Sharing the gift of health
There are certain members of our profession that surpass boundaries with their scope, research and accolades. Christine Sutherland is one of those steely individuals, who has explored so many avenues: massage therapist, filmmaker, teacher and author.
By Jules Torti
Most notably, Sutherland is the co-founder of the Sutherland Chan School and Teaching Clinic in Toronto.
Over the years, she has been involved in spinal cord injury recovery, wheelchair sports massage and pediatric massage projects from Africa to Alberta. She worked on-site in the oil fields, and with the SPCA offering “Pet Your Pet” workshops. In tandem, she produced an animal massage tutorial mini-series on YouTube and The Pet Network. Oh, and she’s also the director at World Wide Massage Services, Inc. and director of the Canadian Institute of Palliative Massage.
Her true tour de force work takes place in life’s arrivals and departures focusing on the delicate dynamics of palliative care, labour and delivery. We caught up with Sutherland, who shared her deeper story.
What was the reassuring moment in your career that confirmed that you were definitely in the right industry?
My ‘moments’ are more about being able to equip families with an enhanced power of touch. For instance, I was at a funeral today for one of my oldest friends, who I’ve known since I was 19. In his dying days at the hospice, I massaged him every day, several times a day. I taught his friends to massage him. Ministering to him with my hands-on skills helped him breathe, digest, and sleep during such a tumultuous time.
Whether I’m directly hands-on or teaching someone how to be hands-on in either of life’s monumental times – birthing or dying – is where the reassurance lies.
What made you jump from documentary crew member at Selkirk College to massage school?
I jumped into massage through my barnyard practice of rehabilitating goats and horses. A friend told me I had a talent that would be better used on people instead of their pets. I was ready to build my first house from scratch and the land deal fell through. I was refused a log home apprenticeship because they said I was too small. With my friend’s insistence I contacted the only accredited massage school in B.C. at the time and they took me on late in their program.
Then I sold my 60 chickens, horse and all my furniture and bought my plane ticket to Toronto.
There I got a day job as an audio-visual specialist to pay for my night school. I was able to marry both careers in audio visual and massage by writing curriculum and designing the first how-to massage video in the days of VHS and BETA tapes.
Your career trajectory has been so colourful – from writing Dying in Good Hands: Palliative Massage and the Power of Touch to co-founding a school to massaging dogs. When or what will ‘retirement’ mean to you after 40+ years in massage therapy?
Retirement means refinement – and trying to pass on everything that I have acquired through the past 45 years of being hands-on with people and pets. There is still a lot to do – I am designing a curriculum that can be implemented in places like Guatemala where a cooperative of 120 families asked me to train them in maternity and palliative massage. While the original curriculum that I wrote for Sutherland Chan is still relevant today, I’d like to extend that gift of touch to other countries and Canada’s North through instructional videos and social media. Remote Northern communities are in need of health services that allow their elders to stay home for the last part of their lives.
I’m also planning a film series called, “In Good Hands,” with the Telus Health Network and finishing my latest documentary, The Touch of Bridget.
You capitalized on creating a business in the oil fields of Alberta – is there another remote locale that appeals to you? Can you tell me about “Bridging the Gap” in Nicaragua and teaching locals how to massage their elders?
“Bridging the Gap” is my passion project. It’s where kids are taught to massage seniors in hospitals and chronic care facilities in places like Fort St. John, B.C. I’ve been involved in this project from the beginning of my career (it was originally called “Take A Skeleton To Lunch”). I’d buy an assortment of animal organs from Kensington Market and put my skeleton in a stroller. It encouraged our Sutherland Chan students to teach to learn and learn to teach.
Who or what can you attribute your career longevity to? What continues to inspire you?
While working with Grace Chan and Team Canada, I had a painful flare-up in my hands. I couldn’t take anti-inflammatory drugs as I was trying to get pregnant again. Instead, I took the advice of my arthritic patients and adjusted my diet. I quit sugar, wheat, red meat, caffeine and cow products. The alkaline-producing diet I have stuck to all these years has successfully bucked my family genetics, Dupuytren’s contracture and arthritis.
I was also diagnosed with a blood disease and given five years to live. I knew that really meant three years to live and a couple spent dying. So, I undertook a mandatory fun schedule and followed Norman Cousins’ recipe for laughter therapy. I exercise daily, swim three times a week, hike, bike and dance for balance and fun.
I also get massages, take advantage of the local hot springs and ensure my roomies come to my classes. It’s a “homegrown” plan for shoulder and foot rubs at home. This is where the real healing happens, amongst family and friends.
And, I abide by this policy: If it isn’t fun, forget it.
Jules torti, RMT, has been in practice since 1999 and a freelance writer since age six. In between massage engagements, she travels to Africa to be with chimpanzees and writes about her zany travels for Matador Network.