"I had a patient with Pulmonary Fibrosis, who was hunched over, unable to sit up straight in her wheelchair. She couldn't say more than one word between breaths. When I left, she was talking and walked me to the door! This is extraordinary, gratifying work."
That's why Theresa Herman loves her position as an Allina Health Hospice Massage Therapist. She's one of four people on staff who work as part of the full disciplinary team bringing relief to patients near the end of their lives. Along with nurses, doctors, and other staff members integral to comforting a hospice patient, massage therapists play a critical role.
The difference is their service is not usually covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance. But Allina Health is committed to providing massage as part of hospice care. That's where the Allina Health Hospice Foundation steps in, covering the cost of this vital treatment. Massage therapy brings physical and emotional relief for many ailments hospice patients face, including: soft tissue pain, bone pain, breathing problems, anxiety, agitation, and depression.
As massage therapist Anne Keller describes, "One group of patients who greatly benefit from massage are those who have breathing difficulties. Gentle massage of the neck, shoulders, back, and ribs helps to release tension and increase the elasticity of muscles assisting with breathing. This in turn results in more effective respirations, decreased pain and decreased anxiety."
Massage therapist Gail Willgohs describes how the effects of massage can ripple out past the physical discomfort of the patient, to soothe other tensions as well.
"I'd just done a relaxing massage for a woman who had cancer and was struggling with a lot of pain. She was such a sweet woman. I'd never heard her say anything mean or negative. When I finished the massage she told me how grateful she was. She said, 'I was so crabby before you came, and so mean to my husband, and now I feel as if I have come back to myself'."
Meaningful moments like these bring as much joy to a massage therapist as to the person he or she's helping. Sarah Gottfried says she hears one or more of these comments every single day from her patients:
"I feel......more confident....more strong....more whole....more relaxed....more peaceful....like I have never felt!...like a new person."
There's no other work Theresa would rather do than offer a person who's constantly being prodded and poked, a soothing touch. "Nothing is more sacred than the intimate connection with a human being in the last part of life," says Theresa. "To have permission to be there when only family, close friends, and a few caregivers tend to be welcome… I never take the invitation for granted. I approach it with respect and reverence."
More hospice care stories
Allina Health Hospice Foundation Newsletter, Shared Journey newsletter