Ex Registered Nurse Karen Kowal Owns Her Massage Business, Employs Other Therapists & Sells Self Care Products

Karen-Kowal1. Tell us a bit more about you and your practice as it is today? i.e. are you a solo practitioner or a business owner? If solo, what kind of an establishment do you work for, how large is it, what is the clientele like, what is the specialty offered? If it is a business that you own, kindly include the same time of relevant information that will give the reader a good idea about your establishment/practice. Please also include where you live and work?

My practice has expanded to still seeing & treating clients on an occasional basis at my massage and therapy store in a strip mall location. I own this business which has 2 treatment rooms and the remainder of the space is delegated to products for Self-Care, Therapy, Essential Oils, loose Herbs, herbal tea supplies, Mother Earth Pillows of every size with various Herbal Blends, Buckwheat Hull Pillows, CD’s and Natural products.

The MT’s who work in my location are IC’s. This location is approx 950 sq ft, offering customers a gentle and unhurried shopping experience. There is a Retail Therapist who is an employee, who can answer product questions, take requests for massage appointments and make the customers feel comfortable without hovering. We have tons of resource materials for customers to sit and do additional research, and I feel this is a valuable service. We have also offered small classes in this tiny area space. We are open Tues – Saturday.

We have an active Social media with specials, informative newsletters via Constant Contact and Facebook. Due to many years of involvement in community, school, therapeutic and medical events, our ‘therapy store’ is known for a place to shop for the products we manufacture.

In 1994, I started my private practice in my home and was the first MT to have a business license in our town. I began manufacturing products in my basement between clients and took a leap of faith to become an S-Corporation in 1996 as we started online sales from our first website. We move the basement manufacturing to a real commercial setting at the beginning of 1998, as employee parking, daily deliveries and cramped spaces precipitated relocation in a much larger space. We doubled in size within a year, and finally in 2007 moved to our current plant location in Arnold, MO.

Our products are used by Massage Therapists, physicians, Chiropractors, spas, hospitals, nurses, counselors and therapists. We promote Mother Earth Pillows as a non-pharmaceutical option for pain management. We have been fortunate enough to have medical research on our precuts and even comparative studies and published.

Serving and educating Massage Therapists and Pain Management nurses for years, I introduced Thermal Connective Therapy Release techniques in Nationally approved NCBTMB classes in 2009. Teaching has been a passion of mine and today I enjoy more of that, speaking at sate & national conferences, community education and CE classes. My daughter, Nikki, is now the president of the 20 yr old company, Mother Earth Designs, Inc to carry on our hand-crafted products, proudly made in the USA, still in Arnold, MO.

2. Tell us why you chose to go into massage and at what point in your life did you decide to do so? What were you doing at the time? Where did you first hear about the massage career? What factors influenced your decision? What were you looking to get out of this decision?

I had a very rewarding and rich career as a Registered Nurse from 1965 to 1995. On one hand, I was fortunate to work in very diverse clinical settings over those years, from ER, ICE to Orthopeodics, L&D and Pediatrics. The last 15 years were spent in a Med / Surg Rehab center and then the last 10 of those years, in Psychiatric Medicine as part of the management team creating clinical tracks and staff development in a large 150-bed setting, first for adults, and then in as a Director of Nursing in a 125-bed child and Adolescent Center.

Three car accidents in 1991, opened the unfortunate (later fortunate) door way to experiencing unrelenting chronic pain, unrelieved by any method, until I finally had my first massage in 1993. Within a few sessions, I finally could sleep through the night for the first time in several years and I regained full ROM. Convinced, and slightly enraged I had not had massage recommended, I made my mind up to learn more. The first night of class was the clincher in 1994.

I knew my life had changed. After graduation, I went part-time in the hospital, then 1-2 days a month and resigned less than a year later. I devoted everything to massage, but also did some art part-time in the beginning to bridge the loss of my excellent nursing wages (AND benefits). As a single mother, home-owner, and solo-wage earner, the first months I got along on a wing and a prayer, but slow and steady growth, then the development of products for my clients helped boost income.

My goal way back in 1994 was to offer gentle relief of pain to people who lived with that stress and/or pain in natural ways. In addition, I recognized the value of client-education and follow-up treatment at home, so always would assess carefully what worked, recommended additional options and saw myself as continuing “patient-education” that I had done for years in nursing. Displaying a small basket of Mother Earth Pillows on a shelf, after using during the session, meant I did not have to ‘well’ anything, only have it available for the client to purchase if they seemed interested or benefited from it during the session.

