News: The Touch That Heals

'Energy therapy' soothes suffering children

Cameron Knight

Christina Yash (right) works with Anna MacConnell and her mother, Elizabeth, at Children's Hospital.

Christina Yash, R.N., starts to work her magic with a piece of plastic cheese hanging from her beaded necklace.

Anna MacConnell grasps the piece of cheese in her hand and twiddles it around with her tiny fingers. Yash coos to her in a sweet voice, asking permission to begin "healing touch" therapy. Elizabeth, Anna's mom, rocks her back and forth as Yash moves her hand over Anna.

The hands hover inches over Anna's body moving up and down, in circles, focused on detecting Anna's "energy field." Yash is concentrating, trying to find differences and variances in the field. Her hands come to rest on Anna's leg and waist, then work their way up her body, touching areas that allow Yash to affect Anna's energy, until they reach the head.

Anna is deaf, blind and three weeks into a stay at Cincinnati Children's Hospital following extensive trachea reconstruction surgery. The therapy she receives from Yash is part of a six-year-old program at Children's designed to provide holistic — mind, body and spirit — care to children, parents and staff.

Eight nurses and licensed message therapists roam the halls of the hospital performing healing touch, massage therapy, acupressure and reflexology therapy.

The service is free.

'Magic hands'
Each morning Yash dons her cheese necklace, puts on a vest over her flowing blouse and begins to visit her patients around 9:30 a.m.

Today she starts in the inpatient neurology wing. Children here suffer seizures, some lasting 30 minutes, and come to the hospital regularly. Yash, along with the weary parents — many of whom practically live in the unit for weeks alongside their children — believe healing touch helps soothe the children and ease their pain.

"The goal of healing touch is to promote comfort, relaxation, to ease fear and anxiety in the kids," Yash says. "Oftentimes we can decrease some of the pain they may feel. Primarily what I am doing is balancing the energy that surrounds the body to kind of make it relaxed. A relaxed body tends to do its own healing."

Meaghann Muncy, being treated for a brain disorder, is Yash's first patient today. The frail girl barely takes up half of the hospital bed with her small, pale frame. Her head is twisted to the right and her hands are bent back at 90-degree angles.

The sight doesn't faze Yash, who begins to search for Meaghann's energy field, moving her hands over the child's body. As Yash works, she talks quietly to Meaghann and her mom.

"Your job is to relax," she says.

Meaghann laughs and smiles. Her mom, Sandra Muncy, rocks back and forth at a steady pace in a rocking chair a few feet away.

Yash touches Meaghann's stomach and chest and then her chest and right hand. Meaghann smiles again, looks up at Yash, then hums. The hands glide to the chest and left hand. Left shoulder and left hand. Head message.

"Her rhythms are all messed up," Sandra explains. "It took me two hours to feed her breakfast. She wants to eat, but she gets so tired."

Yash closes her eyes. She has found the right spot on Meaghann's head. Her hands go to work. How Yash's "magic touch" works remains a mystery.

'Families are talking'
Research on the effectiveness of healing touch and other energy therapies, such as therapeutic touch, has been inconclusive, and some studies have discounted practitioners' claims that they are able to detect energy fields.

In a 1998 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, a 9-year-old girl named Emily asked practitioners of therapeutic touch to deduce which one of her hands she had placed over their hands, based on energy fields. The practitioners answered correctly only 44 percent of the time, less than if they had guessed randomly.

Based on her data, Emily and her mom, Linda Rosa, R.N. — an outspoken critic of energy field therapies — concluded practitioners don't have the ability to detect energy fields. Some scientists and nurses have hailed the study as proof that energy fields don't exist.

Yash admits that research done on energy therapy has never definitively proven it to be effective, but she says advances in MRI scanner technology will someday allow scientists to detect human energy fields. She says more rigorous research is needed.

Energy therapies are starting to receive recognition from the mainstream medical community. The National Institutes of Health are funding several research projects including a $1.8-million bio-field center at the University of Arizona, and more doctors are starting to support healing touch. Yash says families are spreading the word to doctors that healing touch benefits their children.

"Families are talking to them and letting them know that it works," Yash says. "When they share this, the doctors are more willing to support it."

Whether or not Yash is able to detect an energy field, there seems little doubt that the children in the neurology, liver and respiratory inpatient units of the hospital benefit from her services. Elizabeth MacConnell, Anna's mom, credits Yash with helping ease Anna's withdrawal from sedatives after surgery. Before receiving healing touch therapy, Anna didn't want to be held. Now she craves being touched, McConnell says.

"The therapy was absolutely critical in allowing (Anna) to get out when she did," MacConnell says. "It helped her and it helped us as parents."

Connie Lawless, the mother of David, another patient, agrees.

"The therapy relaxes him and he enjoys it," she says. "He asks for it everyday. It takes away his pain." ©