Caring for the Caregivers in Haiti

Two East Hampton women try to help medical workers stave off burnout
Mitten Wainwright, seated at left, and Liz Lattuga, standing at right, spent a recent week in Haiti showing hospital caregivers techniques for maintaining their own health.

    Medical professionals in Haiti are still dealing with the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck nearly two years ago, and two East Hampton women recently spent a week at hospitals outside of Port-au-Prince to help caregivers learn new ways to provide a little T.L.C. not only to others, but to themselves.
    Liz Lattuga and Mitten Wainwright attend the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program, offered by Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation in New York City. The yearlong therapy program, one of a number of initiatives sponsored by the foundation, brings students together one weekend a month at the Manhattan center for training in yoga, nutrition, and “contemplative care” such as meditation, use of essential oils, or aromatherapy, and Reiki.
    According to practitioners, these alternative modalities can help improve symptoms of illness such as pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, constipation, and exhaustion, as well as general well-being and health.
    (Of Reiki, an energy practice originally developed in Japan, Ms. Lattuga said: “The way I explain it is as a healing technique that works to balance your body. When your body’s balanced, you’re more relaxed, and it promotes healing.”)
    “A large part of the program is to practice self-care,” Ms. Wainwright said in a recent interview. “You can’t help others if you can’t take care of yourself.”
    She and Ms. Lattuga were among the first small group of students carrying the teachings to Haiti. Others will travel there biweekly through March. Ms. Wainwright is a yoga teacher at various local studios, including Yoga Shanti in Sag Harbor, which is run by Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee, who serve as co-directors, with Ms. Karan (the fashion designer), of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program.
    More than 80 students have graduated from the program as integrative therapists, so far. Ms. Karan’s desire to provide training to health-care workers in a variety of therapies reportedly grew from the experiences of her husband, Stephan Weiss, who died of lung cancer. Mr. Weiss benefited from the use of Eastern modalities in addition to his traditional, Western-medicine treatment, and had asked his wife to take care of the nurses who had cared for him.
    This year, Ms. Karan partnered with the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing’s Future to offer scholarships to nurses to attend the program. Ms. Lattuga was the recipient of one of the four awarded this year.    
    Beyond the weekend sessions in the city, students are expected to continue the meditation, breath work, and other practices at home. “It’s amazing, and it’s transformed me,” Ms. Lattuga said
    A nurse for 30 years, she works in the ambulatory surgery department at South­ampton Hospital’s Ellen Hermanson Breast Center and at the hospital’s dialysis center in Hampton Bays.
    She has also served at Memorial Sloan- ­Continued from A1
Kettering and St. Vincent’s Hospitals in Manhattan, in community health and hospice settings, in occupational health centers on Wall Street, and in the Southampton Hospital emergency room.
    Two graduates of the integrative therapy program have been practicing at Southampton Hospital. Others have brought the techniques to Montefiore and Beth Israel Hospitals, and the University of California at Los Angeles.
    “I would see them with the patients before surgery,” Ms. Lattuga said. “[The patients] were so much calmer.” She applied for the scholarship program the  day after first hearing of it, submitting a video documenting her daily routine as a nurse.
    “Nursing has always been in my blood,” she said. “Literally, since second grade, I knew I wanted to do this.” But, she noted, “caregivers have a real potential for burnout.”
    Passing along the integrative therapy techniques she is learning at Urban Zen “helps caregivers be more calm, mindful, and compassionate,” she said.
    “It has taken my nursing and self care to a whole new level. I know I’m a better nurse for what I’m doing. I’m a much better nurse — a much better person, really.”
    A majority of the patients she offers to guide through some of the techniques agree to give it a try. She said she hopes to eventually expand her services, perhaps volunteering to offer the therapies in community settings such as senior citizens’ centers.
    In Haiti, Ms. Wainwright and Ms. Lattuga worked at St. Luc’s Hospital and St. Damien’s, a pediatric hospital.
    “There are a lot of people living in tents, and it’s almost two years since the earthquake,” Ms. Lattuga said. Much has been rebuilt, Ms. Wainwright noted, but Haiti “just seems to have one disaster after another.” 
    Those working to help others there face a challenging road, and both women felt teaching them self-care techniques was particularly important “because of the burnout rate — they’re working so hard — and what they’re seeing,” Ms. Lattuga said.
    They offered five to seven classes daily for hospital workers, from doctors and nurses to administrators, social workers, and the housekeeping staff, as well as private sessions. They also held classes for international aid workers and child patients at St. Damien’s (as well as the children’s parents).
    “It was a very nice balance, with my yoga background, and Liz’s nurse’s background,” Ms. Wainwright said. “It was a way to respect the work that all of the people in the hospital did — and then they can go back to their work reinvigorated.”
    Among their pupils were people caring for children with cancer and children who have been abandoned, as well as two young American doctors in their second year of residency in Haiti, Ms. Wainwright said. “It’s very, very draining for them.” 
    Many patients, they said, would arrive at the hospitals in dire condition. “They would probably lose a baby a day in the E.R.,” Ms. Wainwright said. “I couldn’t even imagine handling that kind of pressure and anxiety.”
    According to Ms. Lattuga, one human-resources director told her, “People keep coming with bricks and mortar, but nobody’s coming to heal inside.”
    “When people came at the beginning of the week, they were a little tentative,” she said of the therapeutic classes. “By the end of the week we were getting smiles and hugs after the classes.”
    “It was life-changing,” Ms. Lattuga said. “It made me appreciate my own life and what I have.”
     “The value of the Urban Zen program is that they are committed to staying in Haiti” and helping the hospitals’ staff carry on the therapeutic work, Ms. Wainwright said.
    Both said that they would happily go back.