Karen Kowal, RN, had no idea that a series of unexpected events would lead her from nursing to massage therapy and, ultimately, a career promoting specially designed pillows to ease chronic pain.
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Karen’s career as a registered nurse spanned 30 years. She worked in orthopedics, labor and delivery, pediatrics, emergency nursing, and medical-surgical rehabilitation before specializing for 12 years in psychiatric nursing as both a bedside nurse and nurse manager. Then her life took an unexpected turn. Within 18 months, she was injured in three separate car accidents. Her injuries left her in unrelenting pain. “For the first time, I understood what it was like to experience pain that permeated every minute of every day and every night,” she says. “My physicians told me that I was going to have to live with it.”
Karen didn’t want to live on pain medications. She struggled for several years and then one day she had a massage. The massage helped her to sleep that night. She went back for more. After a half dozen massages, most of her pain was relieved. Wanting to learn more, she enrolled in a massage therapy training program.
“I knew immediately that a whole new world was opening up to me,” she recalls. Karen believed that she could combine her nursing knowledge with her newly gained massage skills. Within a few months of completing massage training, she resigned as a nurse and began seeing massage clients, believing that she could offer them some of the help that she had found in managing chronic pain. That was more than 20 years ago.
The Pillow Experiment
All the while, Karen had continued to investigate nonpharmaceutical methods of pain relief to lessen her own pain. She had begun experimenting with pillows. She learned that buckwheat hulls made excellent filling, so she ordered several pounds and made a bed pillow, allowing space for the contents to shift to conform to different sleeping positions while still providing support. “It was the best pillow I had ever slept on in my life,” she says. She also made a neck roll using flax seeds. Through research, she had learned that flax seed could be safely heated in a microwave or frozen for either hot or cold therapy needs. Working out of her basement, Karen made her pillows of 100% cotton fabric and added carefully chosen dried herbs. The pleasant aroma provided additional comfort. As Karen began seeing more and more massage clients who were also dealing with chronic pain, she made pillows for them, too. They found that the gentle counterpressure of the heated pillows offered greater relief than a heating pad. “When I would use my pillows on massage clients, you could see immediately the huge comfort it gave them,” she says. The weight of the pillow provided compression, which along with the thermal effects, increased circulation and improved lymphatic efficiency to provide pain relief. She began selling her therapeutic pillows. Soon she became known as the “pillow lady.”
Attempting to bring her brand of pain relief to a wider audience, Karen began promoting her pillows at health fairs and conferences where her pillows would be seen by nurse practitioners, physicians specializing in pain management, rheumatologists, case managers, and oncology and hospice nurses, in addition to professionals in the wellness and natural health fields.
Drawing on her skills as both a nurse and massage therapist, Karen developed specific directional compression and stretching techniques, using her pillows as part of a therapeutic massage. She called it Pillossage™ and now teaches these techniques throughout the U.S. and Canada. Pillossage™ affects all layers of connective tissue down to the periosteum and deepens the massage’s therapeutic effect. She demonstrates various Pillossage™ techniques in a series of YouTube videos.
With a steady stream of orders coming in through the small conferences and local health fairs she attended, Karen incorporated under the name of Mother Earth Pillows® and moved the business out of her basement. Then she saw an ad for the national AARP conference. With some financial support from her father, she rented a booth. She brought home hundreds of orders.
At this point, her pillows were helping many people who had been experiencing pain caused by a wide range of disorders, including arthritis, frozen shoulder, hand and wrist pain, chronic headaches, neck and low-back pain, hip and sciatic pain, and pain caused by scar tissue and contractures, repetitive stress injuries, sports injuries, and whiplash. The pillows offered a cost-effective and safe alternative to narcotic pain medications without side effects or the risk of addiction.
Believing that her pillows held therapeutic promise for medical patients, Karen began making medical-grade pillows that could be used in hospitals and took them to medical conferences. Initially, not everyone was impressed. At one conference, the keynote speaker and a few physicians walked past her booth laughing. She heard one say, “This is not a craft show.” Karen put a warm pillow on his shoulders. He immediately relaxed and changed his tune, saying “I have never felt anything that relieved pain this fast.” After that, orders from medical professionals began to arrive. Some of the first came from cardiothoracic surgeons who wanted pillows for patients to use after open heart surgery.
That was more than 15 years ago. Karen’s pillows continue to relieve chronic pain for patients. Some of her client companies include more than 350 Alzheimer facilities across the U.S. and many high-end franchised clinics and destination spas around the world. “It’s been very interesting to see how we have progressed step-by-step and pillow-by-pillow to grow to where we are now,” she says. She maintains her status as a licensed massage therapist and registered nurse. She is a nationally approved provider for continuing education in therapeutic massage through the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork and continues to teach classes. She is also a frequent presenter for care providers and chronic pain and fibromyalgia groups at state, national, and international conferences, speaking on the science behind symptom-directed safe and cost-effective natural approaches to care. She maintains memberships in a number of professional associations that work to improve patient quality of life.
Karen sold Mother Earth Pillows® last August, but she remains involved, offering her opinions and fresh ideas. But now she has time to enjoy her personal life and her 16 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren while pursuing her passion of easing chronic pain. The new owner has vowed to continue her vision of providing nonpharmaceutical alternatives for pain relief.
“Before I launched this business, my business background had consisted of one 6-week course,” she says. “I had no idea this would happen. It was truly a gift.” No doubt it’s been a gift to the thousands of patients who have used her pillows to ease their pain as well.
For more information, contact Mother Earth Pillows® at 800-344-2072 or via [email protected]. For nurses interested in conducting research on thermal therapy, contact Karen Kowal through www.KarenKowal.com with a brief description of the research project.