Able Bodies

Massage Therapist’s Philanthropy Aids the Handi-Capable

By Darren Buford

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, December/January 2001.

Massage therapy and athletics are a natural combination. Body maintenance, recovery, rehabilitation and improved performance are just a few reasons why many professional and Olympic athletes have incorporated bodywork as part of their training regimen. But what if an athlete requires special attention, is disabled, or is affected by a myriad of complications? Does the approach alter?

This is the question posed to volunteer therapists who attend the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic each year in Colorado. Sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), the clinic is open to all U.S. military veterans with spinal cord injury or disease, certain neurological conditions, orthopedic amputations, visual impairments and other disabilities. The program, which plays host to more than 300 participants each year, is the brainchild of recreation therapist Sandy Trombetta.

Fifteen years ago, Trombetta had the desire to help a disabled patient learn to ski. “What happened changed him and everything in my life,” said Trombetta. “It became evident quickly, it wasn’t about him learning to ski as much as it was about him doing something as a physical challenge, working beyond his disability and doing whatever he wanted to do.”

Since then, Trombetta has had the good fortune to help hundreds accomplish what they thought to be unattainable, and each year the clinic continues to grow. Although skiing remains the focus, with events such as adaptive skiing in sit-skis, mono-skis and bi-skis, and instruction in adaptive Alpine and Nordic skiing for stand-up skiers, other activities are offered as well, including rock climbing, scuba diving, snowmobiling and more.

Besides the extensive activity list, there is another reason many veterans return year after year: Chester Bentley and his team of bodyworkers. “Chester and his crew are the only massage therapists I’ve ever used,” said Trombetta. “He’s practically booked all day and night. If we didn’t have Chester and his crew here, we’d have a mutiny on our hands.” Trombetta has a philosophy when it comes to accepting assistance with the Winter Sports Clinic: “If you don’t have the right stuff, we don’t ask you to come back. If you do, we work you to death.”

Apparently, Chester Bentley is locked for life.

Working Their Fingers Off

While giving a massage to a runner in the 1993 Indy Mini Marathon in Indianapolis, Ind., Bentley learned about the Winter Sports Clinic. After some conversation, the runner, who already was a volunteer ski instructor for the clinic, suggested he get in touch with Trombetta. Bentley did and agreed to volunteer, having little or no knowledge of how his services would be received.

The first year Bentley was assigned to the medical clinic, but did not use his massage table. Working alone, he went to the veterans’ rooms since there was little leeway to operate in the apportioned area. “My table was their bed, floor or wheelchair,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and a great awakening for me about the human spirit.”

Instead of runners, tri-athletes, skaters, Olympic players, or the traditional massage client, Bentley found he was doing bodywork on men and women who were paralyzed or had lost limbs, sight or hearing.

He traveled room to room and went about business as usual. “I had a wonderful week and met some great people. Usually projects like this in my past have been a one-time thing, and then you move on to the next one.” Bentley returned home and wrote Trombetta a letter thanking him and offered his assistance again for the future.

From the numbers of evaluations returned, most making mention of Bentley’s services, Trombetta decided to include massage as an annual part of the clinic. “The program is now so well received,” said Bentley, “it has expanded to its own location and identity.” The program has grown from Bentley working as the sole massage therapist to a team of six bodyworkers.

What’s In a Name?

Bentley’s road to massage is an interesting one. After recovering from surgery in the late 1960s, he searched for a way to regain his strength and shape. Karate turned out to be the answer. “It helped me start my own personal growth and development. I learned compassion and respect for other people.”

He soon took an increasing interest in yoga, which he believed to harness much of the same energy. “While I was in karate, I seemed to have a better knack for fixing fighters than I did fighting itself.” Bentley incorporated the intuitiveness he felt as a healer to help injured fighters get back into the ring. After realizing his talents, he began to look for schools of study.

Deciding upon the Kripalu Holistic Health Institute in Lennox, Mass., Bentley partook in massage practice, acquiring much of his initial training. Since that time, Bentley has become certified in 14 major modalities of bodywork, including myofascial release, acupressure, acupuncture and shiatsu, as well as applied kinesiology, polarity and reflexology. He also is a certified yoga teacher and meditation guide.

Bentley went on to open the Lame Frog Yoga Centre, a school of massage and yoga in Indianapolis. “I honestly don’t know when it became commercial,” said Bentley, “but I looked up one day and I had a business.”

