Skeptic to champion: One nurse’s reiki journey

By Karen M. Pischke | 02/12/2015

Modality opens window to new health care possibilities.
 
Woman receiving reiki therapy
In 1997, my personal life and nursing path shifted from disease and illness to wellness and prevention. Encountering “dis-ease” for the first time, I reprioritized my life/work balance, stopped smoking, and took a day job in cardiac rehabilitation. Having worked as a critical-care nurse for 15 years, mostly in large academic settings, a break from my role as a night nurse in the intensive care unit, with its accompanying stress, seemed in order. While testing the waters in my new position, I continued to work per diem in the ICU. Letting go of a high-paying position with status and the work I loved was not easy.
 
At the time, I knew nothing about the concepts of vibrational energy, energy medicine, and higher consciousness. Words like meridian and chakra were completely foreign. But the slow-to-diagnose disease I had went untreated for a year, and my energy levels were at an all-time low. Disillusioned with conventional health care and in need of healing, I was looking for alternative ways to heal and a career change, but I had no idea what that might look like.
 
I stumbled upon reiki (ray-kee) in 1998 at a Nursing Spectrum Career Fair. Of the continuing education lectures offered, the one that drew my attention was “Reiki: Energy healing.” The description was inviting: “Reiki relaxes, creates balance, improves energy, promotes self-healing.” Everything I needed! One nurse presented the lecture, and another promoted her reiki business from a booth.
 
Pischke_Karen_ID_embed_SFW What is it?
I had graduated with a BSN from the University of Illinois, which offered a strong foundation in science, nursing research, and evidence-based practice, so I listened to these nurses with healthy skepticism and a critical mind-set. Except for noticing that patients responded positively to foot and hand rubs and the relaxing music I played in the ICU, I knew little about holistic nursing.
 
Somehow, even without evidence, I was drawn to what the nurses presented. Had I heard about it outside of a health care setting, I might not have been so ready to consider the concept, but these nurses spoke a language I understood. The parallel they drew between reiki and the endocrine system, which I knew created homeostasis by physiologically balancing body systems to stabilize health, made sense. Curious and intrigued, I made an appointment for my first reiki session, and the rest, as they say, is history.
 
The relaxation I experienced in that first reiki session was unlike anything I had ever known. I describe it as an altered state of consciousness, a liminal state not unlike the transition between sleep and wakefulness. Feeling as if I were drifting in space, I lost track of both time and space, as well as awareness of the reiki provider. I was even unaware of my own body, until I heard, softly spoken, as if from another room, “Your reiki session is over.”
 
“Wow! That was amazing!” I declared as I slowly emerged from a profound depth of relaxation. Still lying on the table, feeling as if I’d been asleep for hours, I asked, “Why aren’t we doing this in health care?” Sue, the nurse and reiki provider, softly laughed and said, “I know, but it’s too ‘out there’ for the medical community. They don’t know what this energy is.”
 
“Energy?” I had no idea what energy was involved, but I had just experienced a relaxation so profoundly deep, I felt as if I had drifted and floated to another realm and returned refreshed and healed, as though a weight had been lifted. That session was my turning point toward better health. Aware of the scientifically proven benefits of relaxation, I asked, “Why can’t we simply introduce reiki as a relaxation technique?”
 
A seed planted
At that moment, a seed was planted in my mind, and I set about on a mission to help bring reiki into mainstream health care. I had no idea how, but felt then, as I still feel 16 years later, that the relaxation provided by reiki has so many potential patient benefits it should be offered routinely.
 
Working with something not yet scientifically validated went against my ICU training. Nevertheless, I began to study everything I could about reiki ryoho, the Japanese healing method or art of working with the “energy of the universe.” Drawn by intense curiosity, my own state of improving health, and a desire for a kinder, gentler health care system, I attended reiki training workshops worked toward introducing this gentle, non-invasive, light- to non-touch therapy.
 
As any prudent nurse would do, I first searched the literature. At that time, there were few books on reiki and even fewer studies, but I began offering the therapy to others every chance I could—first to family and friends, and then to clients. I documented everything, both subjective and objective.
 
Though initially skeptical about the energy reiki is based on, I was sold on the benefits of what I had experienced in that first session as well as the relaxation responses I observed in others. Reports of somatic feedback and sensations, including visual and even auditory, olfactory, and gustatory experiences, further intrigued me. I thought, “There must be something to this, but we don’t have the technology to measure or understand it.” Aware that working with reiki might be considered New Age to some and hocus pocus to others, I realized I was risking ridicule from my peers, including my husband—who, in the beginning, referred to it as “flaky reiki.” Still, curiosity and intrigue drove me to explore what reiki is and how it works, and I networked with other health care professionals who worked with reiki around the country.
 
From the ICU to entrepreneur
In 1999, I was hired as a reiki provider by North Shore Medical Center (NSMC) in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, for its Heart and Wellness program, an outpatient initiative to reduce cardiac risk factors. A year later, I began a small business and joined a holistic practice, working with other nurses involved in complementary and alternative medicine, or CAM, therapies. I gave lectures on reiki at every opportunity—at libraries, support groups, health care facilities, health fairs, and charity events. Demonstrating reiki to everyone willing to listen. I also began a reiki clinic at Addison Gilbert Hospital, where I had begun working per diem in the ICU. My peers in that unit and from other parts of the hospital frequently asked me to provide reiki for patients who were anxious, in pain, or experiencing difficult venipunctures. Before long, I found myself more interested in offering reiki than in doing ICU work, and I became a nurse entrepreneur.
 
