When 16-year-old Kailah Cathey has free time, she often reaches for a book. But what she pulls off her shelf isn’t your typical young adult or popular fiction. She reads medical books and dreams of becoming a surgeon.
Aromatherapy and its calming and healing effects is a particular interest of Cathey’s. She wondered how it might benefit patients undergoing medical procedures.
And now, she’s playing a role in answering that question. Dr. Richard Rovin, a neurosurgeon at Advocate Aurora Health, incorporated Cathey’s ideas and research into a clinical trial studying the effects of lavender aromatherapy during awake craniotomies, a form of brain surgery.
It all started around the dinner table in 2016. Cathey was sharing her aromatherapy research with her parents. Her brother was also there, along with a friend who happened to be Rovin’s son. He relayed Cathey’s ideas to his dad, who reached out to Cathey.
Incorporating Cathey’s ideas, Rovin and his team at Aurora Research Institute and Aurora Neuroscience Innovation Institute (ANII) launched the clinical trial “Feasibility of Aromatherapy in an Awake Craniotomy Environment” in 2018.
Increasingly used in brain surgery, awake craniotomy is a type of procedure in which patients remain awake and alert to respond to questions, which help surgeons ensure the precise area of the brain is treated – and reduces risk of damaging areas that control speech and other skills. With access to areas of the brain that are otherwise difficult or impossible to reach through traditional methods, awake craniotomy allows surgeons to remove deep-lying tumors and blood clots. ANII neurosurgeons use ultra-precise navigation technology and high-definition imaging equipment to make the technique possible.
Most patients tolerate awake craniotomies well. However, some studies found that about 50% of patients report moderate fear, 30% experience moderate to severe pain and anxiety, and 11% report severe fear.
“We were looking for alternative methods to mitigate pain, anxiety and fear,” Rovin said. “Lavender aromatherapy has proved to work before surgery. But after talking with Kailah, it clicked for us: Why not use aromatherapy during the surgery?”
The trial enrolled 40 patients at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee. During surgery, patients in the study were offered lavender aromatherapy via a nasal inhaler every 30 minutes in addition to the typical local anesthetic and mild intravenous sedative.
The clinical trial is completed. Rovin and his team are now evaluating the data and effect aromatherapy had on reducing the patients’ anxiety and improving their satisfaction with pain medications.
And if all goes as planned, Rovin said Cathey will be listed as a coauthor on any research publications that come out of the study – an impressive accomplishment to include on her college application.
“When I found out, I cried,” her mother, Jacquelyn Cathey, said. “For an established physician to take notice of her and implement her research is awesome. I’m so proud of her.”