Back in the Game

Making a Difference in Clients’ Lives

By Douglas Nelson
[Table Lessons]

“I can’t believe how much better that feels,” he said while turning to lie on his other side. “I can move without pain now. This gives me hope I can get back to where I was!” For all of us massage therapists, hearing comments like this produces incredible satisfaction. And today, those words were even more powerful.

The backdrop? The day of this appointment was just the second day back from 11 weeks of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the longest time I’ve gone not seeing clients in my 40-plus years as a therapist. At many points during the shutdown, I wondered how I would feel being back in the clinic. Like most therapists, I had been through a gamut of emotions during those many weeks. Sitting on the sidelines is hard when there is so much suffering in the world, and the unpredictability and uncertainty often felt disempowering. Now I was back in my office, doing what I love to do. Even before this client’s statement, I was consumed by a feeling of gratitude and satisfaction for the privilege of making a difference in someone else’s life. As that feeling surfaced, it took me back to my experience with another client about four years earlier.

I received a call to treat a visiting performer on the morning before her concert. With another busy day in the clinic, I saw clients right up until the time I left to go to her hotel. With table in hand, I knocked on her hotel room door and waited to meet her in person. While we had never met and her greeting was warm and gracious, I could tell there was something wrong, a sense of worry or sadness on her face. Entering the room, I could see the news channel on her television airing dramatic live coverage of yet another public tragedy.

“Have you heard?” she asked. “There was a bombing in London today, just about an hour ago.”

She sat down in a chair facing the television, and it was clear we were not going to start the session right away, as her attention was completely on the unfolding scene in London. I sat down as well, and we both watched in silence. Several minutes passed.

“I just performed there two weeks ago,” she said, breaking the silence. “I love London; it’s a home away from home for me. It is painful to see such suffering in a city I love so much. This is so sad.”

We sat in silence for several minutes until she spoke again.

“This is such a helpless feeling. With this level of suffering and inhumanity in the world right now, going to sing some songs for people tonight hardly seems important at a time like this. I wish I could do something to make more of a difference.”

With that, she turned off the television and I set up my table. She described to me her musculoskeletal discomfort and together we problem-solved an appropriate treatment strategy. After the work began, there was a long period of silence as I was focused on the work and she was in a quiet place of interoception. She happened to be lying supine and at one point I could see her facial expression completely change. It was as though she had suddenly awakened from a dream.

“You know what?” she said. “The world needs the arts now more than ever. If I can bring a sense of humanity, a celebration of the human spirit into the world this evening, that is the way I can contribute best. Even if it is for just this one group of people—for just one evening—it is still bringing some good into the world in the best way I know how. You have to be there this evening. This concert is going to be very special.”

It was indeed a special and moving evening. For me personally, it was an amazing feeling to sit in the audience and witness her deep commitment in the ability of her art form to affect people in a positive manner. It was made all the more powerful having witnessed her doubt and personal struggle earlier that very same day. Before her encore, she made reference to the bombing and the value of the arts in times like these, and for one brief moment, we made eye contact. I walked out of the concert, surrounded by smiling people who were inspired and uplifted.

In a world that too often seems in turmoil, massage therapy can foster peace, goodness, and caring humanity. In the massage therapy room, therapist and client are immersed in a safe space that fosters a celebration of the human spirit, a very special shared experience. The world could use a lot more of it.

Douglas Nelson is the founder and principal instructor for Precision Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars, president of the 16-therapist clinic BodyWork Associates in Champaign, Illinois, and president of the Massage Therapy Foundation. His clinic, seminars, and research endeavors explore the science behind this work. Visit, or email him at