The immediate aftermath of the “bombing” of the World Trade Center was less dramatic and yet more profound. Where there had been two columns of lights at night from my window, now there was darkness and emptiness. This was eventually replaced by a huge pink cloud covering the south of Manhattan, fighter jets, helicopters with spotlights, and oppressive air quality depending on the direction of the wind.
I live across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital, one of the main triage hospitals. There was an initial flurry of great activity as an overwhelming number of victims were brought in. All rooms and beds were filled. After the hospital quickly mobilized, there was nothing, no more. Gurneys and sheet-draped chairs were waiting in front of the emergency room along with a plethora of green-dressed doctors and other emergency workers who were just sitting. We all prayed for more sirens which didn’t come. There was a block-long line (three to four deep) of blood donors. After about an hour, they were told to go home: the hospital had no room for more blood at that time.
The other corners of the street were filled with people waiting for news of missing family members, friends, co-workers. Pictures of the missing were posted on walls, telephone kiosks, light poles, any available surface. It was so quiet. Traffic was cut off except for emergency vehicles. The streets adjacent to the hospital were blocked to pedestrians. Television crews established their territory and waited for something to happen. Identification was required to enter my neighborhood, patrolled by state troopers from Connecticut. Although I could observe all of this from my window, periodically I felt the need to go down to the street to feel the heavy sensation of the almost unearthly quietness.
I learned that there were several organizations scheduling volunteers to provide bodywork to the workers in this tragedy. I went to the Olive Leaf Wholeness Center, a fairly new center in NYC, to register. A certificate from your organization was required to obtain an identification tag for security. The center was assigned two areas, Pier 94, the army post, and the Medical Examiner’s Office.
At Pier 94, practitioners of a variety of physical and energy techniques were helping workers from “ground zero” as well as families of victims and the missing. They gave workers short sessions to alleviate the various body problems (feet, legs, knees, shoulders, etc.) arising from the heavy and dangerous work of clearing away the debris. Work on the family members (given first priority) was for a brief reprieve from their heavy emotional loads and uncertainty.
I was assigned to the Medical Examiner’s Office, where our clients were primarily people doing delicate and precise work with their hands – such as sorting out body parts, doing DNA evaluations, working many hours (days) on computers, etc. The anticipation was that their problems would be mostly with the neck, arms, wrists, and hands. They were allowed fifteen-minute breaks, during which time they could come to us.
As clients, the workers came to us fully clothed, mostly men and women who are not used to being touched with this focus. Practitioners each did three-hour shifts. Since I am somewhat disabled (I walk with two canes), we expected that I would do most of the work sitting, treating hands, wrists, and forearms. I scheduled two shifts the first week to see if my energy lasted. The agreement was that I would leave if the physical effort proved to be too much for me. (Note: I never sat down while working, and I completed each of my shifts.)
When I first arrived it was difficult to locate the actual building of the Medical Examiner’s Office in the midst of the variety of uniforms. The building and street were barricaded off, lined with a group of state troopers who carefully checked identification badges. The military was present in camouflage uniforms, and there was a variety of other uniforms beyond my comprehension. I saw a class from the police academy consisting of a very focused leader and a group of terrified-looking students in academy uniforms. Not many people build self-confidence at a morgue.
After finally locating the steps to the door of the building, I was directed to check in with the desk officer. I was issued a “sticky” badge with my name and told to display both identifications at all times. Two area were assigns to Olive Leaf: a tent on the street alongside the building (which I did not see until later), and a small room in the building with two massage tables and a rolling office chair, plus a small side room about the size of a large bathroom containing a small couch and a folding chair. I was pleased to see that the sign outside of the room said “MASSAGE/BODYWORK.” In that shift, there were four of us volunteers, none of whom worked professionally as a massage therapist. One did mainly shiatsu, another energy work, the third was an occupational therapist with a history of massage training, and then there was me, a Rolfer.
The entire medical examiner building contained what looked like organized confusion. People were running in and out, shouting and saving papers. Security was strong. Telephones were constantly ringing. The lobby was small, consisting of the sergeant at the desk, many doors to the interior requiring codes, a line of temporary desks where officers in khaki uniforms went over lists of the missing and gathered data for possible identification. It quickly became apparent that an amazing amount of work was being done effectively, if not efficiently, in too small of a space. This was true of our little space as well.
A young man under the Olive Leaf sign was coordinating men and women in a variety of uniforms for bodywork, assigning them in turn as one of us became available. He later told me that he was a nurse and not supposed to be doing the coordination. Like everyone else, he jumped in when a job was to be done.
My first impression was admiration at the cooperation of different types of bodyworkers. There was also the realization that the recipients (police, firemen, city employees) were totally new to this type of touching. The driver who took me to the office the first day told me that the police were being taken to the Pierre Hotel for massage and were loving it.
