A New York State-of-Mind

In the Aftermath of 9/11

By Karrie Mowen (Osborn)

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork, December/January 2002.

Time to Help,
Time to Heal
Some gave money, some gave time.
Some gave blood, some gave love.
Some gave prayers, some gave touch.
Some gave tears, some gave hugs.
All because,
Some gave everything.

Editor’s Note

By Karrie Mowen (Osborn)

The phone calls I received in our offices the day of the Sept. 11 attacks were indicative of the shock that had enveloped a nation.

“Can you believe this?” they would ask in hushed voices. “How do we help?” always came next. We all needed a way to remove ourselves from the terror and tragedy, and helping others was a way to take back control.

In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, greater organization was given to the volunteer effort, and massage therapists and bodyworkers across the country found ways to offer what they knew would help — a caring hand.

Whether at ground zero or a thousand miles away in a blood bank clinic, massage therapists and bodyworkers rose to the occasion and brought comfort where there had been only profound fear and sadness. Sometimes there were only moments to share, sometimes days. But each second shared was momentous in the minds of the recipient.

It’s in horrible times like these that we see goodness arise. That’s what we saw, and are continuing to see, in the bodywork profession.

Here are a few accounts from therapists who were driven to help in our nation’s most tragic hour. Their stories tell it best.

Subject: Massage in NYC
From: Jan Kent
Sent: Oct. 04, 2001 6:53 PM
To: abmp.com

I returned late Tuesday night from five days of giving massages to relief workers and families affected by the attack on Sept. 11. Way too much to say to fit into an e-mail, so here’s a montage of scenes.

Friday, Sept. 28, morning — Saturday, Sept. 29, noon: On-board the 900-foot USNS Comfort, one of two Navy hospital ships in the New York Harbor. Passing through myriad security checks where young soldiers with machine guns remind me that my Vietnam War-veteran-husband was the same age as my 19-year-old daughter when he was drafted. Shifts of massage therapists working 6-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and still there are many more people in need of 15 minutes of respite than we can handle. Standing atop the flight deck at midnight to get a breath of air; looking at the sparkling skyline now missing two of its crown jewels. Tear-stained eyes of a Finger Lakes EMT volunteer. In the wee hours of the morning, the almost spiritual experience of watching two police officers, partners for years, arise from their massages with smiles on their faces, and seeing the undisguised love in their eyes for the person who helps them through the day — their beat partner. Exchanging stories with a retired Army recruitment officer, now NYPD officer, about seeing Joe Morris play at Syracuse University, and the booing Patrick Ewing took at the Dome. Joking, half-earnest requests from the USNS Comfort crew that we massage therapists consider joining the Navy. Guess they didn’t notice my graying hair.

Saturday, Sept. 29, noon to night: Massage at the Command Center at Pier 92. Attempting to formalize a pre-existing massage site set up by the woman whose business provided chair massage for the Republican National Convention in Philly. Hoping the government relief agency workers can continue to function under the weight of 12-14 hour shifts, 7 days a week. Command Center workers scurrying to help us create a haven of serenity amidst the stress. After eight hours of operation, being told by a grateful former massage recipient that we must disband the site by midnight due to a need for even tighter security. Imploring requests from workers to figure out how to provide more massages late at night. Having to refuse to give massage to people who really needed it. Deep frustration.

Sunday, Sept. 30: Playing mom to my daughter and her friends at New York University. Cooking dinner and giving chair massages to intelligent young women trying to figure out whether to believe their mayor and president telling them to go back to their lives, or the attorney general warning them of possible chemical, biological or nuclear attacks. Hearing these roommates, seemingly for the first time, share their fears and hopes, trying to refocus on studying and papers, wondering why some of their professors don’t understand their confusion and difficulty concentrating.

Monday, Oct. 1, day: Connecting with a persevering group of volunteers. Learning they are sponsored by Olive Leaf, a “wholeness” center providing complementary health services on 23rd Street. Being trained by them to maintain professional emotional distance and not to counsel clients. Finding out their operation is responsible for providing more than 400 massages a day in the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94, and more at the medical examiner’s office, only scratching the surface of the need. Now it gets real. Grieving, displaced or unemployed families; exhausted relief workers representing any agency you can imagine attempting to patch up people’s lives, hoping their bureaucratic triage efforts hold their clients together until the real healing can begin. Stories from haunted faces, walls of smiling family photos of the lost, an occasional laugh as gloom gives way to the pervasive need to smile somehow. Dogs wearing American flag bandannas. Working alongside practitioners of massage, shiatsu, reflexology, reiki. Seeing surprised clients arise from treatment tables saying, “I feel new!” Rediscovering the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Cafeteria tables covered with school children’s cards offering innocent encouragement.

