If you’ve been in the hospital, or spent time with someone you care about in a hospital, it’s easy to understand the power – and exquisite simplicity – of in-room massage as an element of healing. Even in the best facilities, a hospital stay can be frightening
, painful, humiliating or frustrating. Every day can feel like a helpless struggle with discomfort punctuated by noisy, invasive or unfathomable medical interventions, from blood pressure checks to injections to a quick and confusing visit from an unfamiliar doctor.
    Imagine what the arrival of a massage therapist – offering bodywork to address a patient’s self-described needs – might bring to this equation. Massage was a standard part of nursing curriculum for years until it all but disappeared from the job description in the mid-1950s. Decades later, a burgeoning movement to reintroduce bodywork into hospital healing is gaining ground, supported by research that has added impressive data to the intuitive understanding that hospital massage has an important role in institutional care.
    In her book, Massage for the Hospital Patient and Medically Frail Client, author Gayle MacDonald provides an extensive review of research on hospital massage. “Six variables -- pain, anxiety, length of stay, nausea, stress and sleep -- show consistent improvement from the application of massage,” she reports, citing data from dozens of studies.  
    But, she adds, “Many aspects of the massage experience cannot be conveyed into data -- hope, for instance, or the feeling of belonging.”
    Yet, even as the benefits of hospital massage are documented, fully funded programs to provide the service are few.  A program at Marin General Hospital, administered by the Institute for Health and Healing and maintained by a team of volunteer therapists, was the source of my early training and experience. I have since had the good fortune to join a small staff of therapists providing in-room massage on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley and Oakland.
    This work has been deeply satisfying and profoundly moving -- for me and, frequently, my patients. Dispatched to patient rooms by nurses, doctors, other hospital personnel or family members, I have found that the effect of massage, including bodywork as subtle as lightly stroking a patient’s foot or gently holding their head, can be profound in so many ways, providing relief, attention, connection, distraction, awareness, even hope, in a 10-minute bedside session.
    I am determined to see this remarkable support of healing -- one of the least complicated and costly on offer -- become a routine part of institutional care. I invite anyone with similar aspirations, especially hospital stakeholders like doctors, administrators or health workers, to join me in finding room in the budgets and goals of local hospitals for this service.