And from where did the name of the business come? Bentley attended a massage/meditative workshop in Pennsylvania during the late ’60s, an experience designed for personal rediscovery. During a particular soul-baring evening, he decided he needed to release some energy, so he began moving through the countryside. In an emotional outburst, Bentley began running so hard he could not stop. In an effort to break his speed, he reached and grabbed a tree. The result left him lying next to a stagnant pool of water.

“It was pretty well near daylight by then” said Bentley. “I sobbed myself clean and sat on the ground and laughed. At that moment, I realized I was a big fool.” Then, somewhere in the marsh, a frog began to ribbit. “I thought, here’s this lame old frog seeing the world through a clean eye.” According to Bentley, the name Lame Frog derives from learning he doesn’t have to make a fool out of himself, but that it will happen naturally. He also mentions it’s a reference to overcoming “lame” excuses which keep us from better caring for our health.

The Healing Touch

Today, Bentley and his staff provide the Winter Sports Clinic with exactly what it needs: dedication and an open mind. The massage team has learned when working with the veterans no matter what area of the body is affected, it should be treated as though it is a healthy and a valuable part of the whole.

“If the limb is missing, massage as though it is still there,” said Bentley. “You continue to instill circulation to enhance flexibility. The circuitry that makes this person vibrant with life is still in place.”

He said it is analogous to a light bulb. “If you took a light bulb out of its socket, the light may have gone out, but the electricity is still in the wire. It’s the same with the body. You can go back anywhere in that wire and tie into the current.”

According to Bentley, in some veterans, due to massive trauma, the body has defended itself through muscle contractions and joint limitations. “While massaging these veterans,” he said, “we hope to encourage circulation and mobility through the physical touch. At the same time, we try to help with internal blocks through yogic breathing and relaxation techniques.”

One such instance Bentley related was with a veteran who suffers from spasms that cause him to double over. “Through some experiments and intuitiveness, we found a trigger point,” said Bentley. “No matter where he’s at now, the patient can slow down the process or even stop it.”

The Winter Sports Clinic massage team practices therapeutic massage, giving a lot of detail to bone structure and nerve endings, using an acupuncture influence, looking at the different meridians in the body and allowing them to lead to where blocks exist. The benefits of the bodywork can range from improved circulation, general relaxation and increased mental alertness and clarity, to greater energy and pain reduction.

Many skiers have voiced the benefits of the massage to their improved performance. “My experience with massage therapy on the ski slopes has been better circulation, less leg cramps and just overall better health,” said blind veteran skier Urban Miyare. “With Chester there, it makes the skiing so much more enjoyable, especially when you get aches and pains because you are not athletic.”

Veteran George Johnson II concurred. “I have used the massage therapists for the last four years. Without the services, my skiing was limited to one time out. With their help, I am able to ski every day because of the manipulation of sore muscles, the restoration of ROM and the relief of pain from muscle soreness.”

Bentley said each client presents their own unique challenge, but one of the more universal problems is getting them on and off the massage table. A routine is often developed between himself and clients. “These guys have lived with this, and they’ve learned to adapt. They know the best way to move their own bodies. We set them up close to the table and get them on. It usually works itself out if you allow them to help.” For those clients unable to be transported to a table, Bentley often makes special trips to their rooms to accommodate their disability better.

And though the days can be grueling work, Bentley gives each massage a personal touch by treating it as though it’s the only one he is performing that day. “In addition to working on vets, we also are popular with the volunteers themselves,” he said. “Working all day with the disabled can be hard work, even on the fully abled. Though we reserve the bulk of our half-hour slots for the vets themselves, we do what we can to keep the rest of the volunteers going.”

This persistence to maintaining an atmosphere of excellence has resulted in Bentley and his team being presented with an award each of the past two years. In 2000, Miss America Heather Renee French presided, and in 1999 the award was given by Tipper Gore.

In his modesty, Bentley responded, “The real award winners are each and every one of the 300-plus veterans who make the event happen every year. We don’t get to meet all of them, but we touch about a third. Everyone I work on is a privilege, because I learn something about myself from them. It’s literally a self-help process for everyone involved.”

When asked what he’s gained from the clinic, Bentley replied, “Negative mentality has no place in the world. I’ve learning compassion from working with the veterans and never to be judgmental.”