Monday, Oct. 1, night: Dreading, yet making my pilgrimage to pay my respects to the ashes of the World Trade Center. I make this trip by myself, encouraged by my wise, young-yet-ancient daughter who knows from experience that it is best done alone. Walking out of the Fulton Street subway station; feeling the gray air hit the back of my throat like a nuclear strep throat attack. Wreckage lit like a movie set; haze; bent, gigantic erector-set walls. Giant cranes that look like toys on television. Feeling like I’m in a war zone. Walking the perimeter, secured by National Guard members with rifles, for blocks and blocks and blocks with other baffled pilgrims. Wondering if my co-worker’s husband, called up two weeks ago, is working this shift. More walls of smiling family photos of the lost. Still not comprehending the enormity. Seeing the obstinate giant American flag adorning the New York Stock Exchange. Smiling at the sight. Insisting on paying $20 for a $7 sandwich at the Liberty Street deli that had stayed open with candles until power was restored. Hoping the business survives. Reveling in the warmth of my daughter’s hug upon returning to her apartment. Self-medicating with Godiva raspberry chocolate truffle ice cream, eaten straight from the carton.

Tuesday, Oct. 2, daytime: Wrapping up loose ends. Attempting to arrange inexpensive lodging for other massage therapists from outside the metro area. Frustration with not having a solution yet. Hoping to offer Olive Releaf, the volunteer massage organization’s working title, more fresh volunteers to take some of the weight off the shoulders of those who live in the metro area. Praying that Olive Releaf will find funding to continue their work. Riding the shuttle bus from the Lexington Street Armory to the Family Assistance Center with an aging, now-unemployed female hotel worker. She wears a sparkling scarf wrapped about her head and gold hoops in her ears and tells me she lost her shoes running away from the World Trade Center after she saw the first plane hit. She tells me of the passenger jet fuselage and wheels she saw a block from the impact, stepping on body parts with bare feet, crying but not sleeping for three days. She asks how people can hate us so much. Telling her, as if she were a child, that many more people love us than hate us. Seeing the same woman on the return trip with a smile on her face, a check in her purse to pay her mortgage. Sharing a hug from this former stranger. Visiting the medical examiner’s office massage site housed in a series of tents on the street; the scene reminding me more of M*A*S*H than massage. Feeling a cohesive sense of purpose among the other people working there.

Tuesday, Oct. 2, evening: Grateful, guilty deep breath that I get to go home. Leaving behind so many people valiantly struggling to help each other feel better. Driving home in the dark and feeling an unaccustomed chill up my spine every time I see a flag. Vowing to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Crying when I reach the weigh station on Route 41 when the water is first visible, the spot where my dad first fell in love with Skaneateles Lake. Promising myself to return to New York with more volunteers in tow. Feeling more alive than I have felt since my daughter was born.

Extreme Massage

By Susan Galbraith, LMT

“I was doing chair massage at a health club in Dewitt, N.Y., on the morning of Sept. 11. Seeing the multiple images on the club’s dozen television sets was like watching the disaster through an insect’s compound eye.

It was obvious to me the rescue workers would soon be stressed and exhausted, but I figured it would be a long time before anyone said, “What we need here is a team of massage therapists.” On Wednesday, I cancelled my Thursday and Friday appointments and bought a round trip train ticket to New York City.

The passenger opposite me on the train spent most of the trip talking on her cell phone. “The Amex building is unstable; they’re going to have to pull it down,” she reported. Someone else said the Empire State Building had tested positive for explosives.

From Penn Station, I dragged my chair a half mile to the Javits Center, only to find a long line of aspiring volunteers wrapping around the block outside the building. I skipped the line and asked people in surgical scrubs for advice. They suggested Dock 61, Chelsea Piers. It was from there, later that evening, I moved closer to Ground Zero by volunteering to go to Stuyvesant High School.

We left Chelsea Piers around 9:45 p.m. in a van escorted by police cars. We had between four and ten massage therapists available around the clock, with tables, chairs and some mats we liberated from the school gym. One LMT put a blanket on the floor and massaged the search dogs. We wore masking tape labels saying “Medical Massage Team.”

There were many memorable clients I saw in those days. Here are just a few:

· The policemen who had to be massaged in the gaps between their gun belts, bulletproof vests and hats because they were too stressed or exhausted to remove them;

· The distraught young man who had lost his best friend in the collapsed towers and wasn’t allowed to enter Ground Zero to help;

· The construction worker who could barely walk after challenging four friends to see who could last the longest without resting (he lasted 48 hours);

· The 16-year-old Guardian Angel who came to Stuyvesant to help unload donations of water, food and clothing.

