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Nurses Use Holistic Approach to Heal Patients, Themselves

Nurses Use Holistic Approach to Heal Patients, Themselves

Physically and emotionally burned out after two decades of hospital nursing, Sue Collins, RN, FNP-BC, AHN-BC, was desperate to find a way to continue treating patients without depleting herself. She found her answer in holistic nursing.

By treating the whole person -- mind, body, spirit -- nurses can change the way they care for patients and themselves. For Collins, becoming a holistic nurse transformed nursing from a draining job into a fulfilling profession.

“I noticed that massage and Jin Shin Jyutsu [acupressure] were helping me, and I wanted to learn how to offer this to other people,” says Collins, now a family nurse practitioner at North Country Community Health Center in Arizona. “I wanted patients to understand that there are a variety of ways to handle their situations.”

The Whole Story

Nurses interested in the holistic approach began banding together in 1981 with the establishment of the American Holistic Nurses Association (AHNA).

“Nursing was becoming somewhat mechanized with increased use of machines and medications, and a lot of the human contact of nursing was being lost,” says Jeanne Crawford, MA, MPH, the AHNA’s executive director. Distressed by that trend, AHNA founder Charlotte McGuire sought to “create an organization for nurses who wanted to incorporate humanity back into nursing practice,” Crawford says.

For example, in taking a patient’s health history, a holistic nurse might ask about the patient’s social situation or faith. For patients about to undergo surgery, holistic nurses can teach relaxation techniques or suggest that patients bring music to play during the operation.

“Rather than telling someone to simply not take aspirin two weeks before surgery, you could suggest herbs or vitamins to build up a patient’s strength,” Crawford says. “And after surgery, you find out whether they may want aromatherapy or a massage.”

Nurses can receive holistic training through the AHNA’s continuing-education courses or through one of the 13 schools endorsed by the American Holistic Nurses’ Certification Corp. that uphold the Standards of Practice for Holistic Nursing. Nurses seeking certification as a holistic nurse must pass an exam; one version is for bachelor’s-trained nurses, another is for nurses with advanced degrees. In December 2006, the American Nurses Association officially recognized holistic nursing as a specialty.

Holism in Practice

About 60 percent of the AHNA’s 3,500 members are employed by healthcare organizations. The rest are self-employed, offering treatments such as massage, aromatherapy, biofeedback and Reiki.

Collins chose to work for a community health center, because she was eager to offer holistic approaches to patients who could not afford visits to private-practice holistic professionals. Many of her patients suffer from back pain, fibromyalgia or other chronic conditions. She uses alternative energy therapy and Jin Shin Jyutsu.

Like Collins, Gayle Kipnis, RNC, MSN, HN-BC, CHTP, incorporates holistic nursing into her job. She is an instructor in the education department at Flagstaff Medical Center in Arizona, and one of her primary goals is to teach nurses to view patients and themselves as sacred beings that deserve dignity. This attitude frees nurses to see their interactions with patients as an opportunity to connect with people and learn from them.

“Instead of wondering how to get through the next 12 hours, as a holistic nurse you realize the people you’ll encounter will have things to offer you,” Kipnis says. “Out of that situation, there will be a moment where you intersect and both come away changed.”

First Heal Thyself

Lucia Thornton, RN, MSN, AHN-BC, believes that healthcare organizations that adopt a holistic approach will lower nursing turnover. Thornton, who is self-employed in California, spends part of her time teaching holistic courses to hospital staffs. She explains to caregivers that they cannot help to heal patients if they do not know how to take care of themselves.

“Nurses are notorious for taking care of others before themselves, but a person who is depleted and distressed cannot be a healing presence,” Thornton says. “I teach them to look at their lives and identify what they need to change. I offer nutrition counseling, exercise protocols and strategies for dealing with toxic people in their lives.”

Nurses who learn to care for the mind, body and spirit in themselves and their patients will have the best odds of enjoying their work, Thornton says.

“Once you begin to see people from that perspective, it changes the way you care for patients,” she says. “It allows you to be really present with a person, and this nurtures a nurse at a deep level.”


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