Faces of Bodywork: Kerry Jordan

Kerry Jordan Faces of Bodywork

Kerry Jordan was featured in the July/August 2023 issue of Massage & Bodywork magazine in “The Faces of Bodywork.” Here’s more about the career path that led to her becoming the operations director for Healwell and providing massage therapy and teaching in hospitals and clinical settings in Washington, D.C., and around the world for adult and pediatric palliative care patients and those with complex needs and high-symptom burdens.

Massage & Bodywork: What led you to massage therapy?

Kerry Jordan: I think, like a lot of people, I took a long and winding road to massage therapy. In college, I studied English Literature and Art History. Naturally, that led me to a career in . . . nothing and everything. I was working in marketing at a dot-com start-up when the bubble burst, so I did a lot of yoga while trying to decide what to do next, which turned out to being a yoga teacher. And then a yoga studio owner. And then a yoga teacher trainer.

What I loved about yoga was it showed me what a lovely and comfortable home my body is. I started teaching to share that with other people, but I was dismayed that for a lot of my students, despite my best efforts, yoga was just another tool to advance an antagonistic relationship with their bodies. I thought maybe if I could really put my hands on people, I could make them see. I think I also did the faulty math that a lot of people entering massage school do, and I thought I’d make more money as an MT than as a yoga studio owner and teacher. Ha!

M&B: Where did you get your MT education? What were your areas of focus/specialties?

KJ: I attended Palmer Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, graduating in December 2004.

The type of yoga I found most rewarding to teach was adaptive and gentle, modified for people who didn’t live in “typical” yoga bodies. Despite this, for reasons I can’t explain, I became a massage therapist with the intention of providing orthopedic-style work (fairly aggressively) to professional and amateur athletes. People affected by illness were nowhere in my imagined professional life. Then, several of my “healthy” clients were diagnosed with cancer, and instead of going to see another MT, they wanted to keep seeing me. At the same time, one of my longtime yoga students who was living with multiple serious health conditions asked to see me for massage therapy.

I immediately read Gayle MacDonald’s Medicine Hands and eventually studied oncology massage therapy with Tracy Walton. And then I fell in love. I really liked the massage therapy I’d been doing and the clients I’d been seeing, but the work I did with clients who were living with cancer, chronic pain, and serious illness was exciting, challenging, and fulfilling in ways I could never have imagined. I slowly fired most of my “healthy” clients and never looked back.

M&B: Can you share the journey that brought you to Healwell?

KJ: I met fellow massage therapists Cal Cates and Lucille Eddy at a Society for Oncology Massage (S4OM) conference. I was working in private practice and was intrigued by these hospital-based massage therapists and curious about their business model. A few months later, I took a class Cal was teaching about hospital-based massage therapy. I asked a lot of questions about Healwell—mainly about how they planned to scale their operation, what systems they had in place, etc. It was clear that my love for systems and processes and their passion for a future where hospital-based massage therapy was a legitimate career path for massage therapists were a perfect match. 

A week after the class, Cal offered me a job. Healwell needed support and systems, and I knew I could provide both of those things and more. I started as sort of a general administrative assistant and massage therapist, seeing patients in the hospitals and clinics where Healwell’s programs operated. As Healwell grew and expanded, so did my role. Honestly, sometimes it feels like I met Cal at a conference and then suddenly woke up seven years later as Healwell’s Operations Director!

M&B: Do you see clients strictly in hospital settings, or in private practice too?

KJ: In January 2023, I let my licenses expire. My role as Healwell’s Operations Director is full time (and then some!), and I don’t really have time to see clients/patients anymore. It’s a little bittersweet. I’d been a massage therapist for 18 years, so part of me was ready to retire from hands-on work, but I’ll miss the unique way that, as an MT, I connected deeply and meaningfully with complete strangers every day. Of course, I feel like my role at Healwell supports more massage therapists having those connections with more people, so maybe I’m still a massage therapist by proxy?

M&B: Can you tell us about the work you did in hospitals? Both teaching and delivering care?

KJ: Working with patients in the hospital is a unique experience. It makes it clear to me that my hands are possibly the least valuable part of my work as I talk with other providers and connect with patients in the most basic human ways to ease their suffering. I certainly touch them, and that is sort of the gateway into our connection. But over and over, patients report their experiences have been of feeling less lonely, more seen, and simply cared for.

I would get a list of patients from a nurse or physician collaborator, and then I would go to the rooms of these patients and enter a new world in each room. The nurses and doctors would share part of the story, but the patients complete that picture in a way that is often overlooked in the fast-paced, results-oriented world of health care. I love when I walk into a patient’s room thinking one thing—based on information gathered from their chart or other providers—and then the patient changes that thing I was thinking completely, and what we do together is totally different than what I expected. Yes, their shoulder hurts, but they don’t want me to massage their shoulder—they want me to massage their feet and legs while we talk (or don’t talk).

Teaching in the hospital is the same. It’s always about supporting students and being flexible and curious, and feeling confident in what they bring to the care picture as practitioners of the discipline of massage therapy.

M&B: For practitioners who might be considering working with palliative care patients, can you share the highs and the lows?

KJ: I think I fell in love with palliative care even before I knew what it was. When I started working with people affected by chronic and serious illnesses, I found a style of work that required me to show up fully and authentically every minute. For me, that’s the best. It’s also hard. So, I guess my answer is that the highs and lows of working with palliative care patients are two sides of the same coin.

Palliative care isn’t hospice. I’ve worked with some palliative care patients for years. But death is something that feels closer for many people who’d qualify for palliative care. That can be scary for anyone, and it can be especially hard if you (the practitioner) haven’t snuggled up with your own mortality. Every time I work with a palliative care patient, I remember that it’s just a simple twist of fate that I’m the “healthy” provider and this other person is the “sick” patient.

M&B: Healwell has been doing a lot of great work, including conducting research, holding conferences, and creating community. What are you most proud of in your work at Healwell?

KJ: I am so proud of all the incredible things the amazing people I work with do every day. I guess if I have to pick one thing, I’m most proud of the way that Healwell models what massage therapy could be. Our therapists are stretching the bounds of what most people think massage therapy and massage therapists can do. They are certainly technically skilled providers of a hands-on discipline, but they are artful communicators, effective collaborators, present listeners, and endlessly willing to learn new things and grow into the broader role that is becoming available to massage therapists in health care. And massage therapists are employees of Healwell with access to health insurance, disability insurance, 401k (retirement savings), and the other supports that massage therapists should be able to expect in their work in service of our fellow humans. They support us, and we support them.

M&B: What do you do for fun?

KJ: I love to be outside. I am an avid hiker and unabashed lover of plants and animals, exotic and mundane. I have the most incredible partner in the world, and I have the unbelievable luck to not just love but to really like and have a close relationship with my mother and my sisters.

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