Tina Peterson, CMT is one of Healwell’s direct service practioners. She was kind enough to share her smart, beautiful thoughts about her work providing massage (dancing in space and time, and listening, listening, listening) at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia.
Please start by telling us a little about yourself.
I live in Falls Church, Virginia. I have been working for Healwell for two years. I lived overseas for most of my growing up years – my father worked with foreign aid. I became a professional ballet dancer. I later danced ballroom and Argentine tango professionally. Ever since I was little (as shown by my early journals in pre-school in Zambia, Africa) I have wanted to be a doctor or nurse. Life doesn’t always happen the way you would like it to though. I began working as a medical transcriptionist in a multi-specialty medical practice over 35 years ago. After becoming pregnant, I decided to launch out on my own and I started my own medical transcription company, serving over 125 private practices in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. I did this for 30+ years and continue to do this. During this time, I also felt the need to go back to trying to be a doctor or working in the medical field. I worked at Inova Fairfax Hospital in the ICU as a medical tech – where I fell in love with patient care. In my position, I was able to take time to listen to the patients and their families as I cared for them. I had responsibilities to perform, but I also had the “luxury” of being able to spend time with the patients. This was where I felt at home – being of service to people.
What drew you to hospital-based massage? Beyond your foundational massage program, what additional courses/training did you take to prepare you to provide massage in a hospital setting?
One day 10 years ago, I found massage therapy. I decided to go to the best school I could find in the area, and I ended up at Potomac Massage Training Institute. With my strong medical background, I always leaned towards thinking about massage in a hospital setting. Since I worked for so many physicians in the area (in my medical transcription job), I started talking to all the doctors I could about massage. While I was going to PMTI, I used as many of the doctors I worked for as part of my case study. I tried to educate the doctors about the benefits of massage and how this could be used to help their patients.
After I graduated from PMTI, the doctors I had been massaging and talking to about massage, started to refer their patients to me. I opened my own practice before I graduated from PMTI – getting a beautiful space in McLean, Virginia. Soon after I started my practice, a friend referred me to a woman who was diagnosed with a rare form of stage IV uterine cancer. This intrigued me – and so I agreed to go to her house to see her. I read Gayle McDonald’s book, “Medicine Hands,” and learned a lot from her book.
At this time, Lauren Muser Cates was on my radar and I started to follow her from afar. I saw that she offered Oncology Massage courses and I tried to pull my things together and take these courses. I also saw that she was massaging in the hospital. Over the course of a couple of years I took Lauren’s “Opening to the Mystery” course, which was life changing. I subsequently took her six-day Oncology Massage Course and finally was accepted into the Healwell Stewardship program at VHC.
I currently have a private practice in McLean and Arlington, Virginia. In addition to working for Healwell, I work at the Teal Center. I also work for Capital Caring Hospice, seeing patients in their homes.
When you began working in the hospital did you find there were things for which your training had not adequately prepared you?
When I began working in the hospital, I felt that the courses I took from Lauren and Healwell completely prepared me to be unprepared. I have always been curious and loved the medical setting, so nothing about what I was faced with as far as patients and their diagnoses scared me. What I learned from the Stewardship and Lauren and Lucille, is that I should go into a patient’s room with an open heart, soft hands, and a listening ear.
You work, almost exclusively with palliative care patients in your work at Virginia Hospital Center. This means that most of your patients are either in an end of life process or dealing with serious issues of pain, infection or other medical complications. What do you enjoy about this work?
I not only work with the Palliative Care team, I also work for the Teal Center as the only Inpatient Massage Therapist for VHC, so far. The work I do in the hospital has been one of the most rewarding things I have done with my life. I have the opportunity to listen to people and be with people at one of the most vulnerable and challenging times of their lives. I get to treat a patient in the hospital as a PERSON, not a disease or a diagnosis. I get to hear their stories from either themselves or from their loved ones. It is perhaps the most intimate time I spend with people. A lot of people I see in the hospital are in pain, anxious, scared, feeling a loss of dignity, tired of being poked and prodded. I have the opportunity to change some of that, even if it is for a short time when I am in the room. I get to see patients relax and quite often fall asleep, after having not been able to sleep for days. I get to have patients say to me they no longer have the pain that they were complaining of when I first walked into the room. Sometimes I get to touch patients who have no family or who are alone, and I get to be a small, hopefully positive, part of their experience in the hospital.
What do you find challenging about this work?
The most challenging and frustrating part of the work is the lack of education, awareness and funding for massage therapists in the hospital. If physicians, nurses, administrators and any other decision-making authority could talk to the patients who have received massage therapy and get feedback on how beneficial receiving a massage has been to them and their perception of their hospital experience, I would hope that having massage therapy as a part of the hospital setting would become as routine as having physical therapy, occupational therapy, etc.
How are you received by other members of the hospital team?
The Palliative Care team has been the most open, welcoming team I could dream of working with. I have been able to talk to them about massage and its benefits. I have demonstrated what massage looks like in the hospital and why it is so beneficial – to my surprise, most of the members were not fully aware of what this kind of massage was like. They have also gotten feedback from the patients (who, if they are still in the hospital week to week, specifically request that I come back) I see and now I feel I am truly a part of the team and that they respect what I, as a massage therapist, am doing. They ask for my input in Rounds and ask what I can do for the patients.
Outside of palliative care, when I see patients as the inpatient massage therapist, the nurses and doctors welcome my yellow pants when I walk into a patient’s room.
Without, of course, revealing anything identifiable, tell us about a patient who particularly touched you.
All of the patients I have been privileged to see have touched me and changed me. One patient stands out. Due to her family dynamics and arguments about her advanced directives and who knows what else, the family had basically not visited her for many days. She was actively dying and alone when I went to see her. I quietly talked to her and let her know I was there. I touched her in the quiet hospital room with no one around. We danced in the space and time of that moment – it was beautiful. Her breathing slowed and finally she passed away as I held her hand. I was so honored that I was able to be with her at that time and to let her know she was not alone.
What advice would you offer to other massage therapists who want to work in this environment?
Full hearts, open minds, be forever curious, lose all judgments, treat the patient as a human being, not a diagnosis or disease. Listen, listen, listen.