One thing led to another, I started attending conferences at hospitals, for Fibromyalgia groups, pain management, state conferences for AMTA, workshops, etc. and displaying my products. This led to additional accounts and today we have therapists, spas, clinics in every state, and a number of countries who offer our products to clients and customers. Teaching other therapists how to use in a way that had never been done before, led to increasing sales and referrals to our website have increased over the years.

3. What were some of your questions and concerns before further pursuing your massage therapy goals? Talk about concerns with school and the profession itself.

I feel many of the overly-expensive chain of massage schools have damaged our profession. We are not gathering the top potential students who will help massage grow and develop. I am totally focused on considering Massage therapy as not just a career, but as a health care profession. This means from the ground up, that means meeting the criteria of BEING a Profession.

There are specific criteria nationally…set forth to become a profession. To divide MT students, 1st yr grads into a specific liability ins option… then at end of year (or two), if becoming professional, meeting certain criteria, certifications, additional CE’s have been accumulated and shifting to professional status.

I want to see before I pass on, the introduction at every state Massage AMTA conf, the posting of case studies, and research by attendees,with prizes for the best. This alone will increase the level of viewing ourselves as a profession.

I want to see a minimum admission test questions, potential student test that will be dependent on REASONABLE intelligence scores. The thought that anyone can be taught to be a MT is ridiculous!

I also believe that the mentorship program be considered as part of the shift and promotion to professional level. Working with and trading with a experienced therapists who has been in business for a set # of years, who has also met certain criteria. This helps MT’s who need polishing to become more successful and carry on the profession.

We really need to create pride in our profession, pride in research, success, knowledge, destroying myths, have the ability to work across state lines without problem.

4. What is your specialty and what are the top three contributing factors to your success today?

Specialty is thermal therapy, deep MFR, helping resolve chronic pain, releasing adhesions to diminish chronic pain without hurting the client and diminishing the wear and tear on the therapist. Client post-session therapy assignments for Self-Care.

1 – persistence in education for myself as a therapist

2 – willing to diversify and go where other therapists might not consider (events, conferences, specialty areas i.e hospice events, physician pain management, Nurse conferences, Chiropractor, Physical Therapist conferences, Holistic, Herbal, Horse Shows in addition to Massage Therapists and Spa events.

3 – experiment with searching out marketing options, growth for massage, interacting and interfacing with professional in both the medical and complementary /alternative fields for products use.

5. What do you like about your specialty? What do you like about what you do in general as a career? Why?

Love Thermal Therapy Connective Tissue Release. (Pillossage™) These techniques are gentle, can be used on the elderly client, the fragile or frail, from Alzheimer’s to Hospice. These can also be used for special populations from Autism, to Fibromyalgia. Cancer Patients can use the products for ‘break-thru’ pain, and also for self-care. The therapy using the heated pillows actually access in a new and different manner, regions of the body for safe and therapeutic action.

The focus of the therapy is on the proprioceptor points of the body, rather than focusing on muscles and trigger points. Working on the attachments through heat has been extraordinarily successful for even PTSD clients. Stretching is incorporated throughout and client involvement with guided breath-work is added to increase successful therapy.

Love the fact that these techniques can be used at public events on dressed individuals rather than ONLY in the therapist room. People get to experience the results within moments.

6. What do you not like about what you do? Why?

Due to the extensive travel over the past 20 years, sometimes absent from my home for over 1/3 of a year and traveling up to 50,000 miles a year some years, I am now at a point where close supportive friendships were not possible to maintain. I have missed much time with my 16 grandchildren and 5 grown children.

As I slow down at 71, I am faced with the fact that folks in my community are more acquaintances rather than deep friendships. An additional trade-off has been trying to make up for not tending to my home responsibilities over the years, doing so at this stage is a bit more challenging physically and trying to balance work, family and home.

7. If there were three things you could change about your work or the industry as a whole what would they be? Why would you change them? What would you change them to?

SEE ABOVE #3

8. How long do you plan to practice and what do you plan to do after?

Today is my 71st birthday! (Editorial: at the time the interview was conducted) I hope to do Focused therapy sessions in private practice for several more years or as long as I can. I also still plan to spend time at conferences and events, and teaching MT’s these techniques. Maybe I will retire completely at 75-80? Or never!

