The patient’s face softens the moment Tammy Litrov walks into the hospital room at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center.
One of three integrative therapists on staff at UCLA Health, Litrov’s sole function is to provide calming energy to hospitalized patients through soothing music, healing touch, essential oils and guided meditation.
“It’s like a massage for your soul,” a patient says at the conclusion of the 20-minute session. “To be in such a delicate space and such a clinical setting and have something offered that is so intimate and so beneficial is just wonderful. I really, really appreciate it.”
Part of UCLA Health’s Integrative Medicine Collaborative, integrative therapy has been offered to hospitalized patients for many years by volunteer practitioners through a partnership with the Urban Zen Foundation, which aims to foster mind-body-spirit connections in health care and educational settings. UCLA Health established its own staff of integrative therapists in 2020, says inpatient integrative medicine coordinator Ana Baldioli.
Litrov, a yoga instructor who studied with Urban Zen, started as a volunteer at UCLA Health before formally joining the staff.
“This is the most rewarding, fulfilling work I’ve ever done in my life,” she says.
What happens during an integrative therapy session?
UCLA Health physicians can order integrative therapy for any patient they think might benefit. Litrov’s patients include people who are frequently hospitalized for chronic illnesses and people preparing for or recovering from surgery.
“The nurses call me a pain-relief drug,” Litrov jokes.
Integrative therapy is a “low-tech, high-touch” treatment, Baldioli says. Patients report that it reduces pain, eases stress and helps them sleep. Some patients fall asleep during their session.
The calming begins as soon as Litrov comes into the room. With a warm smile and quiet voice, she greets the patient and asks if she can draw the shades. She sets her phone to play gentle instrumental music, the kind you might hear during a massage or a yoga class.
“Would you like some essential oil?” Litrov asks, dabbing a few drops of lavender onto a piece of gauze. The patient holds it to her nose and inhales deeply.
“I never gave thought to essential oils,” the patient says. “But it’s one of the more helpful treatments.”
Plant-derived essential oils have been shown to relax, energize and soothe body and mind. Their fragrance stimulates the brain’s limbic system, responsible for regulating emotion and memory.
Next, Litrov offers to lead a guided meditation. The patient settles back, appearing to sink deeper into her bed. She covers her eyes with a small pillow as Litrov begins.
“Invite peace into the body and mind,” Litrov says. “Allow healing to go where you need healing the most.”
She encourages the patient to become aware of her toes and feet, then ankles, lower legs and knees, moving slowly up the body.
As she speaks, she begins performing reiki, a Japanese stress-relieving technique that involves gentle touch. Litrov places her hands on the patient’s head, hovers them near her face, then touches her shoulders. She cups one foot, then the other. The patient’s breathing visibly slows.
“Become aware of your eyes,” Litrov says. “Your eyeballs, eyelids and eyebrows. The space between your eyebrows.”
As Litrov continues the body-scan meditation, a heart rate monitor beside the patient’s bed shows a gradual drop, from 98 beats per minute to 93.
“Allow healing energy into every cell and fiber of your being,” Litrov says.
Completing the meditation and reiki, she invites the patient to deepen her breath and reorient herself in the room.
“This is the ultimate way for someone outside your body to guide your energy and take it from where it doesn’t need to be to where it does need to be,” the patient says.
Benefits of integrative therapy
It’s a soothing experience that promotes overall healing, Baldioli says, by shifting a patient’s nervous system from a sympathetic stress reaction (often called fight-or-flight mode) to a parasympathetic healing state of rest-and-digest.
“It's so easy for patients to be stressed in the hospital,” she says. “And it's so much harder to heal from a paper cut or from cancer when we're stressed. So when we help transition the body into a more relaxed state, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system and the body can heal itself.”
It also makes patients more receptive to medications and treatments, she says, and more compliant with caregivers.
“It creates a better dynamic for everyone involved,” Baldioli says.
For Litrov, integrative therapy continues to fascinate, even after many years of practicing.
“It’s amazing how effective it is,” she says. “You just watch their whole body relax.”
Learn more about integrative medicine practices at UCLA Health.