Aging Population & People Living Longer: Western Medicine Doesn’t Always Have “The Cure” Says Debbie Dickerson

Debbie DickersonAbout Me:

I am in business as a sole proprietor. I graduated from the Blue Ridge School of Massage & Yoga in Blacksburg Virginia in 2011. After graduating I studied about a month for the National Certification Exam in order to receive license(s) in Delaware & Maryland. I live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware so felt it was important to have both state licenses. I have worked from my home since becoming licensed. In addition worked in a spa for about a year, and shared office space part time with an Acupuncturist. This year I am renting my own office space and will still see a few clients in my home. I consider my private practice still in “start- up” mode.

Massage is actually my “second” career. I am over 55 and had been a successful executive in radio marketing and advertising. After 22 years in my former occupation the economy began to spiral and my company downsized. I was divorced, had already survived putting my two children through college, owning a home and losing a parent to Cancer. I also have Lupus and stress was a constant reminder that it was time for a change! I knew how important massage and other alternative therapy were for my own stress relief. This was part of why I decided to immerse myself in learning a new occupation, being a licensed professional and attending a massage program.

I had already become certified in Reiki and that really fueled my desire to study massage and body work. With health care being such a hot topic, the aging of the Baby Boomers and more focus on alternative and complimentary therapies I feel hopeful that my “second career” will be a success and one I am proud of. I don’t suffer from the same type of stress these days, I can do with less “stuff” and “drama” plus I am more aware of my own body and well- being. I am careful about not overworking myself and provide the best massage I can to every client on my table.

New Student Concerns:

I would recommend to anyone who is considering Massage Therapy as a career to be mindful of the costs. School costs are the first level of consideration then there are other factors to consider. Do you want to be a part- time therapist? Do you want to work for someone else or be self-employed? Do you have resources to support yourself and family while you attend school and become established? My fellow classmates in school were much younger than me and worked in addition to school. It was difficult to balance at times for them. I was very lucky that I had savings and was able to dedicate the year to just school and massage practice on family, friends and classmates.

Massage training encompasses much more than learning the massage strokes. I had to learn about anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, pathology, business and ethics. Learning/ practicing different massage modalities in addition to contradictions to massage all part of my training. Included in my traditional massage training I also studied Oriental modalities like Reflexology, Shiatsu, Thai Yoga massage and Reiki. My school trained in a medical curriculum which included charting, medical terms, disease and more. I graduated from a 600 hour program and was required to pass practical exams, written exams and provide massage in the student clinic.

After graduation my training in school prepared me for taking the National Certification Board of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork (NCBTMB) exam. One of the exams accepted for licensing in Maryland & Delaware. There are different exams accepted, different requirements for licensing and different levels of licensing in each state. Be sure to research everything required for license in your state of practice, including requirements for Continuing Education, CPR certification, liability insurance and if applicable a Jurisprudence exam. If you plan to move for work check on reciprocity between states or what additional exams or schooling may be necessary.

Typical Day in My Private Practice:

There is no typical day in private practice! The business of massage is similar to my former career in that you must seek out opportunities- keep irons in the fire. Promote the benefits of the product, keep records of everything, and develop a routine so that you always have some marketing time (when not performing a massage). Shore up client relations, follow up calls and be as flexible as possible. Allow time for self- care, business bookkeeping, joining professional groups and continued education. I try to book clients a week in advance if possible so my schedule fills in weekly. But most often when people decide they need a massage they are ready to book now! I allow for 3-4 hour long massages in a day and space them in 2 hour time periods. This gives me down time and self- care time in between. There are linens to change, forms to prepare etc. for the next appointment as well.

I like being my own boss. Albeit with that freedom comes the responsibility-for everything. I provide customized sessions based on my intake information and goal of the client. The client may want relaxation or to address pain or to balance chi (energy). No two people react to pain or stress in the same way. There are no cookie cutter routines- I develop each session based on what I feel, see and hear from the client. This is so different than what a “spa massage” is like for most. Massage to me is as much art as science and this keeps me interested in the work and learning more. I tend to have a majority of clients who need deep tissue release and I may be one of a few therapists in the area who utilize lots of Myofascial Release techniques. Because of my Oriental Studies I provide Shiatsu, Reiki and other bodywork which makes me stand out also.

Past Massage Therapy Job(s):

When I became licensed I decided to find a spa position to supplement my beginning private practice. This is often not a possibility with spa owners- they don’t want an employee to steal their clients away. I was lucky I worked in a Delaware spa but lived in Maryland and saw clients in my home. Because they were in different states it was far enough away that the spa owner hired me. I have to say for me, working in a spa was a true lesson in what I didn’t want to do with my new career. Most spa jobs require you to be in during certain hours, on certain days and always on weekends. They pay commission (hopefully at least 50%) on each massage. The client books a certain type of massage session (dictated by the spa menu).

