Massage Therapy Helps Rescue Workers
Touch Proves Beneficial in the Wake of Sept. 11
by Karen Menehan
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 touched us all. As a nation, we prayed and grieved. We read newspaper accounts and watched hour upon hour of news reports. We felt united by our fear and our anger, by our identity as Americans, and by our compassion for those who suffered.
Alongside the candlelight vigils, prayer services and headlines, behind the scenes and out of reach of the TV cameras and microphones, an unorganized yet highly committed assembly of massage therapists worked tirelessly to relieve the stress of rescue workers, relief staff and volunteers.
When the tragedy struck, the response from the massage field was immediate. Hundreds of therapists traveled to the disaster sites, sometimes carpooling, sometimes taking the first train out of the station. Therapists who were among the first let into relief centers-those areas where rescue workers could nap, shower and grab a meal-sometimes did not leave those areas for days, concerned they would not be let in again past newly tightened security. Other therapists stayed home, yet reached out to their own communities.
In the absence of any large-scale organized response to the tragedy, individual therapists and groups of therapists responded spontaneously by volunteering their time, their expertise, their healing touch. Their gift was accepted with open arms by the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army-and by countless firefighters, police officers, FBI agents, military personnel and search-and-rescue staff and volunteers who received much-needed massage in the days following the tragedy.
The stories of massage therapists in cities and towns throughout America illustrate how people united by their passion for healing touch can have a profoundly positive effect on the aftermath of a disaster, especially on one of such horrifying magnitude as this.
Going where they were needed
From starting points throughout the country, massage therapists left their homes to travel where they felt they were needed most. For many, this meant one of the three disaster sites in Manhattan; Arlington, Virginia; or near Somerset, Pennsylvania.
In Matawan, New Jersey, at 4:45 a.m. on the Saturday after the attacks, five massage therapists piled into a car to make the 35-mile drive into New York City. After navigating a circuitous route fraught with bridge and tunnel closures, the group arrived in lower Manhattan. One of the therapists, Bill Fee, was struck by the unfamiliarity of the scene. He was used to seeing the lights of Manhattan twinkling in the night. Now, though, almost the entire area was dark, the only illumination coming from the floodlights shining on the wreckage of the World Trade Center. An endless haze of white smoke floated from the rubble toward the sky. The group moved on to work at the Jacob K. Javitz Convention Center, which had been turned into a volunteer hub, offering massage to the rescue workers who were digging in the rubble of what had at one time been the tallest structures in the world.
In Syracuse, New York, upon hearing about the attacks, massage therapist Susan Galbraith cancelled all her upcoming sessions and bought a train ticket for New York City. She didn't know exactly where she was headed, but she knew she had to help. Upon arriving at Penn Station, she stopped a police officer to ask where she should go. He directed her to the Javitz center. Galbraith bungee-corded her massage chair to her luggage cart and began walking. When she reached the center, she saw a line of people wrapped around the building, waiting to volunteer. Galbraith was redirected to Stuyvesant High School, just a few blocks north of the World Trade Center. She gave seated massage on a stairwell landing for 20 of the 36 hours she was there, grabbing naps when she could.
Near Somerset, Pennsylvania, Jenean Thompson, from Federal Way, Washington, along with eight other massage therapists, spent a week at the airplane crash site, giving 10-minute massages to the FBI agents who spent their days crawling through the woods on their hands and knees to retrieve plane parts and human remains.
In Brooklyn, New York, massage therapist Donna DeFalco sent an e-mail message to massage therapists and all her corporate contacts, requesting volunteers for bodywork throughout the city. Response was so huge-close to 500 therapists-that the Swedish Institute of Massage, in Manhattan, had to be enlisted as the effort's dispatch headquarters. DeFalco also provided massage to the rescue workers toiling at the site of what had been the World Trade Center, now referred to as Ground Zero.
"I have never felt muscles and fatigue like I felt here," DeFalco said. "We had grown men crying in our arms."
The response to massage
In the days immediately following the attacks, approximately two million tons of World Trade Center wreckage rose in some places as much as five stories high, the piles spreading out for as many as 12 blocks in every direction. It was through these mammoth piles of concrete and metal scraps that the rescue workers dug. For several days after the attacks they dug with gloved hands, working quickly but gingerly in case survivors were trapped under the wreckage. Stooping, squatting, walking, crawling on and in the rubble for 12, 16, 20 hours per shift, the rescue workers were in desperate need of healing touch, according to therapists on the scene.
