Healing Hands

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The colorful clusters of red and yellow tulips outside of Mary Cleere’s kitchen window are more than a harbinger of summer.

They represent her new life.

Cleere planted the bulbs herself in the fall, a triumph for the 55-year-old Cazenovia resident whose mobility was once so severely limited by cancer and a spinal disorder, she had to give up her nursing career and green thumb. 

Vegetable and flower beds that once dominated her backyard are now gone. Instead, a small flower and herb garden in front of the house now grants easy access when walking is difficult. 

The chance to garden again was a dream come true for Cleere—one put in reach by Morrisville.

Cleere turned to the college’s massage program to help manage her pain. The program, which allows students to work hands-on with different pathologies in an on-campus center run much like a business, gave her a new perspective on massage therapy altogether.  

“It isn’t just about relaxation. It involves so much more,” Cleere said. “It’s about quality of life.”

Recognition of massage by the medical community and the public as an integral part of health care is a growing trend, and Morrisville’s massage therapy program, now in its 15th year, is proof in practice. 

The medically based program starts out introducing students to the basics of massage as full relaxation, then transitions into working on certain areas of the body before advanced modalities like pre-natal and sports massage, Gua Sha (using a massage tool to improve circulation) cupping, myofacial release and Lomi Lomi (Hawaiian) massage.

“We service the community as much as we can and this allows our students to get real-world experience,” said Laurie Zbock, associate professor of massage therapy and department chair. “We teach massage as not just a degree, but as a way of life. It’s all about doing things to live a healthier life in general.”

Cleere’s enriched life came at the hands of Luke Marshall, a student seeking a challenging pathology project for a requirement in Zbock’s Western Medical Massage class. There, students are introduced to acute and chronic health conditions to treat with Western massage.  

“I wanted someone with extensive structural issues,” Marshall said. “As massage therapy evolves, it is going to be recognized more for the role it plays in optimizing people’s health and enhancing their daily living. I’d like to be a pioneer in this area.”

Cleere was losing her quality of life. “The pain was so unbearable it affected my daily living and I didn’t want to take one more pill for the pain,” she said. “I kept saying, it’s too early for this, for me to give up my life.”

Marshall wasn’t ready to let that happen either.

Together, Zbock and Marshall devised a plan of treatment for Cleere, who has B-cell Lymphoma cancer and lumbarspondylosis, a deterioration in the lower spine which caused a physical lateral tilt in her body, forcing her to walk with a cane.

“I focused on the structural aspect of things—the way connective tissue dictates the shape of the body,” Marshall said. “First I had to organize her structurally so she could stand upright without a cane.”  

The 31-year-old Hamilton resident has devoted his life to improving others’ lives.

“He had great ideas how to help her,” Zbock said. “Luke is a wonderful, dynamic student who always has a thirst for knowledge.”

Marshall, who already has a degree in human performance and health promotion from Morrisville, is the owner of Naturopathic Resources in Hamilton, New York, where he is a holistic health facilitator. He is also taking online courses toward a master’s degree in applied clinical nutrition from New York Chiropractic College.

His rich background was opportune for Cleere.

After working with Marshall for one week, Cleere noticed an immediate decline in her pain. “I was so grateful to have hours or even a day of manageable pain,” she said.

Her posture improved with every treatment.   

“During our fifth session, she reported being able to plant flower bulbs in her garden,” Marshall said.

His confidence improved as well. “My work with her really allowed me to see what I could do—she has given us a glimpse into what we can do with soft tissue manipulation,” Marshall said.

Morrisville’s massage program is spreading the word about the benefits and positive outcomes of the  healing power of touch.

“A lot of what we do here is community awareness and educating others. Massage makes a difference in people’s lives,” Zbock said. “The medical field is growing by 20 percent each year and there is a growing need for massage.”

Morrisville’s program is satisfying that niche.  

“We offer a degree at Morrisville that is rare,” Zbock said. “Having two years to complete the degree allows students time for growth on a physical, emotional, spiritual and professional level that can’t be rushed. Opportunities for more in-depth instruction and enhanced learning are an integral part of our program.”

On top of its uniqueness, throughout four of the past five years, 100 percent of Morrisville students passed the statewide exam, far exceeding the statewide average of 70-75 percent, according Zbock.

Since working with Marshall, Cleere’s doctors have incorporated massage into her treatment plan. “You find joy again in everything when you don’t hurt all of the time.”

Her ability to garden again keeps her going.   

“No matter what kind of day I am having, this makes it brighter,” she said. “I owe so much to the massage program and Luke. He has greatly enhanced my quality of life.”