It was always obvious we were working in abnormal conditions. Signs in the building warned us to wear breathing devices because of asbestos, but there weren’t enough proper respirators to protect everyone. Dust from the wreckage covered the floor and got on all horizontal surfaces. Dirty sheets were used and re-used until they were too disgusting.

I left New York Saturday morning after doing roughly 20 hours of massage over a 36-hour period. I staggered north on West Side Avenue, dragging my chair past long lines of parked emergency vehicles. Finally, a passing policeman took pity on me and gave me a ride out of the restricted area so I could catch a cab.

Offering Comfort in Crisis

By Linda Tumbarello

A van took us from the Olive Leaf Wellness Center to the Family Assistance Center where survivors and families of victims came to get help from the many relief organizations gathered there and found solace in being with others who had also experienced great loss and trauma. It was an enormous space set up with curtained areas, bright fluorescent lights, a steady background din of the TV news, the constant ringing of phones, and so many sad-looking people. Entering this building, I was struck by the enormity of what had happened here in New York. I could feel the tension, the hyper-vigilance and the shock reverberating and echoing off the high ceilings.

At home in my practice, I do a thorough intake and often work long-term in a quiet space. Here, I had a half hour to offer something — to be immediately present with someone but only be able to give minimal information. Some people I worked with spoke no English. All my communication needed to be through my hands, and I could only “hear” their stories through their eyes and the tension in their bodies. I was glad for my Body-Mind Centering(R) training to meet someone where they are, and for the option of beginning with a “cellular touch” to connect.

One woman, who lost her husband on Sept. 11, said that massaging her feet helped her to relax. As I lovingly massaged every toe and moved each joint gently, I felt her body relax and receive some comfort. I allowed sadness to move through me as I wondered if her husband had also once rubbed her feet to soothe her.

I felt most drawn to working with the survivors, particularly the blue-collar workers who no longer have a place to go to work and be with co-workers. They don’t have a chance of even getting close to resuming “life as usual.”

One person I saw had worked in the basement of one of the towers and many of her co-workers did not survive. She had not slept for 11 days because when she closed her eyes, all she heard was people screaming. I cradled her head, helping her to feel the support and protection of the bones of her skull. Then I moved her head slowly, side to side, to invite her brain and all her internal organs to release and move; to help balance her nervous system by bring up the parasympathetic nervous system. As she sighed and began to relax, I touched and traced the delicate and intricate shape of her ears. I then invited her to feel herself exhaling and talked about how exhaling is a way for our bodies to let go of the stale air we don’t need anymore. As I made a sweeping stroke from the top of her head to her ears and off her body, I suggested she increase her exhaling and imagine that the terrible sounds and screams went out with her breath. She was very grateful for this avenue to release and relax. I only wish we could have continued our work together.

When I arrived back at the center the last time it was exactly one month after the attack. The practitioner leaving the table I was to work at told me people seemed in worse shape today and it had been very hard for her to work and not take on people’s feelings. Our country had now started bombing Afghanistan, and as a loud, low-flying plane flew by, there was a moment when almost everyone in that huge place became quiet and the feeling of terror spread silently throughout the room.

Looking at the faces and body language in the room, I imagined people were beginning to accept the fact their loved ones were not coming home, or that they may never feel safe again. I knew I would need all my tools to stay grounded in my body and in the present moment, to be connected to my breath, and know my own feelings to be balanced enough to offer anything. I needed to remember that this loss had happened to each person I saw, but it was not “all” of who they were.

One of my clients was a chaplain from California. He had a need to talk and was articulate about his feelings and experiences. He was at Ground Zero, hearing the pain from rescue workers and seeing the horror first-hand. His chest, torso and back were tight and painful. I told him how the heart and circulatory system balance inward blood flow with flow out to the periphery. My touch invited him to encourage this outward flow by bringing his focus and feeling from the center of his body out to his arms and legs. I then invited him to exhale more fully and use a few of the 18,000 times a day he exhales to send out the energy and stories held inside. After the session he called me an angel, and said he was ready to go back to those who needed his help.

After working with people directly affected by this attack, seeing the heartbreaking photos of the missing hanging over the necks of their loved ones, seeing the large hole in the New York City skyline, and smelling the smoke, I still don’t want to believe it happened. I want my life to go back to “normal.” Instead, I can do only what one person can do — connect to others individually and through organizations like ABMP and the Body-Mind Centering Association to work on setting up opportunities for some of the many in need to receive the best healing and comfort they can through touch. We can try to help them move on, but unfortunately, never back to being “normal.”