Faces of Pittsburgh

Angel in Disguise

By MICHELLE WOLNIAK 
mswst8@mail.rmu.edu        

It’s a quiet morning at the small massage clinic in Cranberry Township. The hustle and bustle of the hourly flip at Massage Envy has died down. 

Elizabeth Munson Erbrecht, pregnant for a little over 35 weeks, looks comfortable in her new maternity shirt and is ready to welcome her first child into the world.

She sips tea from her purple coffee mug as she begins to explain how she became interested in an occupation most have never heard of: hospice massage therapy.  

Elizabeth knew little about the nature and practice of massage until she did an extensive project on massage therapy for a class at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).  Despite being an environmental science major at IUP, Elizabeth went on a different direction after graduation.

Interested in massage therapy, Elizabeth enrolled at the Pittsburgh School of Massage Therapy (PGHSMT), earning her degree in December 2001.

It wasn’t until 2004, when Elizabeth was a volunteer massage therapist for the AIDS Festival in Pittsburgh and learned about Aseracare Hospice, that she became interested in hospice massage.

Apparently, Aseracare Hospice had set up a booth at the AIDS Festival hoping to recruit volunteer massage therapists and Elizabeth was intrigued.

According to the Hospice Foundation of America, hospice is a “special concept of care designed to provide comfort and support to patients and their families when a life-limiting illness no longer responds to cure-oriented treatments.”

Elizabeth says she was drawn to the idea of hospice massage because she felt that it was truly beneficial to patients who no longer have the physical strength to live.

She began to volunteer at Aseracare in 2004 while also working part-time at PGHSMT in the registrar office, where she met her future husband Zachary, who was studying massage therapy at the time.

Following her marriage to Zach in 2008, Elizabeth found a part-time massage therapist position at Heartland Hospice of Pittsburgh as a massage therapist for terminally ill patients and left Aseracare Hospice.

“Massage therapy is a positive touch to these patients who are usually being poked and prodded with needles, most of them have accepted death,” Elizabeth said.  “Massage is just a better way of helping them deal with the physical pain.”

When asked about the physical benefits that massage provides to hospice patients, Elizabeth responded,

“[Massage] helps with muscle contractions, edema, which is water swelling, and relaxation,” she said.

Even though death is sometimes hard to deal with, Elizabeth says she has no problem with her clients’ inevitable future.

“A positive relationship is formed but their death is part of the job and if I couldn’t handle the death, I wouldn’t do the job.” Elizabeth admitted.  “Everyone who is admitted to hospice is there by choice and by the time they pass, it comes as more of a blessing than anything else.”

Despite the obviously grim outcome of hospice massage, Elizabeth sees herself as a “forefather” in her occupation.

“Slowly, the benefits of massage become more known and hospice services are adding massage therapy as an option,” she shared.

Co-worker and former massage therapist, Jessica Kelly, agrees with the future trend of massage therapy. 

“More and more people are recognizing the benefits and as a healthy way to relieve pain,” Jessica said.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, careers in massage therapy are expected to grow 19 percent from 2008 to 2018, which is faster than average for most occupations.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth explains that with hospice massage, there is no real job security because Medicare does not yet cover it. As a result of this potential job instability, Elizabeth decided to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in theology and graduated with honors from Carlow University in December 2010.

With this degree, Elizabeth hopes to work as a spiritual counselor to hospice patients. As a spiritual counselor, Elizabeth will help patients “through their journey of the dying process,” and comfort patients if they do have trouble coping with death.