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Nina McIntosh and The Educated Heart


Sometimes during my massage career, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet someone I admire. One of those times was in 2006, when I met Nina McIntosh, the author of The Educated Heart, and author of a regular ethics column in Massage & Bodywork from 2001–2009. We met at an annual author’s dinner hosted by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, our mutual publisher. We were sitting next to each other and struck up the usual chitchat about where we’re from, and we discovered that we lived less than an hour away from each other. It was the beginning of a friendship and mentoring relationship that was cut way too short, as Nina succumbed to ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2010.

I already owned a well-worn copy of her book when we met, and I was teaching professional ethics using the book as a guideline. Shortly after our first meeting, I attended one of Nina’s ethics classes. I thought, “This is how I want my classes to be. This is the impression I want to make on students.” I felt very privileged to be learning from her.

I invited Nina to come to my facility to teach her ethics class about two years before she was diagnosed with ALS. In retrospect, the signs were already there. She called the day before the class to ask if I had a microphone available. I told her I did, but as my classroom was small she wasn’t going to need it. She said, “Something’s wrong with my voice here lately.” After the class, we went out to eat and parked across the street from the restaurant. She asked my husband if she could lean on him crossing the street. She said, “I don’t know what’s wrong; my legs just don’t want to work.” She saw several specialists and finally received the devastating diagnosis in January 2009. She died on July 18, 2010.

Nina had a dry wit, a wicked sense of humor, and a load of compassion. Her original short-lived career as a clinical social worker came to a halt when she went to work in what was then politically-incorrectly termed an insane asylum. During employee orientation, she was told not to touch the patients. It took her about five minutes to assess that they were suffering from a lack of human touch, and she got fired from the job! It was their loss, our gain, when she decided to become a bodyworker. Nina was a Rolfer for more than 30 years. 

She saw a need in the massage profession for better understanding of the dynamics of therapeutic relationships, and that led her to write The Educated Heart. Although there were a few other ethics books out there, The Educated Heart was the first one to have a specific focus on the roles and boundaries of what we do—placing our hands on vulnerable, unclothed people. Her background in social work, combined with her life experience of bodywork, gave her a more knowledgeable perspective than most of us possess. Thank goodness she was able to share that.

The first edition was published in 1999. Nina finished the third edition while she was ill, and it was published in 2010. She was bound and determined to complete it before she died, even though typing had become a struggle for her. She played around with voice recognition software and got help with typing. As her voice disappeared, she used a little whiteboard for communicating, but her hands quickly gave out. When it got to the point that she wasn’t able to communicate at all, I think she just decided to go ahead and depart this world. It was the final straw for her. She died just a couple of weeks later.

Nina wasn’t a big fan of the internet. She used email and surfed the web, but she got on Facebook once and decided that it wasn’t for her. When she was ill, someone persuaded her that CaringBridge would be a good way to keep people updated on her condition, and I asked if I could share that fact on my social media. She was blown away by how many people got in touch with her just to wish her well and to say how much The Educated Heart and her ethics column had meant to them. 

One of the things I admired the most about her was the way she was able to hang on to her sense of humor in the face of her illness. She would joke about “pimping out” her walker and find joy in mundane things. Everything becomes precious when you’re dying. She also shared her hopes and fears and the struggles she was going through. That was an education in itself.

In 2010, just weeks before she died, I attended the World Massage Festival and accepted the first Aunty Margaret Humanitarian of the Year award on Nina’s behalf. My husband Champ and I delivered it to her at the nursing home she was in, and she said, “Well, I really don’t think I’m a humanitarian,” but she was. A lot of people are unaware of her activism in the LGBTQ community, her generosity in supporting causes she believed in, and the contributions she made in her own corner of the world, like getting her church to install an elevator for handicapped people. She got to be the first person to ride in it. 

In 2016, Nina was inducted posthumously into the Massage Therapy Hall of Fame. I can hear her now, claiming that she probably didn’t deserve the honor, but she definitely does. Before her passing, Nina gifted me with her past writings, class materials, and handwritten notes. She also made an agreement with our publisher that I get the honor of writing the future editions. The 4th edition was published in September of this year. She left some big shoes to fill, and I don’t expect to replace her. She was one of a kind. I was proud to know her and very honored that she bestowed me with the honor of carrying on her legacy.

Laura Allen is the massage division director of Soothing Touch. A licensed massage therapist, she is an accomplished author and educator. Allen resides in Western North Carolina with her husband Champ, also a licensed massage therapist. Contact her at