Confession time: I refused to work on the man before even meeting him and partially for selfish reasons. I’d just gotten over a cold that made me miss a day of work, and I heard him hacking up a lung in the bathroom before we introduced ourselves.
To be thorough I did a brief intake in the treatment room and confirmed that his cold was just a couple days old. As standard procedure, I let him know that giving him a massage at this stage of his cold would make him feel worse, not better. Too many clients, not seeming to care about the person who’d be spending at least an hour with contagious them in close quarters, often challenge me on this: But I want it worked out of my body. This client, however, was very polite and understanding about my refusal. He rescheduled with someone else a week later, and I forgot about the whole thing for months.
Seeing his name on my schedule the other week felt good, a chance to redeem that first non-appointment. The session went smoothly. He fell asleep, and the tension in his muscles melted away. He was one of those rare clients who simply needs to “shut down” in order to release tension.
After the session ended, I returned to my computer to write SOAP notes. And this was when I saw the alert on his profile: HIV-positive. On anti-viral medication.
An icy-cold chill rippled over me. Remember when all there was to worry about was a cold? Yeah, those were the good ol’ days.
Let me interrupt myself to mention that I wasn’t worried about getting infected. I remember learning that HIV is a bloodborne pathogen. His and my skin were unbroken, and no blood was spilled, so there were no worries there. But what about him? A coworker said that I should have worn gloves and a mask to protect his immune system. I felt retroactively terrible about my oversight until I was informed that the profile alert was just made visible to me during my session. There was no way I would have known to take these measures.
I read a few articles about the role of the MT to the client with HIV. It turns out that massage, since it boosts the immune system, is proven to help people with the disease. But precautions should be taken if the MT has some sort of infection, his or herself. And if the client is ill, he or she really shouldn’t receive massage. (As for the gloves and mask, they would likely be distracting and even disturbing to the client. But maybe they could be worn if the MT was getting over a cold or healing from a cut…)
After my first encounter with this client, I felt guilty for pushing him away, and I remembered feeling surprised and relieved that he was so cool about it. In retrospect, he probably thought I knew about his infection. I was looking out for him even though I didn’t know exactly what I was protecting him from. And I’m actually glad I didn’t know at the time. Refusing the session in itself was stressful; I’m not one for confrontations or disappointing people. Adding the layer of HIV to the conversation would have made me sound wobbly and awkward. And what if I could have performed the session, knew about his condition and came in wearing gloves and a mask? I probably would have made him feel worse.
I may have mentioned the Buddhist term shoten-zenjin, the protection of the forces in the universe. I’m usually most aware of shoten-zenjin after the potentially dangerous event occurs, sometimes months after. Maybe that’s the very nature of it…we’re protected in a far more vast and profound way than our minds can fathom in the moment. The details need to unfold at the perfect times for the greatest appreciation. There’s no doubt about it; I was protected that day, and as a result, so was my client.
I got to work on him again today, this time fully aware of what I was working with. There was a soft glow of peace within me as my client fell asleep, his muscle tension drifting away…