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Massage Today
August, 2011, Vol. 11, Issue 08

Pediatric Massage Makes a Difference

By Tina Allen, LMT, CPMMT, CPMT, CIMT

When I began my massage career, one of the first populations I started working with were those affected by HIV/AIDS. A majority of my clients were infected adults, but there were children, too; babies born with HIV/AIDS and others infected in a variety of ways.

It was always an amazing opportunity to provide nurturing touch for a young child, but it became so much more when you realized that the child was not receiving this care outside of their home because people were scared to touch them.

One of my special experiences was having the opportunity to work with Cristina. Unknowingly, during the early 1980s, the HIV virus was passed from Cristina's father to her mother. Soon after, her mother became pregnant. Her father learned he had full-blown AIDS and only months to live when Cristina was just two years old. A round of tests revealed her mother also harbored the deadly virus, and that her new baby had been born positive as well.

Days before her third birthday, Cristina's father succumbed to the virus. AIDS still carried a deeply negative connotation, and talking about it was taboo. Her mom was advised to blame her father's death on a heart attack &mdash and keep their new reality hidden. Cristina remained unaware of her HIV diagnosis until she was nine years old. Her mom believed she was too young to understand and wanted her to just be a kid. It didn't take long for Cristina to notice something was different. She was always visiting doctors, taking more and more medications and her mom was deeply overprotective. One day she blurted out, "What's wrong with me?" That's when Cristina learned of their fate and took hold of a secret life.

Pediatric Massage - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark After learning the truth, she riddled her doctors with questions, theories and proposals. She became involved with one of the first Los Angeles pediatric AIDS support groups, where she not only learned about friendship and love but also loss and death. Over half of the young "group" members eventually lost their battles with HIV. Living in a world hardened by negative stigma and fear, they chose to remain undisclosed to the majority of friends and family, creating a double life. As just one of 20 babies to be identified with HIV in the Los Angeles area, she was battered by enormous amounts of medical observation, testing and treatment. However, while this kept her alive, it failed to provide what Cristina needed to heal.

Untouchable

Untouchable. This is one of the first words that haunt infants and children affected by HIV/AIDS. In today's day and age, this seems unfathomable, especially when their life is complicated by such a diagnosis that cuddling and nurturing seem so appropriate. For children with HIV/AIDS, a lot of the touch they experience is medically administered pokes and prods. Necessary, possibly, but wouldn't a hug do some good, too? Unfortunately, for many infants and children living with AIDS, they also live with a stigma that hands-off becomes a part of their day-to-day life experience. Misconception and confusion surrounds the diagnosis. Many still believe you can contract AIDS via touch – you cannot.

The stigma surrounding the diagnosis itself can impart many negative effects on the mind and body. Unfortunately, one of the first reactions of friends and family to a diagnosis of HIV is a reluctance to touch the person. People living with this disease are often viewed by some as "untouchable" members of society, furthering feelings of isolation and depression.

When you read the statistics, it is even more appalling to consider children are not receiving touch simply due to their diagnosis. According to 2009 statistics, the World Health Organization (WHO) believes there are approximately 2.5 million children worldwide living with HIV/AIDS.

Receiving massage and nurturing touch may not only provide many physical benefits, but due to the stigma associated with the diagnosis, many great psychological benefits to a child as well. Pediatric massage can often improve their quality of life, ease anxiety and tension, increase ability to sleep more soundly and increase the production of hormones which improve their mood.

In one study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, HIV-positive adolescents who received massage therapy felt less anxious, less depressed and demonstrated enhanced immune function. In addition, the HIV disease progression markers CD4/CD8 ratio and CD4 number increased for the massage group.

Massage has also been shown to increase white blood cells, decrease stress hormones (Cortisol), activate natural killer cells and decrease body discomforts including muscle spasms, cramps, edema and inflammation.

For babies born to mothers who are HIV-positive, the evidence has demonstrated that massaged babies showed superior performance on almost every Brazelton newborn marker on the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) and had a greater daily weight gain. This was quite a contrast compared to the control group who actually showed a decline in their performance.

I spoke to Cristina about writing this story, and was touched that not only would she allow me to share her story, but she also wished to contribute in her own words what massage meant to her. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to know Cristina and her family, share intimate moments and keep her secret safe.

