The Hand Angels

Certified aromatherapist Linda Donovan and her group of volunteers shine their lights in some of the scariest places in the world

by Julie Ricks McClintic

This year – this 2020 – has been an ugly nightmare of a year for everyone. Fires, quarantine, economic instability, quarantine, protests and rioting, quarantine – all of it. But in this darkness, sometimes, there is a light: a bright, shining, joyful light. I recently visited Door County to meet one of these lights.

As I drove down the leafy, one-lane road, looking for an address on the lake side of the peninsula, I couldn’t help but notice how the riot of nature that surrounded me – so rich in colorful hue, with the sounds of wind pushing waves onto rocks – contrasted with the vision in my head of a sanitized treatment room. 

Because this is the story of cancer treatment, of chemotherapy/oncology centers. Sterile. Clinical. Lonely.

Volunteer certified aromatherapist practitioner Linda Donovan has lived among the forests of Door County with her family since 1987. She’s volunteered for years with Special Olympics and teaches tai chi and yoga in addition to making art with paper and fiber. But where she really shines is in some of the scariest places in the world: oncology/chemotherapy centers. 

She started volunteering in Naples, Florida – where she and her husband live for six months of the year – as a certified aromatherapist. First she spent time in hospice settings, then at chemotherapy centers. Her experience and understanding of the cancer and chemo experience became firsthand when, 13 years ago, she was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma herself. She managed her own treatment plan, and today she is cancer free.

Undergoing chemotherapy is an isolating, frightening experience on many levels. Not only is cancer inside your body, but the treatment to kill it is basically poison, so you volunteer for it in the hope of returning to health and a life post-cancer. The healing touch of hand massage with essential oils during such a treatment journey is therapeutic for physical and emotional well-being, and the sense of human connection greatly benefits the client. The touch and closeness of another human being can eliminate feelings of isolation and loneliness as the fragrance of the essential oils stimulates good emotions.

Photo by Julie Ricks McClintic.

Oncology department staff members work very, very hard to make their patients feel comfortable and at home by providing warm blankets, coffee, tea and snacks. But the reality of where you are and what you’re doing is evident all around: IV poles and tubing strapped to your arm or port; everything clean and tidy – thank goodness – but so antiseptic; wide, open rooms that smell of sanitizer, bleach and soap, and where all is seen by curious eyes; and the green and pink tones that were chosen to be soothing somehow feeling muted and desolate instead.

Donovan recognized this isolated feeling when she began volunteering with hospice and cancer patients and wanted to reach out, literally, to those who were undergoing chemotherapy to help alleviate their sense of isolation, improve their mood and relax their body. For more than 10 years now, she’s done this at Door County Medical Center through the volunteer group she started, Hand Angels. It’s made up of volunteers whom she has trained and certified in aromatherapy.

Perhaps when people hear “aromatherapy,” they may think of crunchy granola hippies out in California, but there’s scientific evidence that aromatherapy has physical healing properties. In lab studies of essential oils conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers, results showed that “when inhaled, the scent molecules in essential oils travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain and especially impact the amygdala: the emotional center of the brain.”

A practitioner makes Donovan’s essential-oil therapies according to her direction using a base of organic jojoba infused with lavender, rose atta and frankincense for the hands, and peppermint for the feet. She said the massage oil combined with the peppermint can alleviate painful peripheral neuropathy in the hands and feet. 

And this is all offered free of charge. A few grants have been awarded, and people have given donations to help with the cost of supplies over the years, but generally, Donovan and her team of volunteers visit their clients whenever they come for treatment.

Chemotherapy cannot be administered to a patient who has elevated blood pressure, so Donovan has frequently stepped in to assist nurses and staff members with essential-oil hand massage to help reduce patients’ high blood pressure. In fact, before I left her lovely, serene home, I said yes to a hand massage.

According to the Fitbit that I always wear, my pulse was 60 before the treatment, and it dropped to 53 in about five minutes with just one hand massage. I also felt free of stress and anxiety for the first time in six months. Donovan’s hands exuded a warmth, even where her skin did not touch mine. I felt a sense of care and connection, a feeling of being surrounded by all that is divine, a bond with the energy that constructs our universe. Maybe that sounds crunchy granola, but it’s the best I’ve felt since March. 

My massage lasted fewer than 10 minutes, but cancer patients receive a much longer experience. The therapy is also offered to visiting family members who are interested, and foot massage is available as well if requested. I can only imagine how much more relaxing that could make a chemotherapy infusion.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has closed hospitals and treatment centers to all but staff and patients, Donovan and her Hand Angels team look forward to the day when they can return to their healing work, helping cancer patients in their fight to live. 

As I drove away, I felt something I hadn’t felt since the early days of the pandemic: hope. The fight is worth it. The sacrifice, the pain, the unpleasantness, the isolation, the discomfort and the suffering – we will get through it, whether it’s cancer or COVID. It’s all worth it. The human experience is magnificent. Thank you for reminding me, Linda Donovan.