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Making Medicine More Zen


By Scott Fields

Published Jan 31, 2012 12:00 PM

As fashion designer Donna Karan's husband was dying of cancer, she wished he could access Eastern healing techniques as well as Western medicine. So she created an Urban Zen Therapy program; now she has brought it to UCLA.


Donna Karan with a UCLA patient. Photos courtesy of UCLA Health System.

A new consciousness in health care is spreading through the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Take nurse Katie Anderson of the Medical Intensive Care Unit, for example. Every time she washes her hands, she's reminded to re-center herself, and when entering a patient room, she takes a few deep breaths first.

Anderson is participating in the Donna Karan Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, the newest effort to integrate holistic eastern modalities into Western medicine at UCLA. She says it has enhanced her ability to stay calm and present and aware of what is needed when she steps into a patient's room.

She's not alone in feeling the benefit. "Not a day goes by when a nurse or caretaker or patient doesn't thank me for bringing [Urban Zen] to the hospital," says Dr. David Feinberg, president of the UCLA Health System, CEO of the UCLA Hospital System and associate vice chancellor for health sciences. "Urban Zen is an important component we didn't quite have before. It starts with teaching self-care to our staff and focuses on inpatient care rather than out-patient." 

The modalities used in the program include yoga therapy, nutrition, aromatherapy, Reiki (a Japanese vibrational energy therapy) and contemplative care. Symptoms treated include pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation and exhaustion. 

UCLA paving the way

Urban Zen originated more than a decade ago, when fashion designer Donna Karan's husband was suffering from lung cancer in New York and was offered no meditative therapies to help heal him through heart and spirit. After he died, Karan founded the Urban Zen Center and developed the integrative therapy program.

"Urban Zen was having trouble getting hospitals to do this program, and . . . warned us that we'd have trouble getting our medical staff to accept it," Feinberg says. "But I told them we were already set-up for this kind of thing."

Ellen Wilson, director of therapy services at the medical center, says, "It's been more widely accepted by our medical staff than I ever thought it would be. We're such a traditional institution in approach to medicine, but there's a lot more research to support the legitimacy of these techniques than there used to be."

"Our goal is to train at least 300 employees across the health system, so that whenever a patient wants to try the techniques, someone is available to administer them," Wilson explains.

Urban Zen is now expanding to other institutions across the country. "Now that UCLA is doing it, everyone wants to," says Feinberg. "Donna Karan says it's a lot like designing a dress."  



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