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Massage Today
October 7, 2004

Massage Students Offer Gift of Touch to Dying Patients

National University of Health Sciences Press Release

National University of Health Sciences is a not-for-profit, private university in Lombard, Ill., accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and the Commission on Accreditation of the Council on Chiropractic Education.

The massage therapy program is accredited by the Commission on Massage Therapy Accreditation.

The dying process can be an isolating, lonely, painful experience for both the individual and his or her family. Hospice services, however, can be an enormous help in providing care and pain relief during this stressful time. For some hospice patients, part of that care now includes the benefits of human touch and massage therapy.

Students from the massage therapy certification program at National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) can volunteer to earn practice hours in a new partnership program with Hospice Partners in west suburban Hillside. Twice a month, the students meet at a convalescent center that cares for hospice patients.

The students are fully supervised and receive a briefing on the medical status of each patient on each visit and how it might alter the massage needs.

Because working with hospice patients can be very intense, Hospice Partners provides the massage students with the education and emotional support they need in working with patients who are dying.

"We begin each trimester with a 'death-attitudes' survey that the students fill out and share with each other. They have a chance to examine what their beliefs about death are and why they believe them. We discuss how each person's beliefs differ and how important it is not to impose our own value systems on patients or other therapists," says Heather Lantry, complementary therapies coordinator at Hospice Partners. "The therapist's own beliefs about death and dying can be a source of strength. However, if they don't know what they believe, they'll find the experience of working with hospice patients much harder."

Each morning when the students arrive, they begin the day with a half hour meeting with Lantry. Lantry discusses clinical issues and symptoms of the dying process. They may also review what happened at the last massage, and receive an update on the medical status of their patients or specific requests from the patient's doctor, nursing staff or family.

At the conclusion of the massage, the students regroup with Lantry and share their observations and experience. This sharing gives students a chance to smile, cry or ask questions they may have after working with the hospice client. The students also practice documenting their sessions for nots that will be added to the patient's medical charts.

Many of the clients are nonverbal due to dementia. That can be tough for students who are used to appreciative words from their regular clients. "They can't tell you where the pain is, but the look in their eyes lets you know how much you're helping them. It's impossible to put this experience into words," says NUHS student Kandi Herrera.

Yet even nonverbal patients find ways to show their needs and appreciation. One patient grabs Kandi's hand and places it on her leg as if to show where she'd like massage. Another reaches out when the students must say goodbye, as if begging for more. And even though it may be two weeks between visits, a previously nonresponsive woman lights up in recognition when her massage therapist walks through the door.

One morning, massage interns reported astounding news. A dementia patients who had not spoken intelligibly for weeks, appeared to be thinking and speaking very clearly for a few minutes after her massage therapy session. The therapist smiles while the progress is noted in her patient's chart.

Chicago is one of the few places in the country that has a hospice program offering complementary therapies. In addition to massage Hospice Partners offers its patients art therapy, music therapy and Reiki. Their volunteer department also provides "meet and greet" visits from certified therapy dogs and their handlers.

In addition to the partnership with NUHS and its student interns, Hospice Partners employs one part-time massage therapist on its staff and two contract massage therapists.

Hospice Partners is also participating in a National Institutes of Health Study that is researching the benefits of massage therapy for reducing end-of-life symptoms for cancer patients.

Lanty expects that the demand for massage therapists experienced in geriatric and hospice care will grow exponentially as the baby boomer generation retires and faces end-of-life issues. "A partnership, like the one we have with NUHS, is just good business sense. Hospice programs like ours will need massage therapists who are qualified to work with geriatric, ill and dying patients, and the massage students who can offer hospitals and care-giving organizations the type of experience that we're providing to these interns, will have a head start toward a very unique career."

And what impact does working with the dying have on massage therapy students? "None of us can walk away without a deeper understanding of the impact of touch," says NUHS student Anne Stefan. "Whether we continue to work in hospice once we graduate or whether we work in a spa, a health club or for a chiropractor, this experience will affect every massage we do. When I leave here after working with my hospice patients, I look at people differently, more compassionately. I look into their eyes."


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