Massage Tales, Thoughts on the profession

Death and Other Benefits

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.

person massaging man while lying on bed
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

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.

massage education, Massage Tales, Modalities, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Interdisciplinary

How about a quick peek into the emerging future of healthcare?

Interdisciplinary:  integrating knowledge and approaches from a variety of different approaches

Interdisciplinary Team: a group of professionals from multiple disciplines working together toward a common goal

I have been thinking and reading a lot about interdisciplinary teams in healthcare.  As the abstract “aging American population” becomes more concrete, both in my practice and my personal life, I am seeing humans who interact with multiple professionals, all for their individual care and keeping.  I am seeing this done very very well, and very very not-so-well.

What is clear to me is this:   the future of healthcare is interdisciplinary.  It is both necessary and desirable that humans have access to multiple professionals to address the multiple and complex needs of their healthcare.  Also:  the future requires us to communicate with one another.  While I know and massage and sometimes take care of people who are receiving interdisciplinary care, that does not always include great communication.

Take, for example, the cancer patient who also has hypertension*.  The oncologist and the nephrologist ask the patient for reports from other physician visits, but they are not asking to communicate directly with each other.  And neither of them wonders about the massage therapist who has been working with the patient since the cancer diagnosis.

In an ideal interdisciplinary world, patients could have access to a wide range of professionals and those professionals would speak to each other on a regular basis.  They might even, I don’t know, learn from each other and gain creative insights into sticky healthcare questions.

Unicorns!  Fairies! Rainbows!, you say?

This is not only possible, it is happening.  Wouldn’t you like to hear from a real interdisciplinary team about how they put it together, how they keep it going, and maybe even how the massage therapy profession can contribute?

You are in luck!

Starting this September, I will be hosting a monthly webinar series for Healwell where we explore these very questions.  We have secured some of the most interesting people working in healthcare today — the people who are asking the questions and creating the change.  Come and join us for the Interdisciplinary Clan of Mystery, where we explore how to deepen our service to the humans we care for, and broaden our perspective to invite collaborations, curiosity and plain old increased clinical knowledge.

We are going to have some fun, challenging, thoughtful, and (best of all) interactive conversations. Join me to take a peek at the disruptors, innovators, and smartest people working in healthcare today.

 

*–patients mentioned are composites or theories and do not represent actual humans

Massage Tales

The Look of Love

This is his last massage.* I know it, and I feel privileged to be part of it.  I start by holding his feet.  Here in this warm room, his feet chill my hands.  I gently squeeze them and wait for my hands to warm again.  he watches me, mouth slightly open, breathing raspy and audible.  After a moment he closes his eyes and turns his head.  He opens his eyes again, and he watches her.

close up of an envelope
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

On the other side of the room, his wife sits with a box in her lap.  She pulls papers and colorful greeting cards from the box and methodically separates  them into a couple of piles.  When I glance over, I can see the pictures and swirling lines on some of the cards.  I notice the words “For My Husband,” “I Love You,” and “My Beloved” on some of them.  Her attention is focused on the box, on each letter and card, and on making careful piles based on some internal system we will never know.  His attention is focused on her.

I gently move to hold his calves.  I can feel the outline of the bones of his lower legs.  The disease he has struggled with for so long, the one that brought him to this place of his last massage, has gradually atrophied his body.  I can both see and feel the shape and outline of his joints.  Looking at his face, I see the outline of his cheekbones and the hollowed edges of his eye sockets.  His body is falling away.

And yet, in the turn of his head and the soft intensity of his gaze, I see that some things have not been diminished by his illness.   The look in his eyes as he watches his wife is distilled down to essentials.  It is love.  Pure love, and in his weakened state it is what he has to give to her.  He gives it freely.  It is everything.

As the massage continues, his body relaxes deeper into his bed.  His stiffened joints unclench and sink into the soft mattress.  His hands uncurl and rest at his sides.  His head still turned to face his wife, gradually his eyes close and his breathing slows.  His head sinks into the pillow, still turned in her direction.

In my office, I would gently try to persuade my client to put their neck into a more neutral position.  I would think of overworked muscles and strains that develop from long moments in one rotated position.  Here, though, in his own house, during his last massage, sharing the room with his wife, I let it go.  There are so many things more important than muscle strain, and most of them are alive in that room.

monochrome photo of couple holding hands
Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

As I finish the massage, he is deeply asleep.  I step away from the bed and pick up my bag.  His wife catches my eye.  We say “thank you” to each other.  She looks at him and smiles, still holding a card in her hand (“Happy Birthday to my Husband”).  “He’s asleep now, isn’t he?” she says.  I nod and smile as I soundlessly walk out of the house.

