A word of caution: the information given here is not intended as medical advice. We do not advise you to follow any of these "treatments" yourself. We advise you to obtain a full medical diagnosis and discuss your treatment plan with your doctor. If you choose to use aromatherapy as part of your treatment, please seek out the help of a trained aromatherapist first.
Mr. C. was a 77 year old who was transferred into the Intensive Care Unit from the Veterans home. His admitting diagnosis was Acute Respiratory Failure. Medical history included morbid obesity (over 300 pounds) hypertension, chronic lung disease, and diabetes mellitus. He had recently recovered from pnuemonia. Mr. C. had no immediate family in the area, and only one living sister who lived out of state. During his 2 week stay in the ICU, he had no visitors.
Emergency mechanical ventilation was instituted in the Emergency room, as well as other life-support measures. Mr. C had indicated in his living will that he wanted full medical care. Eventually a tracheostomy was placed, and he was weaned off of the ventilator support. However, his kidneys were failing and it became apparent that Mr. C. was losing the battle for life. Still unable to accept this, he continued to request full medical support, and did need to be replaced on ventilatory support. During this period he had gone from communicative and involved in his care, to depressed and withdrawn. Once again, he was weaned from the "breathing machine". Only this time the physician told him, that there was nothing more we could do. He was in complete renal failure, and sepsis, or blood poisoning was apparent.
Mr. C. was very difficult to care for, not only did his weight present tremendous challenges in caring for him, but he had a very large bedsore, or decubiti on his coccyx that had become gangrenous. The smell was horrible. The staff joked that I should be the one to take care of him because I could use my aromatherapy to help with the smell. I agreed but with a much different plan in mind than to simply cover up a smell with essential oils.
Shortly into my shift it became apparent that Mr. C's time had come. Every seasoned nurse knows when death is pending, even when the vital signs have yet to show it. I made a call to social services and pastoral care, however, it was a very busy day at the hospital, and I knew that I would have to be not only the nurse, but the spiritual care giver as well.
Mr. C. was able to make eye contact and nod his head giving approval for an Aromatherapy "massage" I offered him. His discomfort was palpable as he struggled for breath and grimaced in obvious discomfort. We did have a morphine order which I was hesitant to give, as I was sure it would hasten his last breath. While I did not want him to suffer, I really did not want to give an injection that would surely stop his breathing.
I began with the M-technique - a gentle form of rhythmic touch pioneered and registered by Jane Buckle. I started with the head and face. I chose Cedarwood and Frankincense. Of the oils I had with me in the hospital, these seemed the most appropriate. Rather than choosing the oils for their therapuetic properties, I choose them for their link to spiritual benefits. For 20 minutes I gently stroked him with the oils and M-technique. Because there was no pastor available, I softly said the Lord's prayer. In the background was a tape of the harp music that our staff Harpist had recorded. Various staff came in to tell me that he was going into a very slow heart rate, (which I was aware of due to the monitor in his room) some stayed at the bedside.
Mr. C. for the first time closed his eyes, (he had kept them wide open most of the morning, even though he seemed to be asleep). His grimacing stopped. and I noticed a tear running down his cheek. The complete relaxation and letting go, was unlike any experience I had ever had as a nurse attending a dying patient. Mr. C expired gently and peacefully. My workers later told me they had rarely seen a more peaceful death, and were deeply moved by the experience. While I believe that research is indeed very valuable and is much needed in order to further validate the use of essential oils, not even the best devised research study could prove or disprove the value of using aromatherapy in this and similar situations. Far from clinical outcomes and documentable results, using essential oils for death and dying adds a component of human compassion, and spirituality that will forever probably be beyond our full capacity to understand.
Lori Mitchell is a Registered Nurse and Clinical Aromatherapist living in Kalispell Montana, USA. She is a Regional Director for the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, also serving on the Safety Committee. Lori has incorporated the use of Aromatherapy into both the Acute, and Long Term Care settings, and currently uses essential oils as an integrative part of her nursing care in the Intensive Care Unit where she has worked for 15 years. She is actively involved in conducting nursing research on the use of essential oils in a clinical setting.
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