As I’ve written before, I knew from the start of my massage career that I wanted to work with people in extremis — whether through age, illness, life stresses, or other factors. I am not a mechanical fix-’em-up therapist. I am a keeper of respite.
In my last quarter of school, I got in touch with a Donna, a hospice massage therapist who had attended the same school. Donna generously agreed to let me shadow her for part of one day and talk to me in detail about her work with dying people. With her, I went to the hospice inpatient facility. Donna checked in with the nurses and got a list of people who might be open to receiving massage. The nurses directed her first to one woman in particular.
“She’s struggling,” the nurse said, “Maybe you could ease her a little.”
Donna and I walked into the woman’s room. I stayed close to the door as Donna approached the bed and gently touched the woman’s hand. The woman was taking short, gasping breaths. Her neck twisted with each breath and she shifted constantly in the bed. Donna spoke very quietly to her and got permission to give her a gentle massage. I watched Donna with my still-learning eyes, trying to parse exactly which techniques she used and how she crafted a coherent session in this unusual location.
And then I forgot all of that and just watched. Donna placed her hands on the woman’s ribcage, she stroked her hair and lovingly pressed her hands. The woman gradually stopped shifting her position. She still took short breaths, but they seemed more comfortable now. After about fifteen minutes, Donna thanked the woman and we left the room without a sound. The nurse walked into the room after we left.
Donna stood at the sink washing her hands, and I stood with her trying to form an intelligent question. I could only manage “Thank you” and “What? . . . .” As I struggled with my words, the nurse came up, grinning. She patted Donna on the back.
“Donna,” she said, “I think you just massaged that woman to death.”
They smiled at each other and hugged. At the start of the day, the patient was in distress, struggling to breath, or to stop breathing. After the massage, she appeared to be in much less distress and slipping into an easeful death. I hope that is what happened. To be honest, I have no idea.
What I do know, however, is that I am much more suited for the kind of work Donna does than almost anything else. To facilitate ease in the face of distress. To work with another human and help reduce the struggle of their transition — whether it is the transition to health after a long illness, the transition to a different lifestyle, or the transition from life into death.