Handled with Care - Massage Therapists Connecting with Hospitalized Children
by Shirley Vanderbilt
February | March 2007
Massage therapist Tina Allen was making one of her routine hospital visits when the father of a hospitalized child approached her with a question. Allen is director of the Children’s Program for The Heart Touch Project in Los Angeles, California, a nonprofit group providing compassionate touch to local homebound and hospitalized men, women, and children. The father’s little girl was only six years old, severely injured in an auto accident, and now quadriplegic. “He recognized my Heart Touch shirt and asked if I had given his daughter a massage,” Allen says. “We talked for a moment in the hall, while the ice he was getting for his daughter was melting away. He was so thankful that Heart Touch had provided massage for his daughter. Over the six weeks she had been in the hospital, she hadn’t been able to sleep. Every part of her body ached, and she couldn’t get comfortable. After her first massage she finally slept. He said when he came to visit her the evening after her massage, she told him, ‘Daddy, I got a massage. It felt so good and I was so relaxed, I took a nap after.’ Dad had a tear in his eye and said, ‘Thank you for giving my daughter the medicine she needs to heal.’ It was amazing to know that beyond just providing a massage session for a young girl, we touched the entire family.”
Across the country, massage therapists and bodyworkers are bringing softness and light into the lives of hospitalized children whose days are filled with continual rounds of pokes, prods, and painful procedures in which they have no say. Allen uses Heart Touch to work her magic.
From the Heart
Nine years ago and fresh out of massage school, Tina Allen began her volunteer work with Heart Touch. Now, as the Children’s Program director, she provides education and inspiration for therapists committed to addressing the needs of medically-challenged infants and children who are hospitalized or in hospice care. “Some of our clients may only want you to hold their hand and talk to them,” Allen says. “Some want more of a massage session. Heart Touch is really about being compassionate and present for what your client needs in the moment. Each session is different and each client unique. The only common element is opening our hearts and providing comfort through our hands.”
The volunteer-based Heart Touch Project was founded by massage therapist Shawnee Isaac Smith more than a decade ago. Smith’s personal experience providing massage to a friend dying of AIDS inspired her to create an opportunity for others with terminal illness to receive the same comfort and relaxation of touch. The program has blossomed over the years—to date, approximately sixteen hundred volunteers have participated in the project, their ranks including massage therapists and bodyworkers, physicians, physical therapists, and nurses.
To qualify for the free Heart Touch training, a volunteer must first already be certified to touch. The two and one-half days of training requires a commitment to provide a one-hour weekly session for adult clients, for a minimum of one year. Those interested in working with children must initially complete the one-year commitment serving adults before signing up for another two-day training in the Children’s Program, which requires yet another one-year commitment of volunteer work.
“During the children’s massage training we provide information specific to working with children of varying developmental levels and medical diagnosis, how to approach children on their level, and how to promote respect and empower children to make decisions on whether or not they would like to receive Heart Touch,” Allen says. Guest speakers from participating medical institutions are also brought in to share their expertise with the volunteers. Further training for international certification as a Certified Infant Massage Instructor (CIMI) is available to those interested in teaching families or working with infants, although volunteers are responsible for the cost of CIMI training.
The administrative and training costs of the Children’s Program are supported through a grant from First 5 LA, which serves newborns to five-year-olds in the Los Angeles area. These funds are crucial to the program’s recent expansion beyond Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to several other medical centers. “As we develop a program at each new facility, our curriculum has to be updated to be facility-specific,” Allen says, thus matching the training to protocols for each hospital and each new population being served.
From Tots to Teens
In a world where adults are in charge and their imposed procedures mandatory, the massage therapist presents the hospitalized child with a rare opportunity—a choice. Allen says the Heart Touch therapists explain their service in age-appropriate language to help the child understand what is going to happen. “Every time our therapists go in to see a child, they ask permission of the child whether they would like to receive massage or not,” she says. “They ask, is it okay to start with your hand or your foot? And the child decides. These children are empowered by accepting or refusing this service. They decide how much massage they would like to receive. This is one of the few services a hospitalized child has the right to choose or refuse.”
The importance and benefits of that choice is clearly evident in a story told by Allen of a young Heart Touch client who had never received massage. When the volunteer therapist explained the service and asked permission to give him massage, he would only allow her to massage his feet, and only with his tennis shoes on. This went on for several visits. On the fourth visit, he told the therapist, “I think it would feel better if I didn’t have my shoes on.”
Working with the hospitalized child is a burgeoning specialty, but one that has little history to offer as a framework for practice. As programs grow, therapists are learning the “how to.” Surrounded by medical experts within the hospital environment, they can seek out staff to educate and inform regarding the child’s condition and status, but blending this integrative approach into hospital protocol is a relatively new concept for all concerned as they move forward.
Aside from therapeutic considerations, there are the rules and regulations of the institution itself. Allen says Heart Touch volunteers go through the same privileging process as other hospital staff—tuberculosis testing, health clearance, background check, fingerprinting—because they have the same access to children. In each hospital department a lead medical staff person is designated to assign children for Heart Touch services. “These people are known as our champions,” Allen says. After consent is granted from the physician and parents, and also from children who are of a certain age to consent, the lead contacts Allen who then matches the child to an appropriate volunteer. “Sometimes the social worker needs to give consent as well,” she says. “It depends on the diagnosis and the patient’s condition.”
Heart Tugs and Hugs
Being witness to human suffering, especially that of a young helpless child, can take an emotional toll on even the strongest of hearts. It’s an up and down ride, from the elation of recovery to the sadness of loss. Self-care in the midst of giving so much to others has always been an important aspect of massage practice—even more so in this specialized field of hospital work.
Heart Touch offers volunteers a monthly support group facilitated by a licensed social worker. “Volunteers have the opportunity to check in and let us know how everything is going with their client,” Allen says. “They can talk about it with someone who can give them honest feedback, as well as learn from volunteers who have had similar experiences.” In addition, the Children’s Program hosts a special support group every two months. “This is a second opportunity for volunteers working with infants and children, who are hospitalized or in hospice care, to meet and share their stories, as well as offer support to each other in this often difficult work. That’s one more special thing that makes our program unique, and also strengthens it.”
About Liddle Kidz
Since its inception, the goal of Liddle Kidz has been to empower families and professionals to provide nurturing touch: building stronger, more loving bonds with children. Liddle Kidz provides training, education and support for families and professionals, giving them the tools necessary to ensure the safe, professional practice of nurturing touch and developmental movement with infants and children. At Liddle Kidz it is our true belief that children are our greatest gift and should be treated with extraordinary care.
Certified Infant Massage Instruction is open to those who care deeply about families and children. You do not need any previous experience in the healthcare field to attend. In fact, many of the people who do attend the training do so as a way of providing a loving, healthy support to families. Others who do attend include nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists, massage therapists, health care professionals, childbirth educators, early childhood interventionists, lactation consultants, doulas and acupuncturists.
For media inquiries or to interview Tina please contact below:
Contact: Tina Allen
Founder, Liddle Kidz
tina @ liddlekidz.com