Clients and patients contacted me to offer reiki before and after—and even during—surgery. At first, I was the target of sideway glances, snickers, and even scowls. But, in 2002, a memorable case opened the door for a formal program at the hospital. Using reiki, I supported a woman from needle-guided breast biopsy to preoperative holding through surgery and into the recovery room. Feedback from staff members was so positive at each step of her care that a reiki and hypnotherapy surgical-support program was launched. This led to a small pilot study that examined the effects of reiki and hypnotherapy before gastric bypass surgery. Because I knew that empirical data drive health care delivery in the United States, conducting research about reiki had been a goal of mine ever since my first encounter with the modality. Preliminary results of the research demonstrated that reiki reduced anxiety for patients in the intervention group when compared to those receiving standard care in the control group.
 
It really works!
I knew barriers were coming down when a gastric surgeon stopped me in the hall one day and said, “You know, that reiki really works! I was a skeptic.” To which I responded, “I know. I was, too—at first.” How can a person who comes from a scientific background not be skeptical about something not yet validated by science? But seeing and receiving positive results, and feeling various “sensations” during a session lead one to believe there is something to study. My curious, scientific mind still wants to know, and I have more hypotheses in mind for research yet to be done.
 
My work with reiki at NSMC Cancer Center led to a part-time position with benefits at Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, as part of an integrative medicine group. In that role, a first for the group, I carried a pager and offered reiki to patients, by request, when doing rounds. With referrals from oncology physicians, nurses, and social workers, I saw, on average, 10 patients a day in the medical oncology infusion unit and the inpatient/outpatient bone marrow transplant units. Currently, I am the RN reiki provider for the integrative medicine program in a pain management center at Lahey Hospital Outpatient Center in Danvers, Massachusetts, USA. It is the eighth health care setting where I have performed that role, which continues to open doors for reiki.
 
Patient feedback about the use of reiki in these settings includes improved comfort, relief of pain, decreased anxiety, greater sense of peace, and hope. One responded, “You don’t know how much it means to me.” While I cannot know how reiki therapy works for sure, it seems to touch people in a deep way, on a soul level. Some patients even observe that the best part of coming to chemo is the knowledge that they are going to have reiki.
 
‘I think I love you’
Another facility hired me to work with post-stroke patients and with those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. It was my first experience in administering reiki to that population. With nothing in the literature at that time to support the modality’s use in that setting, we set up a three-month pilot program to monitor and assess patient response. Post-stroke clients demonstrated decreased spasticity, increased range of motion, and increased attempts at vocalization. Patients with dementia exhibited decreased agitation.
 
A woman enrolled her father, who had Alzheimer’s disease, into the pilot program. When I first approached him, he was sitting alone at a table in the common area. He was nonverbal, with vacant eyes and drooped shoulders. When I spoke to him, he offered no eye contact, had no change in body language, and did not respond verbally. I began the session hands-off. A few minutes later, when he appeared more comfortable and showed relaxed body posture, I began using light touch, to which he responded with slower, deeper respirations and even more relaxed posture.
 
After his session was completed, he looked at me and began moving his lips, as if to speak. Because his mouth was dry, his speech at first was garbled. The activity director informed me, “He doesn’t speak,” and I replied, “But I think he’s trying to.” Leaning in close, trying to engage him, I asked occasional questions, nodding at times. He looked at me with sparkling blue eyes and said, clear as a bell: “This conversation is beautiful. I think I love you.” He went on to answer questions about his life, his work, and his family. It was as if a window had momentarily opened and a piece of his former self suddenly came to life. Unbeknownst to me, the nursing director was watching the scene from across the room. The director later told me, “In the two years I’ve been here, I’ve never heard him speak.” That one experience was enough for me to say, “I’m glad I chose this path I am on, what I refer to as my reiki journey.”
 
Life in the skinny branches
Risking ridicule, and despite naysayers and skeptics, I have stayed focused and committed to my mission of bringing reiki into mainstream health care. My own positive experiences, internal determination, and overwhelmingly positive feedback from patients and staff members have been my driving force. Supportive phrases that echo in my mind help move me forward on this path. At that 1998 Nursing Spectrum Career Fair, I remember hearing motivational speaker and nurse Rita Losee, ScD, MEd, RN, say, “Live life in the skinny branches.” In my mind, I hear my mother say, “Follow your heart.” The same wise advice has come from supportive friends and my current reiki teacher, Hyakuten Inamoto Sensei, a resident of Kyoto, Japan, where reiki ryoho originated. Then there’s that “Life is Good” shirt from my brother with the message, “Do what you love, love what you do.”
 
As a nurse champion for reiki practice in hospitals and health care, my vision of “reiki providers on call daily” has yet to be fully realized. I recently gave a lecture at a Boston hospital that currently doesn’t offer the therapy. The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive that we are now exploring adding reiki to their oncology department’s integrative medicine program.
 
In the meantime, I push onward, encouraging colleagues who practice reiki to approach their work as they would any other in health care—from a scientific perspective, with an inquiring mind, healthy skepticism, and an emphasis on evidence-based practice. I tell them to use language consistent with that used elsewhere in health care. The action mechanism believed to make reiki an effective therapy is not yet proven. What we can say is, “We don’t know how reiki works, but some research indicates that it provides decreased anxiety and improved comfort.” Then, offer a sample session and observe the response.
 
For many, reiki ryoho opens a window to new possibilities. You never know where a path might lead. Believe in yourself, and dream big. You might even create a career path you never thought of before. Think outside the box, and dare to “live in the skinny branches!” Opportunities in nursing are endless! RNL ​
 
Karen M. Pischke, BSN, RN, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA, is a reiki teacher, or shihan, and a certified clinical hypnotherapist. She is the founder of Dreamtime Wellness.
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