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Urban Zen Initiative Brings Alternative Therapies to Southampton Hospital

Posted on 28 August 2013

Heller_Urban Zen Healing-Sarah Halweil 8-27-13_6307_LR

By Emily J. Weitz

Sag Harbor’s Sarah Halweil is the clinical coordinator of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy (UZIT) program at Southampton Hospital. From emotions associated with surgery to symptoms of illness and side-effects of medication, there are a host of problems that patients face just by being in the hospital. The UZIT program is a specific healing methodology that includes restorative yoga, Reiki, aromatherapy, nutrition and contemplative care. These techniques are designed to help patients with the most common problems associated with trauma – pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation (PANIC).

Urban Zen is a foundation begun by Donna Karan and its mission is to raise awareness and inspire change in the areas of well-being, preserving cultures and empowering children. Karan’s store on Bay Street in Sag Harbor raises funds for projects around the world that pursue these goals — including here on the East End with the Southampton Hospital program.

Before Halweil took her UZIT training, she served as one of Southampton Hospital’s labor and delivery nurses. Since 2003, she has watched and participated in the growth of the hospital and has been pleased to see how open the facility has been in its acceptance of new healing modalities.

“The administration has been very receptive to complementary healing modalities,” says Halweil. “It’s not about one or the other [western medicine and alternative practices]. I want nursing care, and I want this along with it. And I have not had any sort of resistance to a program like this.”

Halweil remembers when she was a labor and delivery nurse, and women would come in with a variety of needs and desires regarding their birthing process.

“Betty Commander, who runs that department, has always been open to fulfilling their wishes at the hospital, within the realms of safety,” says Halweil who notes the hospital officially started working with Urban Zen integrative therapists in 2010.

“We started mainly in the pre-surgery area,” explains Halweil. “We did relaxation therapy for people preparing for surgery. We also worked in the dialysis center in Hampton Bays.”

Soon after, the UZIT program received a grant to work with patients in The Ellen Hermanson Breast Center. Practitioners worked with newly diagnosed breast cancer patients and women going to the breast center for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, Halweil was writing policies and procedures, helping to get the program situated in the context of the hospital.

“Now we’re in all the medical units,” says Halweil. “We cover everyone from someone who suffered a dog bite to a heart attack. From Lou Gehrig’s disease to hospice care.”

The UZIT therapists’ role is to be an extra set of hands, to add to the patients’ level of care.

“We use movement therapy and restorative positioning, Reiki, body scanning meditation, and breath awareness,” says Halweil.

The five UZIT therapists on staff are in the hospital on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Soon, they’ll be adding Thursday afternoons to their schedule. The therapists report to the doctors and nurses who then tell them which patients are most in need of their services.

“Some sessions are stellar,” says Halweil, “and others are more subtle in their effects. But across the board, patients are appreciative that the service is there. We’re neutral people who come in. We’re not family members. We are just there to help with positioning, movement, to help them feel better and hopefully teach them something.”

Halweil stresses the importance of educating and empowering patients.

“We’ll give them a set of movements to do when we’re not there, or breath awareness to help with anxiety,” she explains. “We are trying to teach – not to just be there and then be gone.”

Halweil has more stories than she can tell of times she’s helped someone with these modalities, and she’s grateful for the opportunity to do her job. She calls it a privilege, a joy.

One story that comes to mind is of a young woman who had just been through surgery. She was in the room with her mother when Halweil walked in.

“She had just had her gall bladder taken out,” says Halweil, “and she was in a lot of pain. She was shaking, hunched forward. We were sitting on the edge of the bed, and I placed my hands on her back.  I had her press her feet into the floor, ground her legs. I had her press down on her legs when she breathed in, and relax back when she breathed out. We paired the gentle movements to the breathing, and she started to slow down. She was moving back towards my hands, and eventually, she was lying on her back, supported by pillows. I placed her hands on her belly, I gave her Reiki with my hands on her head. We did the body scan meditation, where I directed her to feel the soles of her feet on the bed, to feel her body.”

“I talked her through it, and by the time I was done, she was asleep,” adds Halweil. “Her body had stopped shaking, her face was calm.”

“Sometimes I think the work we do is old fashioned nursing,” says Halweil, “but nurses don’t have the time to do it anymore. This is about hands-on, loving care, and the stories go on and on.”

In the future, Halweil hopes the program continues to grow. She’d love to bring it back to the labor and delivery unit, where women could benefit from these techniques in some of the most intense moments of their lives. She’d also like to see therapists in the emergency room. And if they could increase their presence from four days a week to seven, then every patient who came through Southampton Hospital would have the opportunity to be touched. Halweil also sees room for the program to grow to involve doctors and nurses more, and to help them with their own self-care.

“I hope we’ll evolve in two ways,” says Halweil. “Expansion and deepening. I am just so thankful to be doing this work at Southampton. It’s such fulfilling work.”

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