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Massage Today
August, 2002, Vol. 02, Issue 08

Colorado Firefighters Find Relief in the Hands of Massage Therapists

By Andi Tillman, NCTMB

Editor's note: Andi Tilmann is a massage therapist specializing in SMRT (Spontaneous Muscle Release Technique) and CranioSacral Therapy. Andi teaches SMRT and anatomy at Full Circle School of Alternative Therapies in Edwards, Colorado, where she received most of her original training.

From June 14-17, Andi joined faculty and students at Full Circle, along with other local practitioners, to provide massage to firefighters battling one of several massive forest fires in the state. Her account of what took place was originally written as an e-mail to friends and acquaintances, then graciously submitted for publication to Massage Today.

I had a wonderful experience this weekend that touched me, and with all this talk about community lately, I wanted to share it with you. As you may know, I live in Colorado, and as you also may know, there are large and out-of-control forest fires all over the state -- two of the largest in populated areas. I live very near the town of Glenwood Springs, where the first big fire struck (the "Coal Seam Fire"). My interstate exit was the one that was shut down when the fire jumped the interstate in Glenwood Canyon, stranding folks on both ends of the canyon for days. My house filled up with smoke one night, but was in no danger. Our whole valley is hazy and smoky. Fifty-five hundred people were evacuated from their homes, and 28 homes in a town of 12,000 were completely destroyed. The fire was 1/2 mile from the downtown main street, all through the second night. Our new community center couldn't serve the evacuees, because the wall of flame came literally right up to the back door, but that building was saved. A community college campus became the Red Cross evacuation site, staffed with over 50 faculty volunteers and countless students wanting to help. They even arranged to truck in food from their Aspen campus kitchen!

This community really rallied itself in the face of this tragedy. The Red Cross had to turn down clothing and volunteers. People were just showing up with blankets and pillows, or pots of soup and cookies, and taking off work to come cook breakfast for the evacuees and firefighters. Rafting companies and car dealerships donated their fleet of vans and employees to shuttle evacuees. The local radio stations stopped regular programming to take information calls 24 hours on the air, to share stories, updates, and help people find each other, and to get resident status reports from various neighborhoods that were on alert to evacuate, which evidently is rather unprecedented. It really served to cut down on the wild rumors. There are dozens of stories about neighbors caring for each other: fathers sending their families to the shelter, but refusing to evacuate themselves until the last second so they could care for elderly neighbors; people helping neighbors get out by making trips right up to the fire line with their SUVs; and so much more.

The students from Full Circle and I headed down to the base camp from Friday through Monday [June 14-17] to work on the firefighters when they got in for the night. Friday night, there were three tables and about six therapists, including students Sharon O'Grady and Janet Thomas. Word got out, and by the time I got to work Saturday night, I counted 18 massage tables and five massage chairs, all with a line of tired, dirty firefighters waiting. Two chiropractors and two acupuncturists were also there. Monday night, I took my Swedish massage students on a field trip to the camp, and it was the best experience I could imagine for them to have so early in their careers. They all got so much out of it! What a wonderful way for them to begin to understand the gift they have to offer with massage!

My most memorable experience was Saturday night [June 15th]. There were over 700 firefighters working here, with a base camp set up in a town park. That alone was a rather remarkable sight! What an operation! A local spa, The Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, which is walking distance from the park and had been donating services to the firefighters, began to organize massage therapists to go to the camp. They contacted the Full Circle School of Alternative Therapies, where I teach massage, looking for volunteers. Our students were eager to go. They were jumping up and down at the chance. We all felt so grateful for what the firefighters were doing!

The whole camp was abuzz with healing stories. Many of the firefighters had never experienced any alternative therapies before, and they were all talking to each other and amazed at how much they were helped. They were so beat up and tired! I was able to help three injured people one night using SMRT. They were all dumbfounded that it could help so much. I heard stories all around me. Some of them just begged for a foot massage, after being on a steep slope in combat boots for 15 hours that day. They were all so appreciative and grateful, but we just kept telling them, "So are we! You are saving our town!"

Some said they'd been firefighters for 6-10 years and never had massage in camp, and never had a community be so grateful or offer them so much support. Most of the massage volunteers worked five hours straight every night, until almost midnight, and couldn't wait to go back again. Many had come from over an hour away! I couldn't help but see the community and healing and connection that a devastating fire gave rise to. It was very touching to be so close to that special warmth that comes up when people need each other in a crisis, and such a wonderful feeling to have something of value to offer. There are so many good hearts out there!

I know things that with the current world situation, things will probably get more difficult before they get better, but I have hope from a new place that we will be OK in the end. There are more of us out there who have what it takes than it seems when you watch the news!

Take heart!


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