Massage & the Pandemic

On March 17th at 12:01am I was officially out of work. Due to the pandemic, massage therapy was no longer an option for me to give or for anyone to receive. My hands had never felt quite so empty. As the weeks and months went on, I learned of several friends who had contracted the virus. 1 had been hospitalized for quite a while and she, along with the 2 family members in her household, were all (and still are) in the process of recovering. I know people within my family’s circle of friends who have lost loved ones to complications from contracting this virus. I also learned that I had several clients who were personally and forever changed by COVID19, so I am trying to have a healthy respect for the seriousness of this. We also have those who lost loved ones to other diseases during this time, but could not be surrounded by the love, hugs, and support that we normally would offer without question. This pandemic and all of the effects it envelopes is by far the biggest challenge most of us have ever faced. Many of us are still asking if there is an end to this in sight.

This is not just a respiratory virus. This particular coronavirus is unique. In some people, they have little if any symptoms. In other people, their entire body – every system – is under attack. This virus feeds on the cells of the body, multiplies and does so quickly. We have no vaccine, tests are only somewhat reliable, and yet, we are seeing improvements within our community. How? By following the recommendations first to learn what good hand hygiene means, then to stay home, then to physically distance when we do go out, and finally to wear masks whenever we are in the presence of others who are not from our household. We are getting stronger, we are seeing glimpses of recovery as a community – but we are not safe yet and may never be 100%.

At the end of May, the word from those who have the unenviable job of making decisions for the safety and health of the almost 10 million Michiganders here in the “Mitten State” was that those businesses offering “personal care” services would be waiting a while to reopen. These are jobs in which their very nature omits the ability to physically distance. Most of us in the massage community took a deep breath and thought “ok, we’re still in this. We’ve come this far. We’ll be ok. None of us wants to go back and work in a closed room with someone who might have the virus”. We had grown somewhat resigned to the financial and emotional impact we were experiencing. Then just a week or so later, the announcement was made that we had done such a good job here in Michigan that personal care businesses could reopen in our area of the state on June 15, just 10 days away. Here is where the really tough decisions came in.

For several weeks now, LMTs around the country have been trying to discern if, how, and when we would give massage again. Unlike hair stylists or nail techs, we have an effect on the entire body of our clients. One of the goals in giving massage is to get the blood flowing. That is, in fact, one of the benefits that we know can help people in managing (among other things) chronic pain. As the opioid crisis exploded around the country over the last several years, many patients with chronic pain found themselves suddenly needing to consider non-pharmaceutical ways to manage their pain. Massage therapists have a very special ability to help support those patients. However, in the light of the pandemic, we also had to come to terms with the possiblity that the treatment we provide to help people might actually expose them or us to a virus that could do great harm. We also have no clear understanding of the long-term effects of COVID19 or why some people get so sick so fast. What we do know is that when we practice good hand hygiene, physical distancing and wear our masks we decrease the chance for this virus to spread. We keep each other safe. We have real power in that – when we do it and do it correctly.

I have spent the last 3 months busier than I was before. I have taken 2 courses on infection and prevention. I have read research and designed a birth class specifically addressing how expectant people are being affected by the policies that have been put into place in many hospitals around the country. I’ve read, listened to, watched, and dug for everything I can find on the coronavirus, the pandemic’s impact on massage therapy, pregnancy and birth. The research is continuing to come out in a steady stream, but it is incomplete. We are learning as we go. So, what now?

I have been a massage therapist since 2004. I love my job and almost everything about it. Prior to the pandemic, I could say that one of my favorite things about my job is that everyone is happy to see me and everyone leaves feeling better. I have been blessed with clients who are loving, kind, supportive and who trust me to be their massage therapist – often multiple times a month and some for many years. I have often said that giving massage to others benefits me because I am a nurturer by nature and good, healthy, supportive touch is something I treasure. For some of my clients, I am the only person who physically touches them and I view that as a special privilege because, as we have seen with this pandemic, things like a simple squeeze of the shoulder or a hug are so very valuable to us as humans. I have missed that so very much.

So, again, I ask what now?

Well, as of yesterday, Tranquil Touch is officially reopened. This was not an easy decision and I won’t go into all the particulars. What I will say is that it felt both scary and reassuring to be back in my office preparing to see my first client for my first shift since this whole thing started. As far as the “what” I needed, I was ready. I had received a PPE kit from the Farmington DDA and Oakland County. The items I had begun ordering at the beginning of May, confident that I would give massage again had finally started to trickle in; I am still waiting for a few items, but nothing I absolutely need. I had gone in on Thursday with my eldest son and we spent 6.5 hours rearranging, cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting everything in my space to get it “COVID-Compliant”. Using the guidelines and recommendations from all the alphabet soup organizations that might have something to say about massage and this virus along with the Governor’s executive order I got everything ready to the best of my ability.

I am so grateful for the client that was my first yesterday. In the 3 months that I was closed, I had forgotten how to do simple things – like run her charge card to checkout. I have a theory that my brain has been so focused on the research and everything else that those simple things got pushed way down. In the end, I was able to use a different method and we got on with her session. I was double-masked, eyeglasses covered by goggles, and aproned up, ready to give her the best massage I could, despite all the extra things in my mind and on my body. “It’s just like riding a bike” my husband had reassured me before I left for work. She wore the disposable mask I provided for her and, even though I realized during her session that I had forgotten some other things that I normally incorporated, my hands knew what to do and it went relatively well. She said she felt much better and even when I checked in on her today, she stated that she has continued to feel good. There – that right there is why I love my job!

So, yes, massage therapy has changed. Yes, I feel a little like I’m suiting up for battle as I put everything on that is recommended. And yes, we all inherently accept a certain amount of risk because we cannot give or receive massage and physically distance at the same time. But, it is do-able, and as long as we all keep applying the recommendations when we can, where we can, and how we can then massage therapy can continue to help us when we need it the most.