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Caring for the Whole Person: Spa services promote healing, well-being, sense of normalcy for hospital patients

Pushing a fuschia-colored cart filled with bottles of nail polish, skin lotion, scented oils and oodles of beauty and hair-care products and tools, Elizabeth Amiot pauses outside a patient room at Altru Hospital.

Aesthetic services technician Elizabeth Amiot shares a chuckle with a patient, Marjorie Lennox, 81, during a spa visit at Altru Hospital. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald
Aesthetic services technician Elizabeth Amiot shares a chuckle with a patient, Marjorie Lennox, 81, during a spa visit at Altru Hospital. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Pushing a fuschia-colored cart filled with bottles of nail polish, skin lotion, scented oils and oodles of beauty and hair-care products and tools, Elizabeth Amiot pauses outside a patient room at Altru Hospital.

Dressed in hot-pink scrubs, she and her sturdy tool chest-a beauty-shop-on-wheels designed for hammers and wrenches, not lipsticks and lotions-look like a matched set.

Stepping into the room, she asks Marjorie Lennox, "Would you like to have your makeup done?"

Lennox, who's been hospitalized nearly a week with a broken leg, is all for it.

Amiot settles in next to her.

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"I like makeup to look natural," she tells Lennox.

""That's me too," the 81-year-old says, smiling up at her. "You're right down my lane."

Amiot, aesthetic services technician, offers hospital patients a type of care they don't expect. In addition to applying makeup, she does hand and foot massages, shampoo and hair-styling, manicures, pedicures, aromatherapy and personal grooming services.

Spa services for men are much the same as for women, "other than no makeup," Amiot says with a grin. She shapes and grooms eyebrows and trims errant nasal and ear hairs.

The "Spa Lady," as she is known around the hospital, uses skills she learned in three years of cosmetology school in Germany to help patients of all ages "feel healed, cared for," she said.

"If I see a chipped nail, I fix that. Then they admire their nails."

She makes regular "rounds" on each floor and also responds to special calls, including visits to the cancer center to, for example, do a foot rub for a patient undergoing chemotherapy. Her services are provided at no charge.

Patients are often "excited" to meet her, she said. Sometimes, when she's finished and she hands them a mirror, they're so moved they are brought to tears.

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"Elizabeth has a gift beyond personal care," said Sherry Burg, who leads the holistic care team at Altru Health System. "She has the gift of presence, a gift of human relationship."

"It's a wonderful service-a well-wanted service-and it shows we're forward-thinking as an organization."

Holistic care

Her work is woven into the hospital's program of holistic care which encompasses visual imagery, music therapy, guided imagery meditation, and journaling.

Amiot, who joined Altru as a nurses aide in 2001, was giving spa services long before it was formalized as a program seven years ago.

The first person to hold the title "anesthetic services technician," Amiot is one of two staff members who offer spa services at Altru Hospital.

For patients, a spa visit is much more than a bright spot in their day, and the services do more than make them feel fresher, prettier and more presentable.

"It's a way to put the patient in a therapeutic relaxation mode, which allows for healing," says Burg. "It takes them out of the fight-or-flight mode, away from that stress mode, and brings the person into the present moment."

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Such care is effective in promoting relaxation and easing symptoms such as pain and nausea.

Ultimately, it's about caring for the whole person, "mind, body and spirit," Burg says.

She has witnessed the impact of holistic care "even with my own husband. He was the first person to walk out of the hospital a day after brain surgery. He said, 'I'm walking out of here today, and it's because of this woman (referring to Amiot).'"

Patients can choose whatever services they would like from an array of holistic care modalities. About 37 percent of patients accept services from Amiot.

"Some have it all; some choose certain services," Amiot says. Many ask for her by name for repeat visits.

In a recently completed, six-month survey of patients who were housed on the hospital's sixth floor, Burg found that almost 90 percent "accepted some form of holistic care," she said.

"We blew the WHO (World Health Organization) numbers out of the water."

Stressful experience

In unfamiliar surroundings, hospital patients experience stress, anxiety or pain which slows or blocks the healing process, experts say.