Christina's Story

Tina Allen (founder, Liddle Kidz Foundation) and her healing touch came into my life at a time when I needed it the most. In 1986, during the height of the AIDS scare, my family learned we were HIV positive. At the time, my mom and I were one of the early mother-to-child HIV cases in Los Angeles County. After the death of my dad to AIDS in 1987, doctors and specialists gave my mom and I an optimistic 2 years to live. Fortunately, with the introduction of anti-retroviral medication and aggressive medical treatment paired with a strong desire to prevail and enjoy life &mdash my mom and I found ourselves celebrating each new birthday year.

And while I had "made-it" to high school, I struggled with the emotional burden of balancing a double life. Fearful of prejudice and being ostracized in our community, my mom and I selected to only disclose our HIV status to our immediate family and closest friends. And so, I grew up with a "secret"&mdash a secret that was too costly to share with my peers.

Tina entered our lives with empathy and understanding, at a time when my mom and I felt enormous anxiety and anguish. As a volunteer massage therapist, she provided me with a one-hour massage every week. She quickly became a stationary figure in my life; Tina was someone to turn to when I wasn't feeling well, someone to trust with our story, someone who cared and listened, and someone who always offered a healing touch.

My weekly massages with her gave me a chance to let all the weight and gravity of the disease &mdash our secret, our mortality, our health &mdash melt away. Lying on the massage table soothed by the warm, tender touch, I was finally able to relax &mdash finally able to be at peace. I looked forward to each and every session &mdash always so grateful to have my mind and body mended.

So often I would fall fast asleep or find myself in a mellow, yet almost energized coziness directly after each massage. I felt rejuvenated and restored to take on tomorrow's hardships. Having a massage always made me feel healthier and stronger. In fact, during this phase in my life, my body began to improve physically. My CD4-T cells were increasing, my weight was stable and I was sick less often. I finally felt and looked good.

More importantly, Tina was a friend and a mentor. We talked about my worries and fears, or the challenges I was facing at school. She listened to the stories about my friends who had fallen ill to the disease and were no longer here. And she always offered a supportive smile every time I talked about my dreams and the future. Of course, one of the biggest stresses came at 16 years old. Fearful of dating and having to deal with disclosing my HIV status, I opted to remain a wallflower at school. However, I failed to factor in a boy named Chris.

When everything was uncertain, I knew I could trust in my massage time to allow me time to think and breath. This hour provided me some clarity as I deliberated what to say to Chris and when to say it. A few months into our relationship I finally worked up the courage to disclose my status to Chris &mdash nine years later, he is still by my side and remains HIV negative.

I know first-hand how powerful and healing the touch of massage truly is. Tina's warm and soothing touch, paired with her compassionate and addictive energy offered a holistic approach to health that only enriched and complemented my medical treatment. Without this, I question how "healthy" in mind, body and soul I would truly be.

It's likely I would probably be here as a result of the medications and treatment, but I credit being happy and at peace, feeling strong and able to massage. Pediatric massage nurtures the body, mind, and soul and gives children regardless of circumstance the golden opportunity to relax and connect with their body.

Christina Today

Today, Cristina is a vibrant young woman who is taking on the world. Since she was 10 years old, she has been providing advocacy support to many HIV/AIDS organizations throughout the United States. Currently she is an ambassador to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatrics HIV/AIDS Foundation and just returned from speaking at the White House for the Women & Girls HIV/AIDS National Conference. She and Chris are happy, healthy and loving life.

It is important to remember a diagnosis is a diagnosis and doesn't define the person. Especially, when it comes to a diagnosis that causes such a "hands-off" stigma, pediatric massage therapy may be just the nurturing care that a child with AIDS needs to improve their body, mind and spirit.

As Cristina says, "Massage helped me find my bearings and remember my dreams!"

References:

  1. Scafidi, F. & Field, T. (1996). Massage therapy improves behavior in neonates born to HIV positive mothers. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 21, 889-898.
  2. Diego, M.A., Hernandez-Reif, M., Field, T., Friedman, L. & Shaw, K. (2001). HIV adolescents show improved immune function following massage therapy. International Journal of Neuroscience, 106, 35-45.
  3. HIV/AIDS Statistics. (2009). Data and Statistics. Retrieved April 17, 2011, from World Health Organization website: http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/paediatric/en/index.html

Click here for more information about Tina Allen, LMT, CPMMT, CPMT, CIMT.

 

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