9. Do you currently have another job or business whether full time or part time? Tell us a bit more about it and how you are able to juggle that with your massage career?

I have transferred the majority of the Mother Earth Pillows management to my daughter, Nikki who was promoted to President in 2013. This has helped reduce pressure and day to day responsibilities. However, I remain active in the background on the Board of Directors and doing tasks that can be done as I work from home.

Teaching requires continuing research, re-writing of class material. I am involved in consulting for various accounts of the company, speaking at a wide-range of local, state, national and International events. I remain active in ASPMN, (American Society of Pain Management Nurses) as an educator and resource person.

10. What are some mistakes you made in your career pursuit that you’d like to warn other students about so they can learn from your experience and avoid it?

When you get to the point of having employees, find people you can trust and who have the skills you need and they say they have. Check references. There is never a problem in having to train employees, but if skill sets like a bookkeeper are not present… don’t try to train them unless it is your background or specialty. Be cautious hiring friends who may disappoint you.

At one time, I expanded too rapidly (too many purchases and expensive conferences), and used my credit cards too much. Hold those credit cards close to your belt… paying them off takes much more time. Review your end of year records carefully with your CPA. If mistakes have been made, you have the following year to correct. Don’t assume others are ‘taking care’ of everything fine. Ask for detailed reports and review every month.

Sometimes, life sweeps you away. It did for me as I delayed some important changes. Though I have many ‘bullets’ on my yearly Business Plan, there have been times life interrupts the flow and I lose sight of what is most important. Keep that Business Plan tacked up on the wall. I lost track of a vital new product line for a number of years. My attention went astray and the product development finally got done, but the lost revenue had an impact.

Learn how to market yourself or your business, or find someone who can help you. Attend classes, read articles, try a little before investing in a lot. Hire ‘by task’ (ask for a bid or agree on a price) rather than hiring someone who may not be a fit.

11. What would you advice someone who is looking at massage therapy schools? What do you recommend they look for and how? How do you recommend they determine whether the school is the right one for them?

Look at schools with a good reputation for graduating MT’s, ask for data showing number of students beginning the program and the final graduating numbers. Ask Massage Therapists in your community who have a successful practice what their opinions might be, if the have learned more about various programs in the area. Ask to see the admission requirements and ‘passing’ information.

Don’t’ look for simple pre-req classes or admission questions, look for schools that are picky about admitting students. You do NOT want to graduate from a school where requirements are minimal as you will get minimal education as the level of presentation is ‘dumbed down’ to a lower level of intelligence.

Make it a point to visit with several instructors. Ask about instructors education background requirements. Just because an instructor has graduated from and taught there for several years, does not mean they are a great instructor. Look at the school for their supplies, tools, resource library, school store, general environment, various methods of teaching in class.

12. What do you recommend for someone who wants to go to massage school but cannot afford it?

Really compare prices. The better option may be to save rather than simply go to a school that has loans to assist. There are many things including reading, research, Community College basic classes. Spread out your school to take longer and continue working at another job. I tagged a tax return to help me years ago. Explore the Mentoring option if available.

13. What are your three biggest points of advice for an aspiring massage therapist today? What should they do/not do? What should they think about and consider?

1. Quit smoking before even considering becoming a Massage Therapist (more on this below)

2. Choose a private school with a good reputation if possible

3. Join a professional organization as soon as you have decided this is the profession for you.

4. Attend BODYWORK and MASSAGE Classes from a wide variety of instructors.

5. Get as many massages from other MT’s as you can… and learn what they do that is good, and effective.. and notice all the issues that are problems so you do not do those.

6. DON’T PASS ON MYTHS that are still being taught in some schools and by some educators… it make MT’S look totally silly.

7. Don’t put cheesy photos on your Facebook that your clients will see, and if you are an IC, learn ho to dress professionally when you are at work.

(Editorial: Thanks for providing more than 3!)

More elaboration on the smoking aspect….

Though I have certainly known that smoking is not healthy, I had not quit because I wanted to be a massage therapist however I am so grateful that this happened. Quitting smoking is no easy task. It changes your life for the better but the side effects of getting through the quitting would have made it difficult to do while attending school or trying to start a massage practice.

