Code Lavender Helps Those Who Help Others

Celia Spell
May 26, 2020
Code Lavender gift bags being distributed to care givers.
MUSC Palliative Care Chaplain Hannah Coyne hands out self-care gift bags to Victoria Sweetnam, M.D., and Boris Kiselev, M.D.

As an herb, lavender stems from the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and Russia, where is it a native plant. But today you can find it growing throughout Europe, the United States and Australia.

Ancient civilizations have been using the aromatic properties of lavender for over 6,000 years, and the ancient Egyptians even used it in their mummification process. Today, it is mostly used as an essential oil for its reported calming effects. Many say it can help with pain, anxiety and stress, although there is some disagreement on what is actually scientifically proven. While the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is looking for more studies on the topic before it states proven scientific remedies, there’s no denying its soothing scent.

“Just opening the bag is a sensory reminder that it’s okay to take a moment for yourself and relax,” said Hannah Coyne, whose favorite part of MUSC Health’s new wellness initiative is giving health care workers lavender-themed gift bags and seeing their faces light up. The program is called Code Lavender.

As the palliative care chaplain at MUSC, Coyne joined forces with MUSC Grief and Bereavement Coordinator Tara Walker to bring the national initiative to South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Code Lavender works in two ways. In addition to providing health care workers self-care gift bags, it also includes virtual debriefing sessions each week where staff members can come together and discuss the challenges they face treating patients during a pandemic when family members and loved ones aren’t allowed to visit.

Walker and Coyne began worrying about their teammates after seeing the COVID’s impact on health care workers in Italy in early March, and so embraced the holistic practice of their department by offering these debriefing sessions as well as mood-lifting gift bags to staff.

With the help of donated items from the Charleston community, Code Lavender has put together over 700 individual lavender bags filled with chamomile lavender tea, stress balls, Cognitive Behavior Therapy-based anxiety and stress reduction techniques, dried lavender, self-compassion cards, lavender lotion, affirmation cards, flower seed packets, lavender-scented votives, dark chocolates, Serenity Prayer cards as well as tips on resiliency and information on the debriefing sessions, which have been held in partnership with staff from the Pastoral Care and Employee Assistance Program at MUSC.

Visitor restrictions over the last two months have made end-of-life conversations difficult for staff members as well as their patients. With or without the pandemic, patients with cancer, lung disease or any myriad of serious illnesses still need to have goals-of-care conversations, and COVID-19 just adds another obstacle to that.

One way the palliative care team helped patients keep in touch with their loved ones was through FaceTime on hospital iPhones. Coyne said just allowing patients to see a family member or friend for the first time in weeks helped them smile. As a palliative care chaplain, she has also spent much of her time praying over telehealth screens for patients or simply allowing them time over the phone with loved ones to cry or just sit in silence.

These changes can be hard on the resiliency of health care workers, and many who attended the debriefing session appreciated the curative balm of learning they weren’t alone in the way they were feeling. In areas of South Carolina where COVID-19 has had an even more profound effect, like Florence, Coyne and Walker hosted additional sessions.

The word “palliative” comes from the Latin word meaning “to cloak,” which gives palliative care connotations of protection and shielding. “Code Lavender was our effort to do something to shield, cover and empower our hospital staff and provide peer support in order to bolster resiliency during this incredibly stressful time,” said Coyne.

There have been nine sessions so far, and there will be two more and even more donated lavender bags in the coming weeks. Nurses, residents, fellows, attending physicians and any MUSC care team member are all invited to participate.

Walker says even just providing the option of a debriefing session seems to have improved morale. She will consider the whole program a success if even just one staff member is helped.

“We hope that over the past two months we have done something to palliate, that is, to reduce the suffering of, our fellow teammates here at MUSC as we all learn together how to cope well with COVID-19,” said Walker.