Originally published in Massage Bodywork magazine, January/February 2008. Copyright 2008. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
When I finished her massage, she was ecstatic. She had never received a professional massage, so the relaxation she achieved was something of a revelation to her. Then, four days later, I got the phone call. She was in a lot of pain. "What did you do?" she asked. "I felt fantastic for the first three days and now this!"
"You felt great for three days and the upper back pain has popped up just today?"
"Yes, so what did you do?" Her tone was accusatory. You know how your head gets hot when you're in trouble? My scalp could have ignited dirt. I might have been sweating audibly but all I could hear was my pulse pounding.
"It was your first time so I gave you a very light full-body relaxation massage," I explained. "I doubt the pain you feel now is a result of the massage four days ago. If my work had harmed you, you would have felt the pain right away or at least within the first forty-eight hours. This must be something else.
It was something else. It went away quickly with some exercises. She got past the pain quickly, too. Then, she remembered how much she loved receiving massage and, much to my surprise, even became a regular client. There's a small miracle right there, and I'm grateful for it. She never had pain after massage again. However, I think part of me deep down in the lizard brain was always waiting for another accusatory phone call each time she exited my clinic.
That phone call upset me because it made me feel so vulnerable. Sure, blaming her pain on me was a little like saying, "I can't understand how I got hit by an ice cream truck today! I took vitamin C four days ago!" Still, if someone could have an unrelated physical reaction and blame it on massage--even after such a light relaxation-only treatment--did I ever want to do more challenging work involving frictions or trigger points? The thing about lawsuits is, even if you win, it still costs you money you don't have and the emotional strain of such a case is immeasurable. Such worries would find me looking for a hiding place under the rug. Sometimes, even though you do everything right, someone will still think you're wrong.
"Maybe I'm too much of a delicate doily to take on such a risky occupation," I complained to My Friend The Chiropractor. "What's less risky than massage therapy?" I asked, straining for an answer, getting nothing.
He assured me this was a rare case. Then, he told me what he tells his first-timers and I had my a-ha moment. "I can't control how your body will react to treatment. However, if there is a problem, there's a lot we can do together to resolve it.
If clients can occasionally make a good thing into a bad thing, it shouldn't be surprising that sometimes even doing a great service isn't enough to keep a happy client. Case in point: I had just opened my first clinic when a woman wandered in for a massage. During the intake interview, I asked about her wrist. She showed me that it had very limited range of motion and reported that it had been stiff for fifteen or twenty years. I assessed it, asked if I could help, and with a huge pop, mobilized the wrist joint fairly easily. She was delighted and astonished to demonstrate full range of motion had returned, pain-free.
She saw me a couple times for relaxation massage and then disappeared. It happens that people move or just move on. I thought about the last time I had seen her, and aside from appearing to be in a hurry to leave, she had seemed happy with her treatment. I never saw her again, but I heard from her once more.
Just as I was about to close down my clinic--I was moving far away--I got a phone call from this same lady. "Do you remember me? I was the woman with the wrist that didn't move for years and years and you really helped me!" Of course I remembered her. Progress is expected, but you don't forget the surprising miracles, even the smaller ones. Excellent, I thought. I can finally find out what happened to her. Moved to Tijuana, perhaps? Entered a kibbutz? Doing five-to-ten for aggravated assault with a Nerf bat?
"I heard through the grapevine that you were moving, and I just wanted to say goodbye and tell you thanks. My wrist is still just fine."
"Glad to hear it! Um, where'd you go?"
"Oh, I found another therapist," she said breezily. "I like to go where there's free parking, so that's why I didn't come back."
"Ah," I said.
The lesson learned? For some people you can turn water into wine and they'll take the glass and drink it down with a smile. You are reminded of the variability in working with human beings when they then lay this one on you: "I wanted red."Robert Chute, a writer and massage therapist in London, Ontario, is still a delicate doily, but dealing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.