Christopher Neal was about to get a new heart. Doctors ran test after test to clear him for the procedure. Forms were signed. IVs were checked. Then, hours before surgeons at Tampa General Hospital cracked into his sternum, the 50-year-old man also got a dose of unconventional medicine: a Japanese healing technique called Reiki.
It was free, a hospital perk. For 35 minutes that June day, nurse Kimberly Gray used her hands to direct healing energy to Neal, a patient in the intensive care unit. A veteran of Reiki treatments, he could feel something happening.
"Her hands were burning up," he said. "Just cooking the skin where she touched."
She worked to live music, the soft plink of a harpist.
Neal became so relaxed, he fell asleep.
Across America, Reiki enthusiasts grow in number. And while scientific research on the topic has often been inconclusive, some local hospitals have begun to embrace Reiki and similar techniques to supplement conventional medicine.
"A patient who is centered and calm is a much better partner to his doctor than a patient who is distressed," said Pamela Miles, a Reiki master and national expert.
Heart patient Neal, still recovering from surgery, welcomes any approach that helps.
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Reiki practitioner Gray works on the front lines, lending her healing hands to hospital patients in need of stress relief.
Her approach seems in harmony with the hospital Peace Room, a sanctuary of friendly colors and painted butterflies.
But her work, by nature, often must take place in sterile patient rooms. She is, first and foremost, a registered nurse. For all of her soothing talk of energy and electromagnetic fields, she wears a white medical jacket and moves in a swirl of hospital activity.
She may not fit everyone's profile of a New Age spiritualist.
She pitches Reiki and healing hands — which she says are similar except for hand positioning — with the energy and articulation of a salesperson.
Patients who get better sooner and leave their hospital beds earlier save the hospital money, Gray points out. Patients who were satisfied with their visit, in part because of their Reiki treatment, are more likely to entrust the hospital with future care.
She tries to tailor the treatment to the patient — for instance, incorporating Scripture for a Christian.
Reiki is part of the hospital's Integrative Healthcare Program, which Gray coordinates.
"It's low cost, low risk and very high benefit," said Janet Davis, vice president of acute care at Tampa General.
Increasingly hospitals view alternative medicine as a potential money earner, according to the American Hospital Association. More than one-third of hospitals surveyed by the group reported that they offer one or more alternative therapies.
In the Tampa Bay area, St. Joseph's Hospital, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and All Children's Hospital are among institutions with Reiki or healing touch programs.
But many health insurance policies won't pay for Reiki.
"We do not cover it. It's called an alternative therapy," said Mark Wright, spokesman for BlueCross BlueShield of Florida.
"In the case of something like this, it would probably take some serious proof that it's safe and effective," he said.
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Doctors are often among the skeptics.
Gray's talk of quantum healing has, at times, alienated them or at least been the target of humor. She recalls one doctor asking her, "What's energy?" And later, "Have you found that universal life force yet?"
She has answers for those who want to hear them. But she knows it's more productive to point out that her treatments relax patients and help them sleep.
"Take it from the spiritual to the physiological," she said.
If doctors see the benefits, they'll be more likely to advise patients to visit her.
Dr. Paul Kornberg, medical director for pediatric rehabilitations at Tampa General, said he thinks nontraditional treatments can make patients more open to traditional ones.
"The hospital can be a very cold place," he said.
As Reiki and other healing hands techniques make their way into hospitals, there is pressure to show verifiable, quantitative results.
Gray tells of patients regaining movement and overcoming severe pain.
Outside the hospital, Reiki practitioners credit it for everything from relieving constipation to improving T-cell counts in an AIDS patient.
"The best you can do is step back and let the flow do the work," said Sam Belyea, who practices Reiki through his Tampa business, Massage Redefined.
Some are drawn to Reiki because they cannot find cures to pain or illness, he said, while cautioning, "Reiki and the word miracles should not be associated."
But unless rigorous scientific research can validate Reiki, it will continue to face criticism from some scientists and doctors.
"Medical therapy should be based on what science shows works or what science shows doesn't work," said Dr. David Gorski, managing editor of the blog Science-Based Medicine, and an associate professor of surgery at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
"Reiki is basically no different, when you boil it down, than faith healing. Let's compare and contrast. What is faith healing? Someone says they can channel the power of God into a patient and heal the patient. What is Reiki? A Reiki healer says they can channel a universal life force and heal the patient."
Davis, the Tampa General vice president, says some research already existed about Reiki when the program started. But the hospital has begun a study of its own.
She predicts that in 10 years, it will be normal for hospitals to offer alternative therapies.
"There's an art and science to all medicine," she said. "This truly is one of the more artistic sides."
Eric P. Newcomer can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.