By Lisa Bakewell
Noriko Smith was one of the winners of ABMP’s Massage is for EveryBody 2021 contest, and we wanted to share more of her story, which exemplifies the inclusive values of this campaign. Please join us in celebrating Noriko!
“Maybe this one moment, with this one person, is the very reason we are here on earth at this time,” quotes Noriko Smith, an oncology massage therapist and volunteer at the Heart Touch Project, a nonprofit organization in Santa Monica, California. “Every session, this quote is shared by one of [my] cohorts from the Mayo Clinic Hospital-Based Massage Therapy Course,” she says, “[and it] reminds me of the importance of each individual I meet.” And Smith has ample opportunity to meet and share her gift of massage therapy—primarily with hospice clients—through her work and volunteerism.
“As a massage therapist,” Smith says, “I was asking myself, ‘How can I do more meaningful work? How can I serve others?’ And that’s when opportunities started showing up.” Although Smith became a licensed massage therapist in 2005, it wasn’t until her first Heart Touch training course in 2013 that her career trajectory became clear—in the direction of oncology massage. “The Heart Touch Project brings compassionate, therapeutic touch to medically fragile and terminally ill individuals,” Smith says, “improving the lives for them, their families, and their caregivers. I can’t tell you how much this organization changed my life.”
Several different trainings are available at Heart Touch, which Smith says is for anyone who wants to be a hospice volunteer touch therapist, or for caregivers who are dealing with the end-of-life population. “I took all the trainings,” she says, “and now I am one of their facilitators.”
Heart Touch also offers a hospital-based pediatric patients training for becoming a gentle touch therapist volunteer for all the pediatric units at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA. For this course, Smith says a license to touch is required beforehand. “Since I have been volunteering at Mattel Children’s hospital, I visit oncology/hematology units and meet lots of kids with cancer, so I felt the need [to educate] myself—and I am still learning.” She says because she wanted to work in a hospital setting, she thought oncology massage training was necessary.
“Oncology massage has been teaching me to be more fully present, because every body is different and unique—even with [the] same diagnosis and same treatment,” she says. “So, I really need to focus on what I am doing each session. With practice, I become more aware and mindful even working with healthy bodies. For me, presence heals our clients more than anything. If you are fully present and holding a space for them—without any judgment—I believe healing happens.”
Smith currently works as a per diem employee at the Disney Family Cancer Center in Burbank, California, under the Providence Hospital Group. “In the cancer center, there is the integrative medicine department,” she says, “which offers massage therapy, acupuncture, yoga and tai chi, sound healing, nutrition, and more—specifically for cancer patients.”
Smith also works at the infusion center at UCLA, where she works with adult patients through a Greet the Day Oncology Program, offering 20-minute gentle hand and foot massages, and the USC+LAC Wellness Center’s Free Oncology Massage Internship Clinic program through Heart Touch.
“Through touch,” Smith says, “clients are reminded that they are human—no matter what they are going through, what stage of life they are in, what their health conditions are. I have witnessed this many times—especially working with hospice patients and the medically fragile population: We are not there to fix anything.
“In the end, I am the one who always gets healed.”