At this early stage of the game, it took some coercion to get people to sign up for bodywork since the police and other city employees were very wary of being touched. They frequently came on a buddy basis. Those who were truly stressed out came with no hesitation. The first bodyworkers sent out from Olive Leaf were Reiki therapists, which admittedly was a mistake because of the subtlety of the work. Those reservations were overcome and it became one of the therapies often requested. The Reiki therapists also seem to be the volunteers in the greatest abundance.
The reception area was lined by very low couches. Twice I tried sitting on one of them and had to be pulled up. It was not unusual for officers or office workers to sit on a couch for a period of time as though “pulling themselves together.” I felt they were often making a decision whether or not to ask for bodywork – there was a glazed look in their eyes and their color was pale. It quickly became apparent that the timing was totally theirs.
I worked on my first person in the little room. His legs and feet were bothering him from the fast walking of delivering papers and other items from one area or office to another. After considerable shifting around, we ended up with him sitting in the chair and putting his feet in my lap while I sat on the couch. When he took off his shoes and pulled up his pant legs, he was concerned about what contamination there might be on the floor. To put him more at ease, we put both of his feet on my lap. The room was narrow, his legs were long, his feet jammed into my abdomen. I did what I could by contorting my body to work on his ankles and feet and continue up to his knees under heavy work pants. He did report relief in his feet, ankles and legs, while I knew that this arrangement would not work for my own body.
The two tables were taken by the other workers, and I did the rest of my three-hour shift with people straddling the chair and resting their heads on their hands. Our instructions were fifteen minutes per person. Once my rhythm was established, this became a routine to which I pretty much stuck. Working through clothing was another challenge which required an adaptation to my goals and technique. One policewoman asked about her gun. I said as long as she didn’t use it on me we were OK. Some police took their guns off, others didn’t. I did actually see ankle guns on some of the police.
The focus was varied: emotional stress combined with physical stress from long periods at the computer and fatigue from the long hours. Many of the police would not get work unless their partner was nearby. I worked on one man who got up every few minutes to check on his partner out of the window. I focused on tight areas and also gave some movement cues depending on the client’s work. The overall response was complete gratitude.
I must also comment that the police and other uniformed officers were very considerate of me, opening doors, helping me up and down stairs, hailing a cab for me. It was funny when someone would come to me for work. They would look at my canes, and at first they weren’t sure who was working on whom. It took them a few minutes to get them past trying to help me.
Several days later I was again in the small room in the medical examiner’s building. Since this is where the bodies and body parts were being brought, the main issue was physical tension from the long hours and, especially, from the standing and waiting. The complaints were mostly neck, shoulders, and back. It’s interesting what can be done through clothing using a lot of intention. It helped that I was working on a table most of this shift.
I wouldn’t say that I was doing Rolfing®, and yet I certainly used my twenty-eight years of experience in the work. When each person came in, I asked for the area of discomfort and would work accordingly. Usually there was little or no talking. The coordinator said that the big men leaving after their fifteen- to twenty-minute session with me would say, “Wow!” She wanted to know, “What are you doing in there?”
I give little direction except to desk workers about the height of their chairs and the distance of their eyes from the computer. From the sessions I did notice breath going down to the lower back and the shoulders dropping. The men (and women) came in macho, a bit embarrassed, almost apologetic, and left like pussy cats.
The next week we were moved into a tent on the street besides the building. The term “tent” is a loose one, since it was some wood framing with suspended white sheets that the wind was blowing all about. Since our subjects were dressed, modesty was not a problem. We had a small part at one end of a much bigger tent area. The remainder of the tent was set up with benches for religious groups (mainly the Salvation Army). We were not to work when there were services.
Again, the variety of therapists was great. We worked on tables of various sorts, chairs, and whatever was available whenthe next “body” came through the sheets. One couple worked together on the same client, the man doing foot reflexology and the woman Reiki, an impressive combination. I had a narrow chiropractor’s table most of the time, which worked fine. It was balanced on the edge of a curb. To keep it steady, I wedged my body against it while I was working.
It was a true construction zone, since they were building a wood structure immediately next to us (pounding and all of that). Someone did put on some soothing music, which helped the atmosphere. Since the sheets were blowing, people were looking in as they walked by – giving us a smile, a “hi” sign, and other gestures of appreciation. I was told by one client, “Everybody knows that you are here and appreciates it.”
At one point I was working on a stressed-out FBI agent when I realized that the area had become extremely quiet and people were lined up along the street. There was a police escort followed by an ambulance. I later learned that this happened each time the body or body parts of a policeman, fireman or emergency worker was brought to the morgue. The people on the street come to attention, salute with eyes averted, and remain as such until the ambulance is emptied.
The coordinators by now had a list of our various specialties and directed people accordingly. I was listed under Rolfing, and they didn’t quite know what to do with me. “Can you work with someone stressed out?” “Of course.” “Can you work on neck and shoulders?” “Yes.” “Can you work on an injured ankle?” “Yep.” “Lower back?” etc.
I may be becoming a legend again since they knew I was part of the “Olive Relief” group and I’m easy to recognize since I hobble around on two canes. Many of the police, National Guard, and all those other uniforms said “Hello” with big smiles, opened doors, and helped me into taxis. (One night I shamed a soldier on corner duty into helping me since cabs are not supposed to stop at the corner near the Office.)
