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The Power of Perfume: Helping COVID Patients Regain Their Sense of Smell

She's not a scientist or doctor, but a New York "scentrepreneur" is using her decades of experience in fragrance as scent healing

NBC Universal, Inc.

Sahil Shah was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early November, and a remarkable treatment may have resolved one of the COVID long hauler's worst symptoms.

"I lost my taste and smell around Nov. 5," said Shah, who turns 14 this month.

He's what many consider a "COVID long hauler," defined by scientists as an individual who has experienced symptoms of the virus for more than six weeks.

"We met with neurosurgeons, doctors. We did everything from cupping to acupuncture, MRI’s. We did everything any parent would do," said Pratik Shah, Sahil's dad.

After six months, Sahil's parents became extremely concerned their son's loss of taste and smell might never come back.

"What’s his life going to be when two of his five senses are not there? We were looking at it that way," said Shah.

But they never gave up hope. Self-proclaimed, "over-Googlers," Sahil's parents got to work researching. His mom came across an article about a perfume designer in New York helping COVID patients regain their sense of smell.

She was apprehensive about the idea, but Shah got in contact right away and booked flights for a few days later.

"She took us through this scent journey," said Sahil. "She had music on, soft, relaxing music. The scents are in order from least powerful to the most powerful. I start smelling each one."

Initially, he wasn't able to smell anything, but after a few rounds of sniffing the potent blends, there was a breakthrough.

"I was shocked. We were all shocked I think. I didn’t know what I was smelling because it was so distorted. But, at least it was something," said Sahil. "We just kept going and it slowly got better."

Sue Phillips is the CEO and founder of Scenterprises. She's not a doctor or scientist, but she's worked with fragrances for decades and is considered an expert in her field.

"I’m trying to retrain the people to really think and smell with their brain," said Phillips. "People should really understand how powerful our sense of smell is."

In three weeks, she's met with 18 people, men and women, who've lost their sense of smell completely due to COVID-19. She's had breakthrough moments with 16 of them. Sahil is the youngest.

"They get so emotional, and that’s what I think is so compelling," said Phillips. "I tell everybody I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. But, I do know the power of fragrance."

The scent healing process started while Phillips was promoting her new book. Before a scheduled interview, an NBC producer asked her if she'd consider an experiment, working with a woman who'd lost her sense of smell for 13 months.

"Initially she wasn’t able to identify any of them," said Phillips. "As we continued, she was able to smell, her eyes lit up and she smiled. It was a very emotional moment for her because she said it was the first time she could smell something really beautiful in over a year."

After the story aired, Phillips was flooded with requests, including from a teenager and his family in Oak Brook.

"I don’t think it’s only about the perfume," said Shah. "I also believe it’s that mind connection. 'OK, Sahil what does this remind you of?'"

Sahil has regained about 25% of his sense of smell. He still can't taste anything, but his family believes as his smell gets stronger, his taste will start to come back. They are optimistic about his future thanks to this unconventional therapy.

"We just never gave up hope. We tried everything. And something clicked," said Shah.

"I think in the medical world, I feel like there’s not enough information for them," said Shah. "They go by text book. She’s a perfumer. It just shows you the power of perfume."

"You don’t really realize how important something is until you lose it," said Sahil.

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