"These workers were very much in need. Their bodies were screaming at them to get bodywork," said Jeff Mahadeen, a massage therapist who drove to Manhattan from Bloomfield, New Jersey. He worked for 15 hours straight at a makeshift relief center set up at Stuyvesant High School, massaging people who came to him covered in dirt, ash, mud and asbestos; his massage chair surrounded by stacks of medical supplies, clothes, food and work boots.
"For the most part on Friday the efforts that were going on were still very frantic. These guys were working 20 out of 24 hours," he said. "We saw men who were almost crippled. They were so bent over, they looked like a question mark. They would get bodywork, then say, 'Hey, I can go out there for another couple of hours,' and they'd go back out again, when their original intent was to come in and get some sleep.
"I think that human interaction and human contact was very beneficial for them," he said, "if anything, calming down their nervous systems a little bit."
Getting in touch with emotions
Adding an almost unimaginable element to the rescue effort at the World Trade Center site was the fact that at least 300 firefighters and 60 police officers, the first to arrive on the scene after the initial plane crash, were missing in the wreckage. So, in many instances, rescue personnel were searching for their co-workers, friends, brothers, fathers-or what remained of them.
"Some of the men just break down," DeFalco said.
Galbraith remembered one rescue worker who was brought to her for a massage. This man's best friend, a fireman, was presumed dead in the World Trade Center collapse.
"He was overcome by grief, immobilized," she said. "He was traumatized, a jittery wreck. He was completely unable to relax and overwrought with stress. He had never had a massage before. As I worked on him, I could feel shudders go through his shoulders. I did a lot of light, compassionate touch. Slowly the shudders in his shoulders subsided."
When the session was finished, the man told Galbraith that he was a convert to massage.
Although some of the men and women broke down, most-especially the police officers-had a wall up around their emotions, massage therapists said. One social worker told Jeff Mahadeen that the crying and distress that had punctuated the first couple of days after the attacks had given way to a guarded, stoic resolve as the workers dug into their jobs.
"For the most part they weren't talking much, they were keeping things to themselves," Mahadeen said. "They were quiet when they were getting worked on."
One Rolfing practitioner said that some police officers would not get massage unless their partner was nearby. Others said that the rescue workers' natural inclination was to help the other volunteers, instead of allowing themselves to relax.
Once they allowed themselves to get one massage, though, the rescue workers were sold on its benefits, and highly appreciative of the therapists' efforts.
The scope of need
The rescue workers probably presented the most immediate need for massage, but countless other staff and volunteers also needed and received healing touch in the aftermath of the disaster.
Two weeks after the attacks, the Swedish Institute of Massage reported that it had dispatched more than 1,000 massage therapists to various locations throughout New York City. The Olive Leaf Wholeness Health Center also offered itself as a hub for massage volunteers, dispatching more than 200 massage therapists, reflexologists, chiropractors, physical therapists and reiki practitioners throughout the city.
In New York, massage was given to medical staff at the ICU Burn Unit at Cornell Medical Center and at other hospitals; at firehouses; at the American Red Cross station; at the Chelsea Piers, a recreation area that was converted to an emergency staffing site; and on the USNS Comfort, a Navy hospital ship that docked in New York Harbor as a kind of floating hostel for rescue workers.
Massage was given to the people who loaded and unloaded boxes of supplies, drove trucks, answered phones, and served meals. Search-and-rescue dogs received massage. Bodywork was provided at the city's Medical Examiner's Office, where bodies and body parts were brought for identification, and where staff had tight arms, necks, shoulders and backs from the delicate, precisely detailed work of sorting through body parts and performing DNA evaluations.
Massage was also present at, or near, the other disaster sites. In Falls Church, Virginia, Linda Lewis, a massage student, massaged firefighters who performed the rescue efforts at the Pentagon, at their firehouse. At the Pennsylvania crash site, one massage therapist was escorted around the perimeter to massage the military personnel who guarded the site.
Griffith said she was surprised at the number of people who had never had massage-and gratified by the amazement they expressed when their sessions were over.
Edna Ciallella, who volunteered at the Javitz center alongside Reiki practitioners, chiropractors, counselors and acupuncturists, agreed, and said that the rescue workers thanked her for the massage sessions.
"They were very grateful. They really appreciated it," she said. "They said it felt wonderful, it relaxed them, it invigorated them-all the things that massage is supposed to do."
In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, the nation's massage therapists have shown that massage is an important component of disaster response. They have demonstrated that they are capable of working hard under difficult conditions to contribute to relief efforts. And they have proven beyond doubt that for people in need of nurturing, therapeutic touch, they are able, and ready, to help.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Massage
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