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From smells to stories, nurses take advantage of wellness programs

Monday May 6, 2013
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Marie Sakowski, RN
They call them the "lavender ladies."

Dressed in various shades of purple, these holistic clinical nurse specialists come to nursing units at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Petrie Division campus in Manhattan, bringing with them the calming fragrance of lavender oil and a promise to help tame stress on the unit.

Nurses know they are in for a treat. Sometimes, nurses having a bad day have called the specialists, saying "Can you come now? We need you."

Jeanne Kenney, RN, BSN, HN-BC, CCAP, is one of the three specialists implementing the center’s Integrative Stress Management Program, a venture that began in February 2011 and is funded for three years by the Charles Evans Foundation. The nurses are trained to lead staff and managers alike in therapies such as guided imagery, breathing techniques, aromatherapy, restorative yoga and reiki.

Sometimes it’s a quick gathering in an empty room or lounge to work one-on-one or in groups on breathing techniques. Sometimes, it’s lightly massaging fragrant oils on hands. Sometimes it’s a lunch-and-learn wellness session.

Program designed by nurses
Beth Israel’s program is unusual among health and wellness programs in New York and New Jersey in that it was designed by nurses specifically for nurses. The program aims to get nurses to step back from the everyday physical and mental stresses of the job and take a few minutes to focus on their own bodies, minds and spirits.

That can be a tough sell at first for people used to caring for everyone but themselves.


Denise Reidy, RN
The guiding principles in developing the program were that it would be portable, easy to use, easily replicated in any nursing environment, low in cost and effective in reducing stress. The nurses rotate units so they hit day, evening and weekend nursing shifts.

Because studies show links between stress and practice errors and absenteeism, the programs also enhance safety protocols and efficiency.

The program had wide appeal from the start. More than 64% of unit RNs used the services within the first year, according to a program representative. Part of the benefit is realized in the program’s very existence.

"Nurses are in awe that a foundation would provide care for the nurses," Kenney said. "They are so appreciative."

Marie Sakowski, RN, a peribirth coordinator and assistant nurse manager at Beth Israel, is now one of those people, but she was skeptical at first.

"I didn’t really buy into the whole deep breathing and lavender," she said. "I really didn’t know what to make of it."


Jeanne Kenney, RN
After her first session with Kenney, she was a believer.

"It came at a really good time in my life," Sakowski said. "My mother had passed away last May. It didn’t, obviously, cure all the grief, but it was another way for me to cope."

Part of the design of the program is that it becomes sustainable after the grant support ends. Leaders are training a core group of integrative wellness advocates, who will carry on the teachings and holistic modalities and "pay it forward" for years to come.

Sakowski, one of the trainees, summarizes the mission: "You can’t be your best self if you are stressed out. You need to first focus on you and then you can provide the best optimal care for your patients."

Weight loss & dragon boats
Other programs in the area, such as those offered since 2009 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, make available a wide array of services to all employees, including nurses, and offer help with nutrition counseling, weight management, fitness, cancer screening, tobacco cessation, and work/life balance coaching at no or low cost.

Maureen O’Brien, RN, CNS, CTTS-M, a smoking cessation specialist at the center, said the nutrition, weight management and exercise programs helped her get back in shape for her job — which requires walking all over the hospital — after she put on weight following hip surgeries. Medications and reaction to certain foods made her dietary needs complex, and she needed a plan tailored to her.

Among the activities in the wellness program is dragon boating, where 18-20 people paddle a long boat in competitions. Friendly wellness competitions run throughout the center, she said.

"All the nurses have wellness champions who run activities … such as 'the biggest loser,’ " where floors put together teams to compete in weight loss, O’Brien said.

Those kinds of resources are one of the reasons nurses tend to stay with the center, she said. "Everyone really looks out for one another."

Storytelling at Montefiore
That theme of bonding and shared experiences runs throughout wellness programs at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Almost a year ago, the center began offering the Healing Arts program for nurses.

Ronit Fallek, MPA, director of the program, saw a need to tailor the help specifically to nurses.

"The idea is that our nurses work so hard and give so much to others 24/7, so we develop programs and offer experiences that are just for them," Fallek said. "The idea behind all of them is to help nurses relax, replenish and encourage them to explore their own creativity."

One component is an eight-week lunchtime series of classes on storytelling, where nurses from all levels and departments are given journals to write down stories about nursing experiences or patients that have changed their lives or their work.

They work with experts from The Moth, a nonprofit group in Manhattan dedicated to the art of storytelling, and this month for National Nurses Week, they will present five-minute stories individually to the group. The workshops have brought both laughter and tears, but always a release.

Denise Reidy, RN, a staff nurse in the cardiothoracic ICU, is working on a story about a complex case, a man who had spent an unusual length of time — nearly three months — on the unit.

"He had a birthday on the unit," Reidy said. "We celebrated New Year’s with him and even got hats and noisemakers for the room. They become our family. And our co-workers become our family."

Writing down his story helped Reidy process the realization that sometimes the best possible outcome for a patient is a dignified death. Putting it into words helped her come to grips with that outcome herself and work with the family to make it possible.

Reidy said she always has loved to write, but the class taught her how to structure thoughts and relate their meaning to others. She shared her story on her unit and said it led to healing for others touched by that patient and other patients.

"It is allowing us to have a voice," she said. "It is allowing us to be more in tune with how our daily lives on the units affect us."

Roxanne O’Brien, RN, BSN, manager of hospice and palliative care at Montefiore, also is taking the storytelling class.

"We’re all natural storytellers," she said. "We’re nurses. We’re good listeners, and we hold all of these stories."

It is a place where nurses from all disciplines can come together and get a better appreciation of others’ experiences, Roxanne O’Brien said. Her story involves spending time with her father, who was diagnosed with cancer when she was 25, and having a year to say goodbye. In that year, her father was told he "failed" chemotherapy and those words stung.

"He turned to me and said, 'I’ve never failed anything in my life,’" she said. "He didn’t fail us. His body failed him."

Realizing how important terminology and communication were had a profound effect on her in hospice work. She said participants take a stress survey at the beginning of the class. At that time, she went down the list of symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, tension and anxiety checking "often and always."

She will take another survey after the end of the course and said she is pretty sure it will register much less stress.

For Roxanne O’Brien, who said lunch often is a beverage while working at a keyboard, just taking the time for a sandwich on a lunch break is a very good start.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance writer.

TELL US about a wellness program at your workplace by sending a letter to the editor to editorNY@nurse.com.


To comment, email editorNY@nurse.com.
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