Perfumer Helps COVID Survivors Regain Their Sense of Smell: 'It Literally Brought Them to Tears'
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, fragrance expert Sue Phillips saw her business dry up. She would typically spend her days creating scents for major companies like Tiffany & Co. and Lancôme, or in-person with customers at her shop in New York City.
Phillips learned to pivot, moving her fragrance events to Zoom, but in the last month she found a new way to help, using her skills in the perfume world to help COVID-19 survivors who are still missing their sense of smell find it again.
It all began after a friend sent Lyss Stern, a COVID-19 survivor, to Phillips' shop. Stern had lost her sense of smell in March 2020 and was struggling without it more than a year and a half later.
"I said to her, 'Look, I'm not a doctor, and I'm not a chemist, but I know the extraordinary powers of fragrance,' " Phillips tells PEOPLE. She took Stern through a "fragrance journey," through three types of scents — top notes, the lighter fragrances; medium notes, such as florals and fruits; and deeper base notes like vanilla and woodsy scents. That last group did the trick.
"She couldn't really smell the top notes, she couldn't really identify the middle notes, but then suddenly there was a flicker in her eye, and she said, 'I can smell something. I don't know what it is, but I can smell something.' "
When Stern realized she could smell vanilla and amber scents, "she literally almost started to weep," Phillips says. "She could smell something for the first time, so she got very emotional and I got very emotional."
The "breakthrough" moment made the news in New York City, and Phillips soon heard from another woman in her mid-twenties, Marissa Karen, who also hadn't smelled in more than a year. Phillips took Karen through the same fragrance journey, and in her case, the medium notes, a citrus scent, was what worked.
"She texted me about three hours later and said, 'I cannot believe what you just did, for the first time I'm smelling my candles, I'm smelling restaurants, I'm smelling food. I have not been able to do this,' " Phillips says. "It was like the fog had lifted and she could smell. It literally brought them to tears."
Phillips says her phone and email are now "blowing up" with requests from COVID-19 survivors who hope that they, too, can finally regain their sense of smell with her help. But for those who aren't nearby, she recommends getting fruits like lemons, limes and grapefruit and test out their smell, first with their eyes opened and then with them closed.
"What they're doing is exercising their brain," she says. "I want them to smell with their brain, because our olfactory system, our sense of smell, is directly connected to the limbic system in the brain."
For Phillips, who spent the last year being "really vigilant" about staying protected from COVID-19 out of fear of losing her sense of smell, says she's thrilled to be able to use her skills to help others.
"When people can't smell and they can't taste, they can't enjoy their food and they don't want to socialize. The net result is that people retract from society," she says. "The fact that I'm able to help them rediscover their sense of smell and get back to enjoying things is such a joy. I'm so happy that I've been able to help people."