On August 29, 2011 Hurricane Irene caused the worst flooding in over a century to small towns in upstate New York and Southern, Central Vermont. The normal peaceful meandering rivers became ravaging flood waters within hours. Houses along these rivers quickly flooded and people were evacuated. The waters quickly receded with hours of the flood but left lingering damage.
As a former Vermonter and having family still living in the mountain towns hard hit by the flooding, I wanted to help the victims of the flood. Since I am a Certified Reflexologist, it was recommended that I provide reflexology services to many of the victims.
Reflexology is a gentle non-invasive form of body work that involves the use of alternative pressure of the thumbs or fingers applied to reflexes located on an individual’s feet, hands, and ears. Reflexology relaxes the body, improves circulation and promotes balance and harmony in the body, mind and spirit.
Moretown, the town where I provided reflexology, is a small town along the Mad River, near Stowe Vermont. Many of the victims had immense flood damage to their homes or their properties and they also had harrowing stories of escaping from the flood waters.
Washington County Mental Health Services had visited the town a week before I arrived to provide mental health counseling to the victims. Trained as a psychiatric nurse, I was knowledgeable of the stages of trauma and grief and also the DSMV diagnosis of Acute Stress Reactions a psychological condition arising in response to a terrifying or traumatic event such as the flood. Possible symptoms vary between individuals, this initial state of “daze”, depression, anxiety, anger, despair over activity and withdrawal may all be seen, but not one type of symptom predominates for long. Often an individual can feel all or none of the symptoms sometimes within minutes to hours after the event.
I arrived in Moretown two weeks after the flood. The sun was shining, the sky was a beautiful shade of light blue and the temperatures were in the 70’s. Driving around a barricade that only allowed local residents through, I could see toilet paper streaming from the limbs of trees over 8 feet high off the ground, where the flood waters had left savaging remnants.
Old white clapboard houses had their windows and doors wide opened with front yards littered with household items and furniture. Looking closely, you could see a ring of mud circling the foundation of most homes from where the river had risen. The road through the main town was dusty with dried mud from the Mad River. Sweepers were sweeping the main road with brooms to try and remove the layers of accumulated dust around the road and buildings.
I found the local Town Hall, the mecca of volunteer services. In amongst the plastic bags of clothing, rugs, toiletries, food etc. my sister and I made a make-shift spa. My sister was my administrative assistant scheduling appointments and assisting me with providing herbal, relaxing tea prior or post the reflexology session. We played quiet, relaxing music and had beautiful flowers on a table next to the reflexology chair.
Word quickly traveled throughout the community that I was providing free reflexology sessions. Families of flood victims, volunteers and victims showed up for a session.
Many of the victims were on antibiotics or corticosteroids as a result of the changes in their living conditions. Breathing in the dust from the mud on a daily basis resulted in cases of Asthma in several individuals and as a result of limited bathroom facilities several individuals had Urinary Tract Infections.
I worked on each individual for 30 minutes sometimes an hour if necessary. As I was working volunteers and flood victims would stop by the volunteer table and their voices were heard above the sounds of the relaxing music. I would let the clients begin the session talking about the flood and how it had affected them, the town or their friends. I would continue to work the stress reduction reflexology reflexes and as the body relaxed the talking would slow down or stop and the client’s breath would get deeper and slower.
Several of the clients were
-Joan, a woman in her 50’s who swam through 9 feet of water to gather her medication right before being evacuated from her home. She had her first bath in two weeks the night before the session. She spoke of concern for others but was able to sit in the chair and allow me to work on her feet. Dusty from the 4 inches of mud that had filled the streets, her feet were worn and stiff, but were softer at the end of the quick session
-Sharon, she had climbed out of her first- floor window as the river raged forward. She had lost a number of items to the flood but was still supporting other victims. During her session she referred to the five stages of Grief (Kubler-Ross) denial, aner, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She stated, “maybe I will never feel the anger”. Kim’s feet were extremely tight but relaxed and loosened up during the session. The next day Sharon was extremely tearful to the point that her husband recommended she receive counseling.
-Sarah, a native Moretown resident and mother of 5 kids, tirelessly offered her services in any way possible. She “worked” the roads for cash, putting a bucket for money out to cars driving by. She required much coercing from the other women, and was the last to receive reflexology services. Throughout her session between quiet moments of relaxation she spoke about the birth of her five children.
-Brittany, a massage therapist had her basement and first floor of her house flooded. She had lost her massage chair in the flood. She settled into the reflexology chair, somber and quiet with minimal expression. She was able to close her eyes and relax through-out her session. She returned the second day that I volunteered requesting additional services.
During this time, she spoke about family stressors and how the flood had exacerbated an already stressed family. She smiled briefly during the session, her feet and body appeared to be much more relaxed than the previous day.
-Lisa, an owner of a very popular busy bakery, was going to sell her house and build a new one on 6 acres of land but now the house was flooded and her plans would need to be changed. She stated she kept falling “apart” having problems keeping herself together. As the session progressed, she became quiet, her body and her feet relaxed.
-Kate, a woman in her late 50’s who had had an angry outburst with the volunteer staff at the Town Hall, some of them her closest friends. She had refused to come back to the Hall.
Her husband had asked me to come to their house in hopes of helping his wife. I arrived at the house fearing the worst but Kate was very friendly, talkative and grateful for my services. She relaxed and was able to talk about the “stress at the town hall” and she appeared to be processing the whole experience.
-Diane was away in San Diego dealing with her father’s death only to then return three days later to the flood. She lost her road in the flood and was unable to cook, which was her coping mechanism. She was diagnosed with Asthma as the result of the dust on the road and was on several inhalers and prednisone. She started crying when I offered her a session.
Once in my chair she stopped crying, relaxing as I provided the reflexology on the reflexes and she made the comment, “I always thought of water as being calming and soothing, not angry like this storm was.”
I was deeply moved by the rawness and bravery these individuals shared with me during the two days I provided Reflexology services. I found these sessions had a profound effect of integrating the emotional upheaval these individuals had experience and provide them with a momentary “pause” in their day, where they could just relax and get more grounded in their body. I have found by providing reflexology and being a witness to the individual’s process the client often feels safe, nurtured and able to be present to whatever life has to offer.