My fourth shift was later in my second week of duty, and the tent was bustling with a variety of practitioners; a chiropractor, a physical therapist, a kinesiologist, a Reiki therapist, and others. A massage chair was available to me for most of the shift. The massage therapist working at the chair next to me was from Chicago. He had put the chair into his car, driven to NYC, worked for four days, and was leaving to go home after this shift.
The chair is convenient for work on shoulders, neck, arms, hands, and back. One officer had problems with pain in the lumbosacral area. I had him sit up on the chair and starting with my fingers anchored on the cervicothoracic junction, I had him curve and arch, back and forth, until the area had some movement. I followed the technique down on spinal junctions, like a zipper, to the lumbosacral area. This is an effective and simple technique I learned from Dr. Rolf. He stood up, amazed that the pain was gone.
It was difficult for the chiropractor. While the rest of us were working on each person for fifteen to twenty minutes, he did about four adjustments and was finished. One woman was waiting for me and he offered to adjust her while she was waiting. He did that, then I worked on her. Afterwards she was ecstatic and he didn’t get it. Since he was sitting for so much of the time, I wanted to suggest that we work in tandem, yet I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to mention this.
One officer was so glazed after I worked with him on the chair that the coordinator suggested that he get more work on a table to stabilize him. She felt, rightly so, that he was not in an emotional and mental state to send back to work. I did have a quick negative ego rush which fortunately passed. I talked to him after his second sessions and he was still spaced out. He had worked continually for three days (I never asked what the officers did at the morgue). He realized that he had been using adrenaline to keep going and the bodywork interrupted that stimulus. He was heading home for three days off, for which I was thankful. We were working at very tricky physical, emotional, psychic, and practical levels.
One group of men came in wearing shirts printed with the motto “We police the toughest neighborhoods in the world” followed by a list of prisons. These correction officers came in from New Jersey. They came to our tent with a buddy attitude of “I’ll do it if you do it.” As each received the bodywork his companions waited on the benches and they compared notes after the sessions. Their comments were a great combination of irreverence and appreciation.
The atmosphere was quite different about a month later when I returned to the Medical Examiner’s Office after a necessary break. Realizing that the work was too strenuous for my own body, I came back as a coordinator. In that capacity I felt that I was still making a contribution. The barricades were up with only two guards checking our identification. Most of the uniformed activity had moved down the street.
The “tent” was now covered with heavy plastic. The “sign” looked like it was made with a marker on the tent. People were squinting at it to determine what it said. There was only one massage therapist among the volunteers. The remainder were Reiki therapists, which was fine, and it was not always easy to convince a burly cop that energy work would be good for him. (As I’ve said all along, they loved it afterwards.) Often the two Reiki therapists worked on a uniformed body together – a double pleasure, especially when the recipient realized what a treasure he was getting.
It was Halloween and our area was very quiet. A large contingent of police were at the Halloween parade and another huge number at Yankee Stadium. The practitioners passed their time working on each other when we had a break.
Two days later we again had one massage therapist; our other two volunteers were a Reiki practitioner and a woman who does foot reflexology, craniosacral work and other therapies except massage. The massage therapist had made a long train ride from south Jersey, so I was pleased that she had a fair amount of work. In fact, when I left at the end of my shift, she had a line and was willing to keep working. I wish people like this had more recognition, although this is not why they come.
I had a chance to talk more with the workers at the morgue. They were exhausted, doing twelve- to eighteen-hour shifts for three days on, three days off, and then the same shifts again for three nights. It was explained to me that the workers on site were no longer working carefully to find human remains, but scooping large amounts of the buildings into trucks. These were unloaded and then gone over carefully for any signs of bodies. This meant that the number of workers in general was being reduced.
When I left, I went into the building for a stop at the men’s room. The regular room was being cleaned, so they allowed me into a restricted area where there was another men’s room. When I left, one of the police directed me to an elevator nearby which allowed me to go to the ground level (basement) of the building and not have to use the steps in the front. Leaving the elevator, I entered what appeared to be the nerve center of the morgue. There were desks, people in uniform, a flurry of movement, computers, papers, and energy. The building was enlarged by an extension with a large tent. It was part of the search for human remains that I had not seen. Even though I was in a restricted area, I was treated with politeness and friendliness.
With the reduction of workers at the various sites, the fate of the bodywork volunteers is up in the air. I understand Olive Leaf has been asked to continue with the two sites through November. It is my hope that it will continue beyond that time as I believe we provide a real and necessary service. It seems that there is a lessening of interest and energy for the city’s recovery, among volunteers, workers, and politicians alike. There is a delicate balance between “getting on with life” and “let us not forget.”
This is not much of an ending. Perhaps there is no ending. We hope that this experience might give those of our community (police, firemen, emergency workers) with high stress jobs the awareness of the benefit of touch. Who knows. It might expand into our society?
The Olive Relief volunteer project finished at the end of the year.