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Massage Today
April, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 04

Six Months of Healing and Heroism

Submitted By Claire Posada, LMT - New York, New York

Editor's Note: On March 11, 2002, America and the world marked the six-month anniversary of the tragic terrorist attacks that took so many innocent lives in New York City, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Massage Today presented several perspectives on the disaster relief efforts in the November and December 2001 issues, and requested that readers "share their stories."

In the past several months, countless stories have poured in - far too many to publish and still have editorial space for the "other" happenings in the massage profession. However, we'd like to mark the anniversary of that tragic day by sharing one story in particular; we feel it captures not only the courage and selflessness demonstrated by so many during this crisis, but the essence of massage therapy and the massage therapy profession.

One tragic element of the collapse of the Twin Towers was the scarcity of injured people. Often in disasters the wounded outnumber the dead, but this was not the case on September 11, as many who rushed to donate blood found out when they were turned away. Many hospital beds lay empty, and volunteers were also turned away since there wasn't enough to do. However, with rescue teams, police, firefighters and army personnel working around the clock, both at "ground zero" and all around the city, the volunteer massage therapists who arrived to help were able to offer much-needed relief and were soon recognized as vital to these efforts.

We have continued supporting the recovery workers and have also expanded to aid support staff and family members. What a rewarding journey it has been to witness skepticism and machismo transform into respect and appreciation for the tangible benefits of massage therapy. And what an intense learning experience it has been to adapt to these conditions and needs.

My first experience volunteering was on Friday night, Sept. 14. The massage school in NYC, the Swedish Massage Institute, was organizing and dispatching volunteer massage therapists to relief stations and hospitals that night. We all brought what we had: massage chairs, tables, foam pads, or just our hands. I was sent to Chelsea Piers, a coordination center and rest stop for the general public and police and emergency staff, located a few miles from ground zero. There were plenty of supplies, like food, water and clothing, and services such as grief counseling, a place to file missing person reports, and help with temporary housing for displaced residents and out-of-town rescue workers. Many of these volunteers had been working virtually nonstop for four days. My first introduction to the atmosphere of the place was the ladies room, where I encountered a policewoman who was in tears because of all the heartbreaking stories she had been hearing.

The coordinator of our massage group told us that the main organizers viewed our work as peripheral, and encouraged us to mingle with the relief staff and suggest that they try a massage if it seemed appropriate. Most of these folks had never had a massage, and we heard a number of reasons for declining: "I'm okay, I don't need it," "So-and-so needs it more than I do," and "My superior forbids it" (from the police). We also sensed some unspoken reasons, such as, "How can I indulge in such a luxury when thousands are dead?"

I had many questions of my own during this time: How could I determine if a massage would be beneficial or harmful in any given case? Would I be dissolving someone's protective defenses by touching them? Could post-traumatic stress disorder be prevented at this stage? How could I keep from absorbing more trauma myself? It soon became apparent that a relaxing, nurturing massage was not necessarily the best medicine at this point; many were not ready to get back in touch with their bodies and feelings yet. It seemed more appropriate to concentrate on the energizing aspects of massage, such as the increased circulation and range of motion that would enable these men and women to get back to their jobs, which is what they most desperately wanted to do. The first ones willing to try massage were traffic cops who had been standing for hours on end, detectives, EMT workers who had been sitting in their ambulances for days with little to do, and other volunteers such as mental health counselors and chaplains.

I worked on a firefighter from Massachusetts who had hurt his back when some debris shifted under him. I was able to help loosen his tight back muscles, but not his zombie gaze. It is so painful to see another human being in that condition, and it is a supreme challenge to administer care when you feel the shock, grief and horror yourself. However, as the night wore on, we saw more and more faces transform into smiles of relief and amazement at the wonderful results of even a 15- or 20-minute treatment. A naval patrolman I worked with had neck pain from the rocking of the boat and constantly jerking his head up to stay awake. An ambulance driver had headaches from the diesel fumes of his idling engine. I checked in with one cop wearing a vest under his shirt, and he said he could feel my elbows (yes, some of the police sneaked in anyway!). Later it dawned on me that the power of massage is pretty incredible if it can penetrate a protective vest! Eventually the main organizer told us that although the whole operation was going to be downsized, the massage therapists were now considered a vital part of the services that would remain.

Although it took me a couple of days to recover physically and mentally from that first night, I volunteered again, traveling to the family assistance center, the medical examiner's office, a firehouse, and the navy ship U.S.N.S. Comfort, which was a hospital ship turned into a "motel" for rescue workers. The ship's operating room had been transformed into a massage station since it wasn't needed for surgery. We used the gurneys instead of massage tables, and some therapists brought massage chairs as well.

At a relief center at ground zero, I had to pass through a police barricade and, upon showing my ID and explaining that I was a massage therapist I was surprised and delighted by the National Guardsman who broke into a huge smile and waved me through, saying, "Massage? Great! So glad you're here!" I worked on firefighters with sore necks from their helmets; cops with aching lower backs from the weight of their holsters; military personnel who had been standing on guard for 14 hours at a time; out-of-state morticians who were also doing interminably long shifts; Red Cross volunteers with knots in their necks from carrying heavy boxes of donated goods; stressed-out family members; and a woman who still had pain in her hips and legs from running away from the burning buildings. The positive response was tremendously encouraging. I heard comments like, "I feel like a new man," "I could go another 100,000 miles" and " Wow, that was better than... anything!"

One friend e-mailed me to say she overheard a cop on the street say that he never believed in massage before, but that the one he had just received had converted him. A soldier with the Air Force asked me how to go about finding a massage therapist in the town near his base. And after the first three weeks, the firemen at one house invited massage therapists who had worked on any of the firefighters to come for dinner one Sunday night. They cooked us a fabulous meal. One of them told me that although the gifts of money and food they had received were important, it was the massage therapy that was indispensable because of the stress relief and comfort it provided.

It has been such a privilege to be able to be of some help during this crisis, and exciting to see the increased appreciation and respect the massage therapy profession has earned. Not only did the cops and everyone else come to think differently about us, but we were educated about them as well. I talked to a vegetarian fire captain who knows hand reading, and an Army reservist who asked if it had been difficult for me to give up my dancing career, since he felt that people in the arts work so very hard at their professions. A female detective from a downtown homicide unit and I confessed to each other that we got hooked on TV's "NYPD Blue" because we both adore Jimmy Smits!

This is one of the wonderful human sides that came out of this crisis: the recognition that we really are all one, and how much more alike we are than different. Massage therapists all across the country have an opportunity to help re-establish the calm and trust we all need to move forward with our lives.

Massage Today would like to thank Claire and all the contributors for their courage and their words; we offer our apologies that their stories (and many others) cannot be printed in their entirety.


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