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magazine home > archives > summer 2005 > features

A U of M alumna brings massage into patients' rooms at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. But this treatment involves more than just back rubs. Think whoopee cushions. Think Three Stooges. Think relief from pain and anxiety.

Laughter is the best medicine
by Carrie L. Strehlau

  Massage therapy at St. Jude

Dr. Robyn Cox has developed scientific questionnaires and continues to test methods for improving fittings for hearing-aid users.

For Beth Gray, laughter may traditionally be the best medicine, but a massage is a very close second. As lead clinical research associate at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Gray is working on a project to explore whether massage and humor therapy reduce the stress of children undergoing stem cell transplants.

Gray (MS '02) earned an undergraduate degree from the U of M's University College in fundamentals of personal health management and continued her education in health management. While trying to juggle a hectic schedule of graduate classes, Gray felt a personal need for stress management. "I decided to see if massage therapy would help me," she says.

The positive benefits of massage supported Gray during some of her more stressful times.

"I appreciated how effective massage therapy was in managing my stress, so I eventually enrolled in massage school in the evenings," she says. "That was a very busy time for me, but I felt strongly that learning massage therapy skills would provide me with an important stress management tool."
The diligent studying and massage training paid off in 2002 when Gray was hired as lead clinical research associate in the Behavioral Medicine division at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"I felt as if I had somehow been transported to this perfect job," Gray says. "All of that training was exactly what I had needed."

"We're asking the question about whether brief, positive experiences might serve as a sort of medicine," says Dr. Sean Phipps, clinical psychologist and lead researcher for the study. "There is some evidence to suggest that a brief, positive experience impacts your ability to tolerate negative experiences. And it may serve as a stress buffer, as well as an antidote against the physical effects of stress."

Funded by a National Cancer Institute grant, the project is the result of two earlier pilot studies. St. Jude researchers looked at techniques that kids could use during the day and that were transportable to their hospital rooms. The most well-liked and widely used techniques the researchers identified were massage and humor therapy.

The study is a randomized design. In the first group, children receive a massage three times a week along with humor therapy interventions. The second group receives the same interventions, as well as massage and relaxation therapy sessions for a participating parent. The relaxation imagery is related to competence in parenting so they can feel more confident in parenting an ill child.

"We bring the parents to a room with a big, soft, comfy recliner with dim lighting," Gray says. "We encourage the parents to focus on their breathing and help them to relax each muscle group. Then we encourage them to imagine a safe and peaceful place before beginning the relaxation imagery."

The third group receives standard care. To participate in the study, a patient must be 6 to 18 years of age and undergoing a stem cell transplant from a matched sibling, mismatched family member or an unrelated donor.

"What we're doing here is complementary in nature," Gray says. "It is not meant to replace any of the medical treatments. We want to show some things that could help improve a patient's and parent's quality of life."
Gray is also responsible for coordinating study results from the other participating institutions in Toronto, Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio.

"When I go in the child's hospital room, I let them know it's massage time," she says. "I usually have my CD player with relaxing music. I always ask the patient if it's OK to have a massage that day. If they say yes, I start with their hands, then arms, legs and feet, shoulder, neck, scalp and back. But it is all based on what the child allows."

According to Gray, some children fall asleep and others want to keep an eye on everything. "Sometimes the child may feel nauseated, be in pain or not be in the mood to have a massage," she says. "We are flexible. We let the children know that they are in charge."

For the parents, Beth brings a special table into another room and performs a full-body massage for about 30 minutes. "I take the portable massage table with fresh linens into the parent room, and I also have my CD player with relaxing music and some very light lotion," Gray says.

"Parents seem to be so appreciative of the chance to relax because of what they're going through," Gray continues. "Parents carry so much stress to stay on top of what they are required to do. This offers them a time to take care of themselves, which is a new concept for many of the parents."

From the results of the study, researchers will later be able to examine the physiological effects of humor and massage on patients and focus on the mechanisms by which these interventions produce positive outcomes.

For Gray, earning her degree through the University College allowed her to have an integrated education that would eventually prepare her for her job at St. Jude.

"My experience with the University College was so positive because it allowed me to think outside the box to create my own degree program, which gave me a more rounded educational foundation," she says. "Working at St. Jude with this intervention study fulfills my desire to have a satisfying career that could make a positive difference in the lives of stressed children and their families. So, when they say follow your passion, I feel as if that's what I've done."


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