Healing with touch
By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- Eileen Weber's hands scan the air above the hospital patient's body, gently, rhythmically, like a metal detector over soft sand.
She sweeps a few inches above the woman's head, down her body, all the way to her toes, feeling for an energy field. When she senses imbalance, Weber motions like she is wiping it away.
The patient, 32-year-old Kari Patton, has been ailing as she waits in Tampa General Hospital for a heart transplant. But she relaxes and smiles under Weber's hands.
Weber is practicing a controversial form of faith therapy called therapeutic touch, which claims to temporarily rid the body of pain and discomfort through the shifting of energy.
While therapeutic touch has its critics, it is now taught in many nursing programs and offered at more than 70 hospitals nationwide, including Tampa General and South Florida Baptist in Plant City.
Weber, who works part-time as a chaplain at Tampa General, has served about 400 people since bringing therapeutic touch to the hospital more than 11/2 years ago. She received therapeutic touch training in a nursing program at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, but Tampa General is the only hospital in the area that has allowed her to work on patients, Weber said.
Therapeutic touch is based on the concept that all matter is energy, and ailments throw the energy out of balance. It is the touch therapist's task to shift the energy back into balance and offer short-term relief -- all with swift motions of hands during 20-minute sessions.
Weber is often requested by patients and gets referrals from doctors. She has worked on comatose people, infants, burn patients, expectant mothers. Some patients say that their pains ease after a session.
One TGH patient who was caught by surprise is Kari Patton. The Orlando woman, hospitalized since April as she awaits a new heart, was referred to Weber by her surgeon.
"I thought I was getting a massage," she said. "I didn't know what to think."
But Patton said that her aches and anxiety soon were disappearing with each session, and she was even falling asleep before Weber could finish.
"I was all tensed up and she relaxed me quite a bit," Patton said.
Patton's surgeon, Dr. Cristobal Alvarado, said he read about Weber in a hospital newsletter and thought Patton, a high-strung patient who suffered from chronic pain and discomfort, would be an ideal candidate for the therapy.
"She is someone who has been sick for many years and is going to be in the hospital for many months," said Alvarado, a cardiothoracic surgeon with LifeLink. "It was important to keep her spirits up."
As for therapeutic touch, "I don't know if I can say I believe it or not," Alvarado said. "As surgeons, we are responsible for our patient's physical well-being, but we need to address our patient's psychological and spiritual needs as well."
It works, Weber insists -- on humans, animals and even plants.
She said she bought 10 orchid plants at Home Depot, marked down to $1 because they were dying. She brought them home, offered some therapeutic touch, and one by one, they began to bloom.
"I wanted to see how it would work with their energy," Weber said. "And they not only survived, but they bloomed."
Therapeutic touch is a modern derivation of ancient healing practices and was developed by two American women in 1972. One has died. The other, nurse Dolores Krieger, continues to teach the art of therapeutic touch.
One does not have to believe in it to benefit from it, said Krieger, who lives in Montana.
"It's not a matter of faith," she said. "It works. It helps people and it's safe.
One of therapeutic touch's critics is Stephen Barrett, a retired Pennsylvania psychiatrist who publishes papers on quackery. He says there is no scientific evidence that the therapy works.
"The whole idea is based on delusion," he said. "It makes as much sense as saying we're having Ghostbusters come to the patient's bedside and we're going to get rid of the ghosts."
Barrett questions the judgment of administrators who permit therapeutic touch in their hospitals.
"If it is represented as healing activity, that is fraud," he said.
Tampa General spokesman John Dunn said that the hospital welcomes alternatives in pain management.
"If this process helps a patient to relax and helps them do a better job of coping with pain, then that's just one technique that's available to that patient," Dunn said. "Who is someone from the outside to judge whether a patient feels better or not? No one is making the claim that it helps all patients, but if it helps a particular patient, as long as it is understood for what it is, who's anyone to shoot arrows at it?"
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