Volunteer Reiki practitioner Vince Gilhool provides a session to cancer patient Richard Cummings.

At nearly 80 years old, master Reiki practitioner Vince Gilhool has volunteered over 6,700 hours providing Reiki sessions to patients, caregivers, and others at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) and the Abramson Cancer Center (ACC) since 2010. Gilhool, a retired Philadelphia parole officer and former cancer patient, says it has been the greatest privilege of his life to watch patients and their loved ones become visibly relaxed as a result of a session—even if they can’t explain why.

Reiki, which originated in Japan more than 100 years ago, is a gentle practice that can promote emotional balance and well-being through light touch of the practitioner’s hands on or slightly above the receiver’s body, said volunteer team leader Sharon Edelman, who oversees a small group of volunteer Reiki practitioners providing sessions at HUP, the ACC, and Penn Radiation Oncology Doylestown. Many patients report that Reiki helps reduce their anxiety, promote feelings of peace, wellness, and balance, and relieve pain and discomfort. The modality is now provided in many health systems.

The Reiki program represents Penn Medicine’s commitment to providing a range of techniques to manage patients’ symptoms, decrease anxiety, and promote well-being as a complement to conventional medical therapies. Other services include acupuncture, yoga, and guided meditation, just to mention a few. 

“The inclusion of integrated therapies to support patients and families has become an essential part of cancer care at Penn Medicine,” said Heather Sheaffer, DSW, LCSW, director of ACC Patient and Family Services. “Vince exemplifies care for the whole person. His kindness and empathy are instantly calming and reassuring.”

Gilhool typically offers sessions to patients in their hospital rooms or in recliners while receiving chemotherapy or other infusion treatments. Caregivers, staff, and volunteers are also welcome to request a session. Patients decide if and where they want to be touched, and, unlike with massage, there is no physical manipulation of the body involved. If Gilhool sees a patient has fallen asleep during a session, he knows he has done his job. 

“I tease him, ‘I don’t know if this works because you get to my shoulders, and the next thing I remember, you’re gone and the music’s off,’” said cancer patient Stephen Hastings, 77, who tried Reiki shortly after being diagnosed with liver and colon cancer a few years ago. Now Hastings requests a session whenever he’s back for chemotherapy. “Vince doesn’t actually touch me … but there’s a tingly feeling. It’s so soothing. I just drift off, and then I’ll come back and it’s like I had the best nap ever. I know if I go in and get my Reiki treatment, I feel good the rest of the day. If I don’t get it, I don’t feel as good.” 

The mechanism of why it works may be hard to grasp, but Gilhool says it’s simply impossible to discount the calming effects he has observed in patients and caregivers over the years. 

“I try to make it simple. I tell them this is a natural healing technique, that it’s a little bit like massage, but I can do it without touching them if they prefer,” he said. “All I ask is that they close their eyes and trust me enough to feel whatever they feel. I try to emphasize that there’s nothing they need to do for it to work.”

More than Reiki credentials  

Volunteer Reiki practitioner Vince Gilhool
Volunteer Reiki practitioner Vince Gilhool

Gilhool brings more than his Reiki credentials to the job: 20 years ago, he was treated at the ACC for head and neck cancer. While he doesn’t typically mention this experience unless he’s with a long-time client, it connects him deeply to patients’ feelings of pain, anguish, and lack of control about their situation. 

“I had never in my life been in a situation where I had so little control,” Gilhool said, remembering his experience in treatment. “So, when I go into a room, I ask, ‘May I come in? Is it alright to put down the shades? May I play some music?’ And I think that gives them back a little control.”

Gilhool’s passion for Reiki was born not long after he had completed cancer treatment, when a close friend asked if anyone wanted to join her for a training program. Always drawn to novel experiences, he went along and found the technique and its effects on people so “endlessly fascinating” that within two years, he had become a certified master practitioner and teacher.

Like Hastings, many of Gilhool’s clients haven’t heard much about Reiki, but they’re willing to try anything that might make them feel better. 

Richard Cummings of Lewes, Delaware, was receiving radiation treatments for prostate cancer and read about the service on the ACC website. On a Wednesday in September, Cummings settled into a black recliner at the Family Caregiver Center in HUP-Spruce and closed his eyes. Spa music played while Gilhool hovered his hands over Cummings’ scalp, then his forehead, and then his collar bone. Cummings breathed deeply as Gilhool positioned his hands over Cummings’ chest; stomach; legs; and feet. 

Besides feeling less anxiety about his cancer and treatment, Cummings said his sessions with Gilhool always leave him with diminished pain in his back, which normally hurts all the time from sciatica, for a good day or so.

Gilhool especially loves when a skeptic has a positive experience. He likes to tell the story of the time he was explaining Reiki to a patient and could tell their caregiver wasn’t buying Gilhool’s pitch. Afterward, the caregiver agreed to a Reiki session of his own, and when it was finished, Gilhool said, “he looked up and said, ‘That was wonderful,’ which made me feel wonderful, because it transformed his experience about new things, I think.”

Reiki requests can be made by patients, caregivers, or staff by calling the HUP Volunteer Services office at 215-662-2576.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *