by Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH
After 22 years in hygiene, Alexandra Hall, RDH, pursues a unique way to not only help those in her profession, but many others across the nation with various ailments and conditions. No, she hasn't won the Nobel Prize or developed a vaccine. When Hall isn't seeing patients in the dental office, she's managing an emu farm. Hall explains her introduction to this 100 percent natural form of "farmacology."
"Since 1979, when I graduated from the Community College of Baltimore, I had trouble with my skin. Washing 20-plus times a day led to sandpaper knuckles and cracked cuticles. I had chronic dry skin due to the repeated washing and gloving. Intact skin is the body's first defense against microbial invasion. When the skin barrier is cracked, the problem becomes more than cosmetic. It becomes a biosecurity issue. Be it herpetic whitlow, hepatitis, or staphylococcus aureus infection, once the skin is cracked, any microbe has an open door to the body."
Her problems gave birth to research and discovery. Hall sought a solution to her occupational skin problem.
"My search began by reading dermatological texts, which referenced the need for hypoallergenic moisturizers to replace moisture lost by repeated washing. But I had already tried many dermatologist-endorsed lotions and creams," she said. "Most of these seemed to leave a sticky residue as barrier to the skin. My skin temporarily felt and looked better, but the results were always short-lived."
Alexandra enlisted the help of her husband, Dr. Michael Hall, in her search. "My husband, Michael, took a more pragmatic approach. He examined the ingredients listed on lotion bottles to find out how each helped the skin. Here is where we got quite an awakening. All of the products had water, mineral oil, alcohol, and three or four chemicals - all ingredients that we would later find out serve the product, not the skin. Some of the ingredients have been documented to cause skin irritations, such as dermatitis and eczema," Hall said.
In 1991, Alexandra's problem became even more complicated. As the OSHA safety officer in her office, she came across a reference to petroleum skin care products on the OSHA website. It stated "that significant deterioration of latex gloves was noted when exposed to petroleum-based lubricants ... if latex gloves are used, employees shall not apply petroleum-based - including mineral oil-based - skin care products. If appropriate, this in-formation must also be transmitted to employees as part of their required training."
Finally, in 1995, an unexpected solution came from the most unlikely place - a farm show. The solution found there was emu oil.
"The farm show is where I first tried emu oil," Hall said, "a product virtually unknown in this country, yet legendary in the outback of Australia where aborigines have been using it for centuries as a medicament to support healing of skin and to reduce inflammatory pain."
Alexandra determined that emu oil not only helped her cracked, dry skin, but also her bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, caused by years of scaling and root planing (later compounded by computer keyboarding). She took vitamin B supplements and topically applied emu oil to both sides of her wrists three times a day to control pain with no drug-related side effects. Three-days' use brought her three weeks of relief.
It's a bird
What makes emu oil different? Emu oil is a complex blend of fatty acids similar to human cell membranes. Our natural skin oil protects skin from the environment and the effects of aging. Researchers from Auburn University confirm that the major fatty acid in emu oil is oleic acid, a known transdermal penetrant and carrier. Most oils only lay on top of the skin. But emu oil has the ability to penetrate under the protective top layers of the skin. Without clogging pores like other oils, it delivers nutrients to newly forming skin cells.
Two years later, Alexandra and her husband bought a ranch to raise emus and sell the raw materials to other companies to manufacture and distribute. In 1999, the Halls created Outback Medic Survival Gear for Skin, the emu oil division of the Southern Cross Ranch.
Hall said the company was started "to offer consistently high-quality emu oil products for consumers seeking effective, pure, and natural remedies." The company's Web site, www.outbackmedic.com, is an informative and retail source for emu oil that serves customers throughout the United States. Alexandra seems to have been destined for this endeavor. Her grandfather, as a child, was a goat herder in Greece. She has two children. Alex, a 19 year-old college sophomore, is the Webmaster of outbackmedic.com;15-year-old Stephanie is a "keen critic, testing product formulas and marketing designs for the emu oil line. I may promote her to ranch photographer."
She added, "The entire family helps with incubators, hatchers, and chick nursery chores when the chicks are hatched."
Currently, Alexandra divides her time between dental hygiene, the ranch, and a few other activities (serving as an American Emu Association liaison to the USDA, the board of directors for the Maryland Emu Association, and as a resource for health-care providers). The latter group includes pharmacists, dental and medical staff, naturopaths, massage therapists, diabetic and continent care coordinators, chiropractors, and veterinarians.
She also speaks at support groups for a variety of health issues.
A day on the farm
Just how much time out of her day does Hall spend with emu chores?
She explains, "Believe it or not, emus are very hardy and easy to manage. Chores usually take approximately an hour a day. Morning chores consist of counting heads, checking each animal's overall demeanor and appearance, cleaning out waterers, and checking fence integrity. The birds are 'free fed,' which means they eat as much as they want and when they want. We feed the adults twice a week."
Night chores are the same in laying season (December-April) when the grapefruit-sized, green oval eggs are collected, labeled, and stored for incubation. The incubators automatically rotate eggs and are equipped with alarms that sound when parameters of heat or humidity are compromised. Incubators are checked twice a day.
Once chicks are hatched, they are raised in a heated brooder building with daily outings (as weather permits) for sunshine's vitamin D until they are large enough (and the weather is warm enough) to remain outdoors. This usually occurs at about six to eight weeks of age when they reach two feet in height. The birds are raised to a weight of 90 to 100 pounds, which they reach at an age of about 14 months.
These birds live longer, happier, and healthier than your average poultry. An animal lover, ensured that the creatures she had raised in a happy and carefree environment would meet with a quick, painless, and humane end.
No antibiotics or growth hormones are given. There's no need for the drugs that kill intestinal parasites that repeatedly attack stressed and confined livestock. Hall's flocks have a very low mortality rate.
Alexandra and Dr. Hall work together in his "Dentistry in the Pines" general practice three days a week. The office is located in Ocean Pines near Ocean City, Md.
In regard to being married to the "boss," Hall said, "Most people know we've been sweethearts since the summer after high school graduation, when Michael proposed marriage two months after we met," Alexandra said. "We were engaged for three years, married, then went to dental school. That was 25 years ago! I guess we are one of the few dental school couples that stayed married against all odds.
How do Alexandra's patients respond to her raising emus?
"We have some patients who are interested in the animals themselves," Hall said. "Kids love to hear stories about the ranch that raises five-foot-tall dinosaur birds that lay giant, green eggs. It helps to take their minds off their dental fears. Health-oriented adult patients seem to be interested in emu meat and oil information, uses, references, etc., as nutritional alternatives to medications. My youth- and beauty-oriented patients are interested in emu meat for another reason, especially the dieters and weight trainers. They also are interested in emu oil for skin thickening and wrinkle reduction, new-scar nutritional healing support, and stretch-mark reduction."
Consumers should be aware, however, that not all forms of processed emu oil is edible.
Hall said she has seen clinical proof of the oils' efficacy in patients. She said, "I've seen improved tissue tone/color, especially in my denture and chemo patients whose tissues were so dry. I've also seen good results with pure emu oil for fissured lips, the really hard-to-heal, 3mm-deep midline kind."
When asked if she and her husband recommend emu oil to patients, Hall said, "Emu oil is a food derived from refined and sterilized fat of the emu. We routinely recommend pure emu oil for patients with dry mouths due to radiation treatments, medications, aging, or chemotherapy. It acts as an oral lubricant and a nutrient moisturizer for chapped lips."
She added, "Emu oil is listed in the Australian Therapuetic Goods Registry as both an active substance and active ingredient. In this country, the oil has not yet been evaluated by the FDA. Without the FDA evaluation, emu oil can be marketed for cosmetic uses only.
"I love the balance of providing dental services and uniquely healthful products," Hall said. "The ranch is another extension of our caring for people. Everything we are involved in revolves around health - either keeping it or achieving it."
Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH and is based in Huntsville, Alabama. She can be contacted at [email protected]. References available upon request.
Emus and the scientific community
Physicians and dermatologists are discovering the benefits of emu oil. Doctor Dan Dean, of Shepard, Mich., routinely recommends emu oil to his patients at risk of skin sores and ulcerations, (diabetics, convalescents, and patients with poor circulation). He notes that with a typical third-degree burn or skin abrasions, emu oil cuts healing time by almost half.
• Dr. Esta Kronberg, who specializes in dermatologic surgery and cosmetic dermatology in Houston, uses emu oil on her worst cases - serious burns, rosacea, psoriasis, eczema, etc. She has been extremely pleased with the results. Dr. Kronberg admits she was at first skeptical about the benefits of emu oil. Also on the medical advisory board for the publication "Derma," she has been quoted in magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Allure, and Glamour. Her treatments embrace acute skin care problems, including burns, skin disease, psoriasis, rosacea, eczema, as well as anti-aging and general skin improvement treatments. Her patients tell her the oil brings immediate relief, speeds healing, and keeps skin from scarring.
• Dr. Thom Leahey of the Arthritis Clinic in Ardmore, Okla., has been studying emu oils' anti-inflammatory properties. A two-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of arthritis patients revealed that seven of the 12 emu oil users reported significant reduction of pain, morning stiffness, and swelling vs. one of the eight placebo users.
• Dr. Elton J. Lormand, who has conducted research at the Advanced ENT and Facial Surgery Institute in Cullman, Ala., has seen the difference in patients using emu oil and in those who don't. After viewing the contrast in the skin condition between the two groups, he advised researchers to take a closer look at emu oil. He has seen patients apply emu oil prior to radiation treatment and even ingest it to cover the mucosal surfaces during head and neck radiation treatments. While the doctor gave them no specific instructions and would not recommend ingestion due to lack of research, he commented on the apparent lessening of radiation burns, even to the mucosal surfaces.
• Scientists at Boston University Medical Center and Auburn University have concluded that emu oil's anti-inflammatory properties relieve pain in some forms of arthritis and lupus, as well as muscle and joint stiffness.
• Dr. John Griswold, of the Harner Burn Center in Lubbock, Texas, believes that emu oil may revolutionize the treatment of burn victims because of the oil's ability to generate new skin cells so quickly. His long-term study also found a statistically significant difference in scar reduction and inflammation in emu oil-treated wounds.
• Dr. William Code, in his initial research combining emu oil, spearmint oil, and lidocaine, found that the mixture produced a reduction in sensation to the skin, which surpassed another combination of local anesthetics without emu oil. The emu oil compound proved to reduce sensitivity in a safe, fast, and effective way for procedures such as suturing or giving injections.
• Julie Brumlik is the co-owner of the patent on emu oil and Lidocaine, which she invented along with Dr. Dan Rivlin, head of dermatopathology at Miami's Mt. Sinai Hospital and a professor at the University of Miami Medical School. They invented and patented the product a couple of years ago, and it is in line for FDA approval as a compound. Chronic pain management specialists are excited about this research. Peer review papers have been published by the Society of American Oil Chemists. The effect of the compound lasts approximately 20 minutes. The patient maintains consciousness, but temporarily loses sensation where the mixture is applied. It is the only penetrating topical anesthesia that will work anywhere on the body, including gingival membranes. It also can be used on sunburn or sore muscles.
Not shiny, but happy people
The Ratite Encyclopedia states, "Traditional therapeutic qualities of emu oil are evident throughout Australia, although actual original discovery of the oil's qualities are locked in the oral history of the aboriginal people, extending back thousands of years. Oral history indicated that emu oil was used by the aborigines for the treatment of arthritic pain, inflamed joints, muscle aches, and burns."
The rock group, R.E.M., sang a song called Shiny, Happy People. The following stories are from very happy people, but, due to the ability of emu oil to absorb so readily into the skin, there is no shine involved. Here are just a few testimonials from people across the country who have found relief due to this Australian remedy:
• In 1992, Deb Henson in Arizona had periodontal probings ranging from 5mm to 8mm and was a long-term smoker. She did not want periodontal surgery and couldn't get into the habit of flossing, even though her gums bled between dental visits. In 1994, Henson and her husband started an emu ranch. She discovered "the remarkable healing properties of emu oil."
"That's when the light bulb went on," Deb said. "It occurred to me that if emu oil could heal other parts of my body, why wouldn't it work on my mouth?" On May 2, 1997, she surprised her dentist by presenting with not only "firm" gums, but no bleeding, inflammation, or deep pockets. Her oral mucosa looked healthy despite her smoking habit. Deb had been using a drop of emu oil on her toothpaste daily.
"There had been no other medicaments used but the oil for my pockets," Deb said. Deb still has perio readings within normal limits, even though, sadly, she still smokes and does not floss regularly.
• Lucy-Jane Conley of Fenwick, Del., tried a variety of OTC products in drugstores to heal her son's cracked lip. The crack had developed into a crater that would bleed every time the child smiled or ate. She then applied one drop of emu oil three times a day, 30 minutes before meals and at bedtime. In two days, Lucy noticed healing and, after the fifth day, the lip was completely healed and has not cracked since.
• Dr. Thomas Samaras, a physician in Virginia Beach, Va., is impressed with the efficacy of pure emu oil for the treatment of arthritis and eczema. His own son suffered for two years from eczema behind his knees. Applying emu oil regularly to the area cleared up the condition within 10 days. Dr. Samaras has also seen significant improvement in a patient with degenerative arthritis and chronic torticollis (constant neck muscle spasms) by using emu oil on the neck. "I expect that emu oil will continue to play an important role in my therapeutic armamentarium in the future," Dr. Samaras said.
• Dr. Mary Bean, a dentist in Lutherville, Md., said, "I've practiced dentistry since 1979 and developed CTS about six years ago from repetitive motion and the constant restriction of wearing gloves 40-plus hours a week. I had carpal tunnel surgery in 2000 on both hands and was back in my office for light duties the day after suture removal. I applied emu oil to the incision sites twice daily, and they are now minimally visible. Having a fantastic surgeon was very important, but I believe the emu oil hastened healing and minimized scarring. Now symptom-free, I use emu oil to keep my hands moisturized and my skin healthy."
• Linda Barrett, a registered nurse, had a basal cell carcinoma removed from the perioral area between the base of her nose and her upper lip. "My husband, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, performed the excisional biopsy. I had to keep the area covered for a week until the stitches were removed. Thereafter, I kept it moist with emu oil. My primary goal was to keep it moist for the duration of work, and I knew the emu oil would do that; however, the major secondary gain from the use of the emu oil was the rapid healing of the site. The continued use of the emu oil seems to have accelerated the resolution of scar tissue. Neither the line of incision or the suture area are visible."
Emu oil is being studied by universities, research centers, and hospitals in the United States and abroad. It's hydrating, regenerative, lubricating, anti-inflammatory, and pain relieving properties make it the logical topic of study for an ever-broadening range of conditions.
Patients who have tried emu oil on their own are educating their physicians about it's healing properties. People have also used it on eczema, psoriasis, seborrhea, hemorrhoids, thermal burns, sunburn, bikini-line and depilatory areas, and acne.