki on my family, my friends, my cats, whatever,” she says. “And that’s what I did.” But a year later, Claire wanted to do more with the new power she had tapped into. “During that year, some of the women I met in that class who were at the School of Nursing started to notice changes in me, just a different intensity in my life and a different focus, and I started to evolve into who I am now.”

If she had a second official position at Yale, in addition to her role at Yale Medical Publications, Claire might be “Sterling Master of the Arts in Reiki.” Claire is behind the Reiki at reading week’s Wellness Program and other similar programs sponsored by the Hall of Graduate Studies and the Yale Health Plan. She is also an instructor for the program at Yale- New Haven Hospital which sends volunteer Reiki practitioners into the oncology clinic, cardiology, rehab, and the long-term medicine wards. Unlike Amanda’s working conditions, at the hospital it is mandatory that Reiki therapists touch their patients: “Reiki can be done above the body in the energy field. I don’t teach that way; I wasn’t taught that way,” says Claire matter-of-factly. “No matter how a practitioner was taught, we ask them to use touch. A hospital isn’t going to be receptive of Reiki that doesn’t involve touch or you go around waving your arms in the air doing things.” In the hospital, Claire believes Reiki is an affirmation of the power of touch, an emotional association between the medical world and the patient: “For a patient in a hospital, if all you have is 30 seconds to hold their hand, it’s going to be a powerful experience… A patient who has a need is going to draw that energy in that thirty seconds much faster.”

Thirty-five minutes later, in quiet repose on the examination table in the basement of 100 Church Street, I feel relaxed and warm—not sleepy. Claire finishes quietly and tells me to take my time getting up.

“It’s really allowing the person,” she whispers, “I don’t heal you. What Reiki does is allow you to heal yourself from within. It’s not me—I just bring it to you.”

I lay motionless for a few minutes contemplating my status. I had a basis for comparison. And though the treatments I received were different, I felt peaceful after both sessions—an extreme state of relaxation that I had never experienced before, or at least not frequently enough to identify it.

* * *

Claire perceives Reiki as “basic simple energy work,” and Amanda sees it as a “healing modality”; but to Sal Amadeo, Amanda’s boss and the owner of Amadeus Center for Health and Healing, and Amanda’s boss, CAM therapy is a science and a business. When I ask him if he’s a doctor, his answer is serious and brisk: “Oh yeah, I’m definitely a doctor. People call me doctor all the time.” Sal Amadeo practices energy medicine. But as obvious as his credentials may seem, watching him do a treatment forces one to admit that there is a methodology to his work that yields a very specific outcome. It may not be science as I know it, but it scientifically achieves its objectives. The word “doctor” can perhaps be used as a relative term: Sal is a doctor of the type of medicine he practices— an expert, an innovator, an authority.

Energy medicine is a synthesis of CAM therapies, incorporating Reiki, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, acupuncture, alchemy, an herb called Moxa, Edgar Casey formulas, and never limiting itself to one. “It’s the combination of tools I have in my toolbox that makes it unique,” Sal says. “Doctors tell me this is real medicine… It’s a whole system.” Sal knows that what people like about energy medicine it is the fact that no two patients are treated alike. “If my medicine were covered by insurance, it would be difficult for you to get an appointment in a timely fashion,” he says prophetically. His opinion gets back to the dilemma of Western medicine: Rising prices are driving people towards cheaper new age therapies that they may not fully understand, but that make them feel better. “I’m just working my business… I need to make a living; I need to pay my bills.” Sal says he’s not even sure if his business is making money—but he is smart. By anticipating a trend, he may be on the cusp of success.

But for the moment, he can only do what he does best: heal. A young woman has arrived at Amadeus Healing Center looking distraught and appointment- less, so Sal agrees to squeeze her in—an unlikely leniency at a traditional doctor’s office—and ushers me into the treatment room with him. She is feeling very emotional about things. I set myself in the corner of the room, which is decorated with Native American regalia— feathers, hides—and dotted with all kinds of bottles and what I can only guess are Sal’s “tools.” First a diagnosis: He palpates her abdomen to find the tender spots and concludes, “She is very stressed.” Next, he takes her pulse, looks for a balance between the carotid and radial arteries, and it becomes very obvious to him to that the left side of her body is imbalanced. His movements are quick but meticulous. He scuffles around, grabs something from a shelf, and opens a box with small silver and gold press-tacks. He rips the plastic packaging open with his teeth, extracts the tacks, and presses them into her fingers, palm side up. He repeats this several times, a practice that gives new meaning to the word “thumb-tack.”

I could never have anticipated what he does next. He grabs a needle gun, tells the patient to “breathe in,” and shoots an acupuncture needle between the two tacks. “This is going to help her with anxiety… balance the root of her problem… and also address the symptom,” he says, eyes on the patient—who has hers closed tight. In the corner, awestruck, afraid to ask if it hurts, I just nod, as I position my chair so the patient can rest her needle-ridden arm on it.

“If I had more time, I would put castor oil on her abdomen with white wool flannel; but because I don’t have enough time, I’m just going to use a lamp,” Sal said. I have never seen a lamp like this before. It has seven long, skinny bulbs in the colors associated with each chakra. He carefully places it close to her abdomen. The specialized treatment Sal has just concocted for this young woman exemplifies his notion of what medicine should be— ”human and humane.” As he says, it does not treat people like “car parts.”

“I feel good, I feel the energy,” the woman says, and then after a moment, “Amanda said I had issues with my third eye chakra.” Sal immediately knows what to do. He sticks an acupuncture needle in the small space between her eyebrows. “She said I had issues with grounding,” the woman continues. Sal has an answer: “Imagine the roots coming from your feet—particularly kidney one which is at the bottom of your foot… gently contract your anus to bring energy up.” After all, he is the doctor.

* * *

“I am the vice-chair of the department of Anesthesiology, the Anesthesiology Chief of Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, and the Professor of Anesthesiology, Pediatrics, and Child Psychiatry at Yale University,” says Dr. Zeev Kain, a slender, clean-shaven man who has just stored his lunch in the fridge and filled his coffee mug. As if Dr. Kain does not wear enough hats, he is also a researcher: He studies the peri-operative stress response—the responses of a patient before, during, and after surgery. “We do research involving pharmacological interventions, behavioral interventions, as well as CAM interventions… We do exceptionally rigorous science,” he says. “In the world of CAM, exceptionally rigorous is not always the case. That is one of the problems.”

Dr. Kain, who is also part of one of the prestigious National Institute of Health study groups, offers a perspective based on his medical expertise and a unique international insight—he was born in Israel. “The U.S. is really the country of the free… Doctors of osteopathics, podiatrists, optometrists: these entities do not exist in Europe. It’s all the same with CAM therapy—somebody wants to say they’re a therapist, all they need to do is put a shingle on and say ‘I’m a therapist.’”

Dr. Kain calls for a more institutionalized basis for CAM, one that would make it less of an industry and more of a science. “It is a very common sentiment that anything that smells like CAM has nothing to do with science. However, over the past ten years there have been tremendous changes around the world—you can see articles published of CAM interventions in multiple top-of-the-line scientific journals.”

Dr. Kain is leading by example, advocating change by conducting exceptional research, but his voice is only one in a small chorus of doctors and scientists around the world. “One of the reasons why it’s changing slowly is because there are a lot of charlatans in the world of CAM therapy. And so every Joe opening a clinic of acupuncture charges sixty bucks a shot and does something that may or may not help.” His research group, including the esteemed Dr. Shu-Ming Wang, international acupuncture expert, and Dr. Halaeh Sadat, the leading authority on hypnosis, is fulfilling a scientific responsibility to the greater community of patients—contributing to CAM literature to show what gets results, and what doesn’t.

Because the discourse that Dr. Kain and his renowned research team engage in is relevant—five years ago, the National Institute of Health, the pulse of the medical world, established an institute for alternative medicine—it would seem logical that Yale, as a visionary institution, would want to invest in the future of CAM. It would be easy for them to back more projects like Dr. Kain’s and the two or three other CAM research groups at the University.

After all, Harvard has appropriated such monies. The Harvard Medical School Osher Institute is arguably the most progressive institution in the world when it comes to education and research regarding CAM therapies. Not only does it support multiple impressively- sized research groups, but it has worked to incorporate CAM therapies into the curriculum of the Medical School. Yale, by contrast, takes an unflinching old guard view of CAM. Reiki programming at Yale-New Haven may represent the New Haven patient’s interest more strongly than it does Yale’s.

“The list of things that have been documented to work is quite short,” says Dr. Kain of specific CAM techniques. But CAM therapies have a predetermined future. As much as they will be incorporated into traditional medicine, they will never replace it. “Let’s be realistic, if you have appendicitis, we need to take your appendix out… So I believe in what’s called integrative medicine, y o u i n t e – grate Western traditional medicine—which is the gold standard for me… and you add to it a piece from eastern medicine that helps.” One question is whether Yale will adapt to this model and do some integrating of its own—of CAM research and education in its curriculum. Perhaps Yale should model itself after Dr. Kain: traditional at heart, but innovate and relevant. “Eventually institutions… will have to go with the flow. It’s just a question of ‘are you going to flow today, three years from now, or five years from now?’ You will have to go with the flow.”

* * *

I can choose to believe that Reiki is unscientific and that Claire, Amanda, and Sal do not have healing hands. I can choose to believe that what I felt when I got Reiki was psychological. I can choose to believe that Reiki is just a glorified massage. But I don’t want to believe that. I want to think that over the next week, I will feel more relaxed. My energy levels will catapult and I will feel refreshed, that I can turn to Reiki next time I need relief. I felt it. I experienced it. I am one chapter in a body of evidence, and no doctor can tell me otherwise. For this moment, I’m as good as the best science they’ve got.

Most CAM therapies like Reiki may not be scientifically proven to work, but for a few minutes or an hour, they make the patient his or her own doctor. They give you a sense of control; and even if they are only relaxing you, that relaxation improves quality of life and likely promotes healing. Ken Welch only has vague reminiscences of Claire working on him before and after his colon surgery. But for the time she was with him, and for the time she was with me, what Ken and I both had was perhaps more important than pills or splints. It was the agency to heal ourselves, and that can never be proven otherwise.

Romy Drucker, a junior in Davenport College, is Editor-in-Chief of TNJ.

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