I can’t tell you how many deep tissue massages I did in a row one day, then had none the following day and when not doing massage I was cleaning, folding laundry and helping around the spa-at no pay. I worked every Saturday and was on call Sunday. I was an employee so was not able to set my own hours but the spa did do all the federal and state taxes and gave me a pay check every two weeks. The commission was not bad but the hours were. I gave it a year and decided I could make more in my own practice if I put more time into developing my own clients.

I became friends with an Acupuncturist who had treated me for trigger thumb during the time I worked at the spa. When I left the spa we decided it would be a good idea for both practices to share his treatment rooms. He was also a sole proprietor as well and did all his own scheduling, treatments and billing etc. The arrangement was that I would get my own clients and he his-but share the treatment room(s) which became a problem because he only had two treatment rooms and they were always filled with his clients and mine had to be “worked” in around his schedule! Time was an issue because he booked every half hour and I had hour long sessions. Then, his clients began wanting a massage in addition to or instead of acupuncture for a given day. He was not happy sharing rooms or clients so the relationship ended not so happily.

Lessons Learned:

The number one lesson I have learned is that I don’t want to work for someone else. I also have learned that in order to share space with another professional make sure you really know the other person’s habits professionally and personally. Make sure you have everything in writing or in a contract. Don’t depend on it just working out because you are willing to “go with the flow” until you build a clientele. Planning a successful career or business is all about the execution of the plan.

Business plans can be revised (and should be each year) but execution of your plan takes commitment and a desire to succeed. During all the previous trials and errors I was lucky to have the support financially of my husband and family. Moving forward I have revised my business plan, found an affordable office of my own and have taken out a business loan to fund my new venture. I am able to rely on family to help with web building, social media etc. to advertise and promote the location and services. As I stated earlier I consider my practice still a “start- up”.

Advice for Massage School Selection:

Before making the financial investment in a massage school I would visit each of them. Just like selecting a college it is not only the financial investment it is a vibe or feeling you get when “seeing yourself” there. Make notes on how many students are in the classes, how long the teachers have been teaching, what is the rate of passing the national exam or the exam required for licensing in your state. Know how many hours/courses of study are required to be licensed in your state. Does the school offer on-line and most importantly hands on teaching. What is the rate of graduation from the school? Some schools (mine did) have an open house before new classes begin so you can ask questions, speak to other students and get more information.

In my own experience I was at a crossroads in my personal life and wanted to find a school that supported my need for training. What I found was not only a great education but also a school that nurtured and supported each individual student on his or her personal journey into the profession. Many become massage therapists because of a personal connection with healing, be it mind, body or both. I love what I do even if it is hard to manage sometimes. I get as much out of giving massage as the client on the table gets from receiving one. Intention is a key to delivering a truly exceptional massage. The power of touch is very healing. Knowing I can help others with their own process is so rewarding to me.

As I have said I am lucky to have had the financial means to go to school out of state and have family to stay with during the school week. My situation is probably not typical. Most young adults must work while going to school and some may have to find financial aid.  Many massage schools are approved under the GI Bill, some offer grants or other types of financial assistance. My school offered a down payment and a monthly payment plan. Look for financial aid from programs that support technical education. Make sure your school is accredited by the state-this is important when seeking your license.

The Future of Massage:

As with many professions there have been and will be changes. It is important to keep up with the changes in law, modalities, research and the business of massage. The population is getting older, people are living longer and western medicine doesn’t always have “the cure”. Massage has been around for centuries because it not only feels good it improves the outcome of many types of pain and disease. More people will be looking to the past to find ways that improve their future health and well- being.  Massage Therapists need to be well trained, ready to step to the front lines in helping people manage the aches and pains that come with aging in the modern world.

Personal Interests:

When not working or doing marketing for my practice I enjoy spending time with my family. I am a first time “Grammy” so like to keep up on my new grandson’s achievements like walking, new teeth, first haircut and all that silly Grammy stuff. I also enjoy planting things in the yard-well actually letting my husband plant things that I take care of! I have two beautiful dogs- a Papillion and a Golden Retriever. They like to follow me around all day. We live in a resort area so boating, fishing and sunsets are always enjoyed here too.

Debbie Dickerson, LMT-Delaware RMP-Maryland is Nationally Certified – NCBTMB and can be reached on her website at You can also connect with her on Facebook 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+

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