Today at Donna Karan’s two week Well-Being Forum, the topic was Nurses: The Healing Touch. Donna welcomes everyone into Urban Zen, her late husband’s former sculpture studio in downtown New York. Gathered together are a divergent group of leading integrative physicians, visionary thinkers, holistic nurse practitioners, media personalities, Buddhists, and yoga teachers, to help determine key initiatives for Karan’s efforts to bring Integrative Medicine to the forefront of American health care.

“The primary commitment of a nurse is to care.” says Jnani Chapman, a nurse and therapeutic yoga trainer and practitioner, who is one of today’s panelists.

But with the current nursing shortage, in hospital settings, beset by bureaucracy, overbooked, and overwhelmed, nurses are not able to give their best. What Donna wants to know is: who will take care of the caretakers? And what supports can be offered to help them do their jobs and take care of themselves?

“When I felt abandoned by doctors, the nurses were always there,” recalls panel member, Charlotte Louise, a cancer survivor and president of the Cancer Survival Resource Center. “When half my friends recommend one approach while the other half recommended another, nurses stood with me in the question and gave me the confidence to investigate and find the right answers for me. It was a nurse who told me those who survive are frequently the ones who put on their lipstick and go out and dance. Nurses are a great gift.”

“Nurses are there at the patient’s bedside — listening to their stories and helping them discover meaning, says Susan Luck, RN, and director of the Integrative Nursing Institute. “As nurses, we want to be present but unfortunately we aren’t always able to within our current medical model.”

“At the hospital, it’s depressing to see nurses go in with the most altruistic motives and come to feel they’re just cogs in the wheel,” says Dr. Woodson Merrell, director of Integrative Medicine at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, who will be training nurses in self-care as part of Donna’s new health initiative. “We need to empower them to use the tools they are trained to give and want to give.”

Studies how that high touch/low-tech integrative modalities, like healing touch, mindfulness, guided imagery, yoga, and breathing and relaxation help patients cope with the combined stresses of illness, worrisome medical diagnoses, and hospital treatments. But hospital administrations are unreceptive, many nurses at the forum say.

“There’s a disparity between what you want to offer and the regulatory side with administrators saying: “Not in my hospital,” agrees David Hill, an educator in natural medicine.

Plus hospital scheduling and record-keeping are time-consuming.

“I’ve trained dozens of nurses but many are burned out. You can only give what you have to give,” says Gary Krafstow who teaches Viniyoga, a therapeutic yoga technique for both patient care and self-care.

“Take care of yourself, starting with your nutrition” counsels Jill Pettijohn, a chef and nurse. “Many nurses are overweight. Don’t settle for cafeteria food. Bring your own lunch, take space for yourself, and make sure you get enough rest.”

In one of her first initiatives, Donna, a long time yoga practitioner, will send seventy yoga teachers trained by Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman into hospitals to teach self-care to nurses.

“Find a modality you like, use it yourself, and then offer it. We’re health educators, too,” Hill reminds nurses at the forum. “Even simple guided imagery can calm people in the stressful hospital environment. It’s the quality of our interactions with patients that help them and us as well.”

“We all need to connect to essence — even hospital administrators,” says Merrell.

“At one hospital an influential person holding a key position acted as a roadblock to certain key initiatives. A healing touch practitioner seeing him working late one night, asked if he would like to receive healing touch.”

After three minutes, he turned and asked her, “What did you do? I feel the most extraordinary calm…” This man signed off on four projects awaiting his signature for months, and then offered to fundraise for integrative programs.

“Give something they can feel, and they’ll move out of their concepts and into their experience, where healing begins,” says Merrell.

Systemic solutions are also needed, both panelists and audience agree — especially in the current nursing shortage.

“When managed care came in, hospitals laid off nurses, which discouraged people from pursuing it as a career,” says Janet Mackin, Dean of the School of Nursing at the New York Beth Israel Medical Center. “But with an aging population, we need more nurses. I’d love to see TV shows showing the human side of nursing.”

“Talk to political candidates and encourage them to make these modalities available to everyone in this country,” urged a nurse in the audience.

“This conversation is happening with ten million nurses worldwide,” Barbara Dossey, International Co-Director of the Nightingale Institute for Global Health says. “Florence Nightingale said that it would take nurses one hundred years to transform the health care system — and we’re there now. It’s time for everyone to stand up, be a leader and speak in your own voice. Get together, agree what you want to shift, and make it happen.”

Although practitioners gather professional meetings and conferences, the artful mix of people invited into Donna’s calm environment has sparked a healing alchemy.

“I’m amazed at the creative potential here,” says Charlotte Louise. “According to Greek myth, the god Apollo encompasses both medicine and music, both of which create harmony. Let’s bring in that essence to create new healing possibilities.”