I have witnessed a sacrament, and by that I have been blessed.  I walk in gratitude for the rest of the day.

 

*–identifying details have been changed

 

Massage Tales, Oncology Massage, Thoughts on the profession

Hospice Dogs I Have Known

I have two stories for you this week, about massage and dying and dogs.


Here is what I knew:  the patient was young*, surrounded by family, and declining.  I knew the diagnosis. And I knew there was a dog in the house.

adult black taiwan dog laying down on grass lawn
Photo by Lukáš Kováčik on Pexels.com

The dog greeted me at the door a few seconds after the patient’s family member.  She was big.  Her head came almost to my chest.  She had deep, soulful eyes.  She gently walked up to me and nudged her nose into my hands.  I stood still, held my hands out for her and let her run her nose along my fingers.  After about a half a minute, she turned and walked towards the patient’s room.

The patient mostly communicated by gesture and facial expression.  Family members told me the patient was in and out of “being here.”  I stood by the patient’s side and introduced myself, and I said, “Your dog is amazing!”  The patient turned to face me, eyes sparkling and alert.

As I worked with the patient, the dog would come in the room at regular intervals.  Sometimes she stood right next to me, watching what my hands were doing.  Sometimes she laid her head on the bed and gazed up at the patient.  Sometimes she simply stood in the door of the room, looking.  She moved slowly, deliberately and with infinite grace.  She never made a sound, except for the soft padding of her feet on the floor and her even breathing.

After the massage was done,  I held the patient’s hand and said thank you.  I found my own way to the door, leaving the patient relaxed and quiet with his family in the room.  Before I left, I looked off to my left, and I saw the dog standing at the end of the hall.  Calm, still, and waiting.


I walked through the gathered grief of her husband and her daughter to get to the patient’s bedroom.  The patient laid in the center of a king-sized bed, nothing moving but her eyes, which were sharp and clear.  At her hip sat a small white dog, head resting on its paws looking like it was asleep.

nature animal dog pet
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As soon as I started the massage, the dog opened its eyes and watched me, head still resting on its paws.  I stepped up toward the head of the bed and cradled the patient’s head in my hands.  The dog stood up and turned to face me directly.  It nodded once, as if to say, “Yes.  That’s it.”  Then it turned, curled up and went to sleep, nestled against the patient’s hip.


Animals know.  When we are deep in extremis, our pets somehow know and they show us how to simply be, and be present.  Some of the deepest and most meaningful interactions I have had with humans have come mediated by their pets.  From them, I am learning how to pay attention, be still, and just breathe and move with infinite grace.

 

*–identifying details about patients (and their pets) have been changed

Massage Tales, Modalities, Thoughts on the profession

Presence over Pressing

Yesterday I had one of the best days in my massage career in Louisville.

The day started with a visit to a hospice client*.  I spent a half hour moving slowly around her as she rested in bed, breathing deeply and slowly falling asleep.  Her skin was pale and papery thin.  I could see the round outline of her knee through her sheets.  This person, this frail body, needed nothing so much as my focused attention.  I softened my hands and laid them gently on her arms, shoulders, knees.  I held her hands in mine and gently moved her fingers.  I held her head while she breathed and relaxed her arms.  the thought came to me slowly, in the way that you might realize light has come into your bedroom in the morning.  The thought was:  how wonderful it feels to be exactly where I ought to be.

Later in the day, I worked with a few clients at my office, “healthy” clients who did not require the same kinds of adaptations as the morning client.  Even so, some part of the stillness from the morning stayed with me, as did the sense of peaceful presence.  With the people I had worked with before, I noticed a new layer of quiet reverence.  The stillness in me brings forth and honors the stillness in you.

As I am reflecting on this good day, I am remembering something a friend told me.  She came to visit for a weekend, and scheduled a massage with me during her visit.  We used to trade on a regular basis when I lived in Chicago, so she has received numerous massages from me.  After her massage, she hugged me and she said,”Your hands feel different.  It feels like your touch has come into its own here.  This place suits you.”

And she is right.  This place suits me.  Not just this physical place, but the place that holds the kind of work I did yesterday.  The place of calm ease and stillness.  The place where presence is so much more important than pressing.

*–any names and identifying details have been changed