When a person is dealing with stress, the body "hurts more because everything is tight," Burg says. "When you're more relaxed, the medications can work better, everything works better."

The holistic approach to patient care is meant "to restore patients to their normalcy," she says. "We're creating normalcy in an abnormal situation."

Amiot relates to each patient on a personal level.

"That's me laying there," she says. "If I see something (to fix), I have to go get it fixed.

"Every patient is me. I think, 'How long have you been in that room? How long have you been in that bed, out of your home?' "

She doesn't know what led to their hospitalization, she says. "Every patient has their own story. Maybe they've gotten bad news; maybe they've gotten good news."

Amiot recalls a woman who was "thrashing all over" in her bed because of pain from an injured pelvis.

"The sports channel was on; I turned it to the Care Channel and told her to look at the waterfall," she says. "I brought some warm blankets to cover her and rubbed her feet. Then I used lavender (to scent the room)."

(The Care Channel, on the hospital room's TV, provides music therapy and visual imagery for patients.)

The woman soon slipped into a sound sleep, Amiot said. "Mouth open sleep."

"To take someone from that (wracked) state to a sleep state, I am a believer."

With another form of therapy, called aromatherapy, patients can choose among several essential oils-vanilla, eucalyptus, spearmint, basil.

"All natural scents," Amiot said. "No perfumes."

She places cotton balls, saturated with the oil, in medicine cups. The scent, which fills the room, lasts for three to four hours.

She's noticed that men usually request citrusy scents like lemon or orange, while women prefer lavender and peppermint.

Aromatherapy is the use of natural oils extracted from plants to enhance psychological and physical well-being, according to WebMD.com.

The healthcare community is increasingly recognizing the importance of holistic care and the ill effects of stress on patients, Burg said.

One leading organization "has called stress the No. 1 proxy killer in the world," referring to the indirect toll stress takes on human health, she said. But Altru's commitment to providing holistic care is unusual.

Representatives of the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, who visit and review the hospital on a regular basis, have commended Altru for steps it has taken to provide care that addresses the needs of the whole person.

"They said 'many people speak of holistic care; you all have made it important,' " Burg said.

Men's reactions

Amiot has found that male patients are just as receptive to spa services as the female ones.

Last month, she gave services to men and women equally-63 each, she said.

"With men, I take a little different approach," she said. "I say, 'Would you like a shave?' They usually want that shave.

"Then I say, 'How about a foot rub or a hand rub?' Maybe I see their nails need clipping. I clean and shave the eyebrows."

She offers to leave the lingering scent of whichever essential oil they prefer.

And her "comfort care," as she call it, isn't limited to patients. Caregivers also benefit.

"It's a way to help staff fill their cup also," Burg said.

Amiot is available to give hand rubs or offer aromatherapy. She uses peppermint, for example, to alleviate migraine headaches.

"One (caregiver) thanked me, and said, 'You saved me from going home.'"

Amiot extends her care to visitors, offering hand or foot massages or nail care to those who've travelled great distances and end up sleeping on cots in their loved ones' rooms.

Children, too, receive Amiot's compassionate attention.

"I have treats for children who get restless while visiting a patient," she says, displaying a couple of miniature gumball machines that always arouse kids' interest.

'I feel human again'

After Amiot concludes spa services with patients, she often hears the same comments.

"Patients say, 'I feel human again,'" she says. "They say, 'I've never had anyone do this before.'

"Many ask, 'Can I take you home?' Men say, 'Can I bring you home for my wife?'"

Amiot has received product donations from businesses such as Mary Kay Cosmetics and Bath & Body to use with patients. Once opened, the small individual-size cosmetic samples are left with each patient.

Donations usually occur because someone with those businesses has a loved one who received spa services from Amiot during a hospital stay.

Back in the Altru hospital room, Lennox says she's sure spa services do help in the healing process.

"It's true," she says. "You can get so depressed in here. Elizabeth keeps my spirits lifted. She's so caring.

"She comes in to try to make me look pretty. She never comes in without that smile on her face."

When Amiot has finished, "I don't want her to go," Lennox says.

"I don't call it a talent. I call it a calling."

Related Topics: HEALTH
Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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