When Lynn Ballas was wheeled into Columbia University Medical Center's operating room in late 2012 to undergo double mastectomy surgery and remove the cancerous cells in her breasts, the usual suspects bustled around her: a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, and a team of nurses. But there was an additional key member of her surgical team: a Reiki master.
Ballas hired Reiki practitioner Raven Keyes to be in the room with her that day, channeling loving energy as the surgery team cut Ballas open and sewed her back up. She had received Reiki a few times before and always enjoyed it but had never considered having energy work in a medical setting. It wasn't until she noticed Keyes' book The Healing Power of Reiki sitting in a pile of books and papers in her doctor's office that the topic came up. Her physician, Sheldon Marc Feldman, M.D., offered Reiki as an add-on option to her surgery. "I've never been a high-energy person," Ballas says. "I get drained very easily, and I thought I would need an extra boost."
Ballas is not alone in her thinking: Patient requests for Reiki as they undergo high-risk surgeries are slowly on the rise. Keyes was one of the first Reiki masters to offer the service in the early 2000s. Since then, she's entered the OR with dozens of patients, and in 2015, she launched her own certification program and medical Reiki company to train others to do the same. In the past year and a half, she's trained more than 120 practitioners across the country and in Canada. And her reach is spreading even further: This past May, one of her trainees was the first to enter an operating room in Dubai. And she and Feldman are in the process of raising money for a year-long study on the benefits of Reiki in the OR, partly to encourage insurance companies to cover the treatment, which can be pricy. Keyes charges $1,000 to $3,000 per surgery, depending on how complex it is.
But the benefits, Keyes says, are worth the cost. She claims that surgeries simply go more smoothly and recovery times are faster when Reiki is present. "There's a lot less pain afterward," she says. "Someone could have both breasts removed, and in a day or two, they don't even need to take a pain pill." And in pre-op, "it completely relaxes people," she says. "It restores balance."
Reiki, a form of energy healing originating in Japan, involves a practitioner laying their hands on or over a patient to transfer energy. Like in acupuncture, certain areas, or chakras, on the body are targeted, and the method is most often used for relaxation, stress-reduction, and other conditions with a mind-body element: Advocates claim Reiki can treat pain, depression, and disease, and boost energy levels. A number of celebrities have even jumped on board—Christina Aguilera claims Reiki helped her lose weight. And some 800 U.S. hospitals have adopted Reiki as part of patient care, according to the Center for Reiki Research.
But Reiki in the operating room is less common. For one, the patient is unconscious; most have no recollection of the Reiki practitioner even being in the room. Feldman, chief of breast surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, who works with Keyes and operated on Ballas, says that after watching his sister use alternative therapies like nutrition and meditation during her fight against breast cancer, he became more open to having a Reiki master on his surgical team. "I've always been open to mind-body approaches to healing," he says. "Reiki can greatly reduce anxiety and stress related to surgery and improve patient outcomes." Though the patient is asleep, "there is a lot of scientific evidence that patients have [some] awareness even during general anesthesia," he says.
Keyes, a petite woman with wispy blond hair who started her career as an actress, became a Reiki master in the mid-'90s. After a few years of practicing, one of her clients asked Keyes if she would consider administering Reiki during her open-heart surgery with alternative-medicine champion Mehmet Oz, M.D. Keyes said no at first—she disliked hospitals and was squeamish around blood. But after meditating on it, she reconsidered. She felt as if there was a higher force encouraging her to go through with it.
Since then, Keyes has been on a mission to raise awareness about Reiki as an add-on to surgical procedures. Keyes will meet the patient at the hospital the morning of the surgery and stay with them throughout the day, moving through the hospital with them and administering Reiki before, during, and after surgery. While the patient is under anesthesia, Keyes, in her scrubs and surgical mask, stands at the patient's head and holds her hands close to their scalp. She tries to remain calm and focused. Her goal is to act as a channel for healing energy to flow through her to the patient.
Feldman began working with Reiki practitioners in his operating room around 1996, and although many medical personnel were uncomfortable with the idea at first, gradually he's watched his colleagues and staff come around. "It elevates the entire operating room toward a place of healing rather than a place where technical procedures are performed on the human body," he says. "Almost always, the doctors who were skeptical are changed after experiencing Reiki in the OR."
A Delicate Operation
That's not to say Keyes and other Reiki masters haven't faced pushback from the medical community. Hospital staff will give Keyes strange looks and ask what she's doing. "I'm channeling universal life force energy for healing,' she likes to say. A few anesthesiologists haven't been happy with her presence, given that she'll often stand at the head of a patient during surgery, a space typically reserved for them. One of her trainees, Lisa Wolfson, was told to stand against the back wall and not be near the patient during a surgery. She had to channel Reiki from across the room instead.
One surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute calls Reiki "magical thinking" and doesn't think it belongs in critical-care scenarios. And a 2012 National Institutes of Health report concluded, "Overall there is a lack of high-quality research on Reiki, and the studies that have been done show conflicting results."
More research is being done, however, and some of it is encouraging. A 2016 study published in the journal Nursing found that Reiki significantly reduced pain in patients after knee surgery. Numerous small studies show a reduction in depression and fatigue in cancer patients who received Reiki, and a rigorously controlled study in the Journal of Orthopaedic Research showed that cells in test tubes treated by Reiki practitioners grew better than those in an untreated control group.
For now, Keyes promotes her work by word-of-mouth and speaks at alternative medicine conferences around the world. And Lynn Ballas is still cancer-free four years later. If she does need surgery again, she says, a Reiki master will be by her side.