By Meredith Goad, June 16, 1996
Patients find relief in mind over body
A PBS documentary that explores such techniques follows a Westbrook woman as she undergoes surgery.
June King’s last, foggy memory before she blacked out on the operating table was of her masked surgeons standing over her, speaking in unison.
“Following this operation,” they intoned, “you will feel comfortable and you will heal very well.”
That image might seem a little creepy, like something out of a medical thriller. But for King, a 45-year-old social worker from Westbrook who has breast cancer, it was just what she needed before undergoing a mastectomy and breast reconstruction. “It was like a chant,” she recalled. “It was wonderful. I just drifted off to sleep. It was a very pleasant feeling.”
King and her doctors were using mind-body techniques designed to prepare her mentally and emotionally, as well as physically, for surgery. A growing number of patients are turning to these techniques to ease their anxiety about having surgery, and to help them heal more quickly.
In King’s case, the techniques worked so well she only needed Tylenol to control her post-operative pain.
That’s unusual for someone who’s just undergone such major surgery, says Dr. Dixie Mills, one of King’s physicians. King also went home form the hospital a day earlier than expected.
King’s recent operation at Maine Medical Center was filmed for a Public Broadcasting System documentary that will explore how intuition is being used in a variety of fields, from medicine to sports. The documentary will air in the fall.
The techniques King used came from “Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster,” a new book by Peggy Huddleston, a psychotherapist from Cambridge, Mass., who has deep Maine roots of her own. Huddleston’s grandmother, Roselle Huddilston ( the spelling of the family name has been changed), was a famous suffragette who was the first woman to vote in Maine, as well as the first woman to run for the Maine Legislature.
Peggy Huddleston, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, has taught mind-body techniques for 25 years. She decided to develop a set of techniques for getting through surgery after people attending her workshops kept asking for them.
“Someone would always raise their hand and say ‘I’m having surgery next week. Is there anything I can do to scrape myself off the ceiling? I’m terrified,’ ” she said.
Surgery itself explained
Physicians typically prepare patients well for the mechanical aspects of surgery, explaining to them in detail what will happen to their bodies.
But sometimes, Huddleston notes, they don’t realize how frightened their patients are of even minor procedures. They may not pay enough attention to the intense emotions that can come up in many patients before surgery.
Some of the tips in Huddleston’s book such as visualizing a positive outcome and listening to relaxation tapes, are not new. But Huddleston goes further, recommending that patients enlist their doctors’ help by asking them to say “positive healing statements” during the actual operation. These statements are made while the patients are under anesthesia and more open to suggestion.
Huddleston also says it’s a good idea to meet the anesthesiologist in person well before heading off to the operating room. Much of the fear that surrounds surgery has to do with losing consciousness and the feeling of giving up control. Asking questions ahead of time can help assuage those fears.
Patients typically meet with an anesthesiologist shortly before surgery, but it’s often not the same doctor who will actually be in the operating room. Talking to the anesthesiologist who will actually be putting the patient under makes a difference, Huddleston says.
The suggestions worked well for June King. King discovered four weeks ago that she has breast cancer. For treatment, she opted for a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, followed by chemotherapy. King was a veteran of three previous surgeries, during which she’d had some bad experiences with anesthesia. She also remembered a lot of pain. So she was nervous about going back into the hospital.
Surgeon suggested book
King’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Verne Weisberg, recommended that she read Huddleston’s book.
King followed his orders, buying the book and ordering a relaxation tape, that goes with it. When King called for the tape, Huddleston herself picked up the phone, and the women chatted like old friends.
PBS had asked Huddleston to recommend a patient who was using her techniques and wouldn’t mind being trailed by a camera crew for the documentary on intuition. Huddleston decided to ask King if they could record her operation at Maine Medical Center. King readily agreed. With just two weeks to go before her surgery, King quickly decided to try some things she read about in Huddleston’s book. For example, one technique involved visualizing herself “totally healed and doing something that you love.”
“I visualized myself sitting on the deck of a sailboat with the breeze blowing in my hair,” she said. A few days before her surgery, King met with her anesthesiologist and asked a lot of questions. Together they made plans to take her relaxation tapes and headphones into the operating room, so she could listen to the tapes while under anesthesia.
On the day of the surgery, she had family and friends around her for support. As she was dropping off to sleep, the physicians repeated five times the statement “following this operation, you will feel comfortable and you will heal very well.”
The healing statements can be tailored to the patient’s condition and preferences. In this statement, for example, patients fill in a food they like: ” Following this operation you will be hungry for —.” King chose chicken bouillon.
Another statement that’s often used — a good one, for medical purposes –is: “you will be thirsty and you will urinate easily.”
“Since a person’s unconscious, they’re highly suggestible, like in a hypnotic trance,” Huddleston said. “Often this (statement) will be able to avoid a catheter.”
When King woke up, she was thirsty, but she didn’t think much about chicken bouillon.
When results vary, it’s hard to tell if there really is a mind-body connection at work, or if the techniques are having some kind of placebo effect.
Nothing is 100 percent
“As in everything with people, nothing is 100 percent,” says Weisberg, King’s plastic surgeon.
But, he adds, it doesn’t matter much to him if the statements have been scientifically proven effective, as long as they work and do no harm in the process.
Weisberg says he first learned about the use of healing statements during surgery when he was a resident at Yale. He tries to do it from time to time, saying things such as “you will feel comfortable when you wake up” and ” you will feel thirsty and want to drink a glass of juice.”
Not every patient is open to the idea, he notes. And sometimes he sees only subtle effects. But other times, as in King’s case, the results are “remarkable.”
“She had a fairly significant operation and certainly had every right to use large amounts of pain medication,” he said. “But she didn’t.”
Doctors like Weisberg also have found that the techniques are a good way to connect with patients, even if they are unsure of how well the statements really work.
“I think that every advantage that you can take, you should take,” Weisberg said. “Life is hard enough. And it’s yet one more tool for establishing a rapport or relationship between a physician and a patient.”
Some patients might feel a little intimidated at the thought of asking their doctor to talk to them while they’re asleep. But many surgeons are glad to do it if asked, Huddleston said.
“We don’t know yet what this empowering of a patient will do,” said Mills, the physician who performed King’s mastectomy. ” But I can only think that it’s for the benefit of both the doctor and the patient to involve the patient more, to feel like he or she is more of a participant in their healing and not just an object that something’s being done to.”
Mills has responded positively in the past to patients’ requests to bring favorite objects into the operating room, such as a teddy bear. And she often asks if they want her to say anything to them while they are under anesthesia.
“Some people want me to suggest that they stop smoking or that they eat right,” she said. “And I do. I don’t know if that’s enough, but at least they feel like I listen to them.”