It took a few months for me to learn new habits and deal with normal daily stress without my ‘habit’ to rely on. Nicotine may help you focus due to some of the chemicals. It would have been a challenge to read and learn new information without having gone through the ‘fuzzy’ months after quitting. But the payoff of quitting is worth it. I never have to worry about smoke smells on my clothing, hair or skin. Even if therapists ‘go outside to smoke’, the smell of cigarettes cling to everything. No lozenge can cover up the breathe of a smoker.

In all reality it would be better for all if massage schools would maintain a ‘Non-Smoking Campus’ as hospitals and some corporations do. This would encourage anyone really wanting to attend to become a therapist to go through quitting prior to attending and a better chance of success when they graduate, smoke-free. It makes a statement about health and wellness a therapist can be proud of and assures them of more clients at the get-go.

14. Any open thoughts / comments – anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, the massage industry, profession, future, etc? If nothing, make one prediction for the future of massage?

We desperately need to more clearly define levels of Massage Therapy for the benefit of our own profession and for the general public. Our profession / career is doomed if we do not. We must collaborate in a powerful manner to move all states to the same criteria for education and licensing requirements and make it possible to move more easily between state to state as MT’s. Nursing has done this and Massage should follow suit and learn from them.

15. What is your passion outside of massage? What are your hobbies and interests which you pursue when you are not working? Tell us why you enjoy what you enjoy.

Outdoor activities, gardening, down-sizing, music, writing, keeping in touch with friends and being with family. (5 children and 16 grandchildren) Travel and exploring the back-roads!

One of the accomplishments I am especially proud of is creating a line of products massage schools can use in their clinics which help student learn how to introduce and use products that remain within the scope of massage. These are able to be used client to client and are made of a synthetic material which can be wiped down.

In addition to being a therapeutic heated pillow to use in the session, they also help students feel more comfortable about adding retail items to their practice after they graduate and begin their own practice. Just in case this might help, I have been honored to be involved with a number of research projects.

I feel very strongly that Students should complete at least one Case Study during their education. I have heard there are schools who require this for several segments of Massage Education. I applaud these schools. My dream is that as time moves on, Massage Therapists are presenting Case Studies at conferences, at medical, hospice and health care professional conferences. In my case, the product research has always been accomplished by others so it is very objective. Several studies have been or are going to be published.

Used in / for…

  • Hospices as Compassionate comfort Care for patients enters this End-of-Life & Palliative Medicine Specialty
  • Cardio-Thoracic Units – Post-Op & Rehab … for Cough, Compression, Deep Breathing, and Pain Management
  • Reduces Insomnia & Sleep dysfuntions
  • Patient Rehabilitation in the hospital and at home.
  • Self-Care products for Chronic Pain
  • Pain Clinics
  • Oncology Department during Chemotherapy, for comfort & for break-through pain
  • Autistic, Asperger’s Spectrum & ADD children in Special Ed, Learning Disabilities Departments in school districts
  • Myofascial Therapy sessions with the Egyptian Conjoined Twins
  • Chronic pain, Fibromyalgia, arthritis, etc
  • Alzheimer’s Patients and by family Caregivers
  • Shriner’s Hospital post-op Halo-Traction to reduce Pain (without meds)
  • Post-Op Therapy after Plastic Surgery to reduce hematoma formation and edema
  • Sickle Cell Pain Research (NIH) in PA
  • Medical Heart – collaborated with Cardiothoracic Surgeons for use post-op & pain management post-discharge
  • Hospice Care – used for pain and comfort
  • Cancer Pain
  • Products and uses in Educational text book for Myotherapists , author Sharon Sauer
  • Product listed in Readers’ Digest published book of Natural Remedies
  • Preemie Unit to decrease potential for Sensory Dysfunction –Published Journal of Holistic Nursing
  • Non-Pharm control for chronic pain for seniors – Published in ASPMN Journal of Pain Management Nurses &
  • PubMed
  • Cancer Pain – Ongoing 3 yr research program at Wayne State U, MI. Second study will follow

I have also been honored to receive recognition over the years. I recommend students never shy away from reaching for the stars and becoming involved.

You can reach Karen Kowal on her website here or at her Facebook page here.

Neal Lyons is a founding member and volunteer contributor at the MTSI Institute, an information based portal dedicated to guiding and assisting aspiring massage therapists establish a successful career in massage. Neal is a published author and has collaborated on several mobile applications that serve the massage profession. You can view his published work on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Sony and Kobo. You can connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and on Google+

Posted in Interviews with Professionals

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