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Happy-ish Anniversary, Healwell

June 11, 20208 min read

Healwell turns 10 this week. It’s an anniversary that is much sadder than I would have envisioned when we announced, in January, that we were having a big, in-person party to celebrate with and for the Healwell community. Friends and family from across the country and around the world had planned to join us to celebrate and just to be together. And now that won’t happen. At least not this Sunday, as we had planned.

When the Board of Directors and I wrapped our annual Strategic Planning Meeting in January of this year, the sky was the limit. We were on track to reach goals we didn’t expect to achieve until 2025. We had an incredible team of therapists, nine service programs, a full calendar of courses and collaborative projects. We were awaiting word on three big grants for service and community education programs. We had a research paper in the publishing pipeline and we were about to launch new programs with the health clinic at a homeless shelter and at Georgetown’s Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Clinic. The momentum was finally building and the key pieces of administrative infrastructure and funding had been painstakingly put into place. Our whole team had transitioned from contractors to employees and hospitals were actually calling us to ask if we’d work with them.

So many of the things of which we had dreamed were on the horizon or had already happened.

Here we sit, just six months later. All of our service programs are on hiatus. We made the very difficult, but accurate decision to lay off our therapist team in early May. In December our balance sheet is likely to look like it did in our second year as an organization. Our grant deadlines have been punted to the fall. Our paper publication has halted. All of our live courses have been canceled. We have joined the legions of massage therapists and so many others who are wondering what happened and how it happened so fast.

All of that leaves me wondering, “What is 10 years?”

In 1993, Anders Ericsson, a professor at the University of Colorado published a paper “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” John Hayes, a cognitive psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University supported Ericsson’s findings when he studied composers, artists, athletes and others who have been or are considered masters of their disciplines. One of the central ideas of both studies was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, “Outliers.” Both Ericsson and Hayes found that there was particular value in having worked at a craft for at least 10 years; that expertise and even mastery were directly correlated to having engaged in the activity for 10 years and/or 10,000 hours. Certainly, the entire concept of mastery is more complicated than this, but stick with me.

We can’t rule out genetics and environment, but it won’t surprise you that one of the most compelling and often under-appreciated factors is how these so-called masters spent that time. It’s like the old adage about how time heals all wounds. Time has nothing to do with it. It’s all about what you do with that time. If you go into it. If you feel it. If you get honest and have the hard conversations with yourself and others. If you show up, healing happens. If you don’t, it doesn’t.

As I look back on what seems at once like a blink and millennia, I feel clear that we have practiced our craft with purpose. We have been deliberate. We have shown up to ourselves and to our communities.

Each year, we review our core values and each year I have a small panic attack as I wonder what we will discover when we pull them out. When we look at this list that is intended to be our North Star, I worry that we’ll look around at each other and find that we have missed the mark or that we haven’t, as they say, left it all on the field.

So far, that fear has not been realized. I continue to be deeply humbled and amazed at all the big and little ways that we have led and been guided by these principles.

At Healwell, we get up every day to do six things. They do not function in a hierarchy. They are like a braid made of equally essential strands. The value of each depends on the other.


What we want for massage therapy is not easy to achieve. We want people who call themselves massage therapists to understand that the human body is not a collection of parts, but a dynamic whole that is affected as much by how we do as by what we do. We want massage therapists to understand that intuition is improved and strengthened, not threatened, by knowledge and experience. We imagine a world where massage therapists truly grasp the responsibility to create safety and to see the people they serve with fresh, judgement-free eyes. We want massage therapists to be perceptive, professional and clear communicators who remember to use their ears more than their mouths.


We want to learn from and with our colleagues from other disciplines. We have created opportunities for first-hand experience of the sharing, perspective-taking and downright enlightenment that happen in all directions when massage therapists, nurses, social workers DPTs and OTs learn together in the same classroom. We work toward a world where ways of touching are not trademarked but are shared freely and with a deep knowledge that everything we do is for a much greater good than any one person, one business, one school. We learn from and with our colleagues from all over the world so we can spend time greasing wheels instead of reinventing them. We are energized by the work that lies ahead for Healwell and the profession in dismantling systemic racism. We have built a community that is ready to take on that work with us.


Listen. Ben and Jerry said it best. If it’s not fun, why do it? Healwell has come to embody the balance of science, sacred and silly. We could all be dead tomorrow. We must laugh now. Roll up your sleeves while you laugh but laugh. We laugh at ourselves. We laugh at the world. We laugh at how darned seriously we all take… everything. We avoid bureaucracy, ego, committees that meet just to meet, superficial anything, and everything else that takes the love and fun out of this work that matters so deeply to each of us.


Everything we do is rooted in the truth that we are all suffering and that we’d all like to suffer a little less. We take a lot of deep breaths. We help each other see as many sides of a thing as can be seen. We admit when we’re wrong. We invite vulnerability and the changing of mind and heart that result from being brave enough to integrate new information and new ways of being. We work toward a world where tender is strong and real is what works.


Nothing has tested tour ability to do this more than COVID-19. The level of anxiety, confusion and misinformation surrounding the largest pandemic of the century has kept us on our toes. Throughout the pandemic we have felt a deep responsibility to share accurate information in as timely a manner as possible. We have done our best to stay up to date on the specific struggles that massage therapists have been facing so we could offer solutions, ideas and sometimes simply a listening ear in impossible situations. Healwell has shared what we have learned and we have done our best to trust massage therapists to use their own good brains and judgement to make responsible choices that fit their circumstances with the support of correct, scientific, thoughtfully curated information.


This has never done us wrong. We have worked together over the years and certainly in recent months to be receptive and responsive to feedback. We have invited others to share with us and to become a part of our family in a variety of ways from board membership to guest instructors to affiliated organizations. We share what we’ve learned in the hopes of shortening the learning curve for others. We reach out to you directly and get to know you and what’s important so we can create what’s needed and what’s missing.

It has been an incredible ten years.

We love all people because, let’s face it, it’s hard to be a person and our time with seriously ill people has brought that home to us in ways we can’t deny. We have a particular affection for people who show up, who own their mistakes, who offer solutions, and who know how to laugh and get things that matter done. Tough love is complicated concept, but it means that we partner, hire, teach and collaborate with people and organizations who can look and keep looking when we hold up a mirror to them. We create a path that is made for those who are and who want to be unflinchingly authentic.

I don’t know what the next ten years will hold for Healwell, but I am optimistic about our bright (if not uncertain) future. I know our work and our community will be propelled and buoyed by these same values that have carried us through to this moment. Our therapist team will grow again. Our mission will continue to be important. We will serve, educate, measure and publish.

We will love. We will collaborate. We will laugh. We will give. We will challenge the status quo and we will do it with you because it matters too much to do it alone.

We hope you’ll come with us.

Let’s see what’s next.

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Cal Cates

Cal is one of Healwell’s founders and its Executive Director. Cal speaks around the world on a variety of topics related to integrative medicine, emotional self-care for practitioners and the mechanics and politics of introducing massage therapy into clinical settings. They have been participating in research, teaching and developing curriculum for massage therapy courses focused on hospital-based practice, oncology massage and end of life care since 2007. Cal is passionate about elevating the profession of massage therapy and also about broader and more seamless integration of massage therapists into mainstream healthcare.

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