Thursday, November 15, 2012

Attending to the Stress Left by Sandy

One might wonder what a massage therapist could do in a devastated neighborhood like the post-Sandy Rockaways. But there was Cate, calmly stirring her tuning bowl; Shing at his table, easing someone’s shoulder muscles; Susan over at her table stretching a receiver’s cramped leg; Fred and Rich at massage chairs, leaning into backs that were tight from days in cold, damp homes. The small group of therapists was focused and mostly silent as they worked, a unique presence in a warming tent near St. Francis Church.

Out in Belle Harbor, where Swedish Institute alumni volunteers will be offering massage for a few days, the ocean met the bay during the storm surge, covering the streets that crisscross the narrow channel of land. That night, many residents lost life as they knew it.

Helpers have descended: Trucks carry away mountains of sand and debris, electricians inspect homes before power can be restored, volunteers distribute stuff like food, clothing and supplies. But it is heart wrenching to realize that all of the “stuff” in the world will not be enough to heal Rockaway residents. Yes, there is rebuilding and replacing that needs to be done, but there are inner lives that need to be tended to as well. That’s where the massage therapists come in.

What massage therapists have to offer may not fill a material need, but has value because it can wordlessly encourage a receiver to be “at home” in his or her own body. Mindful rhythmic touch resonates with homeostasis, that innate sense of balance. If muscles can relax a bit, circulation and immune response may improve. People get up from the table and for the moment they can smile.

After a disaster, communities need an ocean of helpers. Massage therapists can play a vital role by attending to participant’s physical and emotional stress. One of our alumni volunteers, Fred Kinnard, suggested that community teams need to be trained and in place before disaster strikes. In fact, the AMTA New Jersey chapter just alerted members that the next meeting will offer a program for preparing leaders for emergency deployment.

If you want to volunteer:

Alumni volunteers are coordinated by Meg Darnell, Dean of Alumni Services. For opportunities and updates, email her at [email protected], or go to either the Swedish Institute Alumni Volunteer page on Facebook, or to the Alumni Network ( See some of Meg’s photos from the Rockaways.