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Charleston massage therapist finds renewed sense of purpose a long way from home

Helen Adams | | December 1, 2016

Cathy Meryanos
Photo by Sarah Pack
Cathy Meryanos has given hundreds of massages in Ghana, including several to a woman who at one point could barely move her arm because it had been taped across her chest while a broken bone healed.

Charleston massage therapist Cathy Meryanos has gone out of what used to be her comfort zone, and she loves it. “It’s made me appreciate what I do again,” she said.

She’s given a speech at a conference, won a writing contest, has a journal article being published this month and, most importantly to her, made a friend more than 5,200 miles away in West Africa.

It all started two years ago when her daughter told her a team from the Medical University of South Carolina was traveling to Ghana to do volunteer work with the nonprofit group Project Okurase. The organization is named after the village it’s based in and was co-founded by MUSC professor Cynthia Swenson, Ph.D. It works with people in the village to improve everything from water quality and sanitation to health care.

Map showing Charleston to Ghana 
Okurase is in Ghana on the western side of Africa. It's a village of about 3,000 people.  

Meryanos decided to go along with the MUSC team and offer free massages. That decision changed her life. “If it hadn’t been for MUSC, it would never have happened,” she said. “I’d never have met this amazing woman.”

The woman she met and would later write about was in pain in more ways than one when Meryanos first saw her. A serious injury left the woman basically unable to use her right hand. In a culture that sees using the right hand as polite and the left hand as rude, that was a source of shame.

Meryanos asked what had happened. The woman told her through a translator that she’d been “head panning,” carrying goods in a pan on top of her head to sell at a market, when she was hit by a van. “When she fell, she braced herself with her right arm and broke the humerus,” Meryanos said.

The woman’s elbow was swollen and her shoulder and wrist hurt. Meryanos asked about the woman’s X-ray. A translator told her there hadn’t been one.

“I said, ‘She went to the doctor, right?’ He said, ‘No. She went to the bonesetter in the village.’”

What Meryanos heard next stunned her. “The bonesetter took her right arm and put it over her chest. He took her fingers and put them on her left shoulder and taped her arm in place. For three months.”

Meryanos gives a massagePhoto provided 
Cathy Meryanos says some of her patients in Ghana had what they call waist pain in the lower back. She thinks it's connected to head panning, the practice of carrying things on the head in large pans. 

The bone did heal, but that healing came at a steep price. The woman was left with an arm she could barely move. “She had very limited range, because there are no rehabilitative services,” Meryanos said. “I worked on her twice a day. She and I worked out a form of communication between us using simple words.”

On the fourth day, the woman said she had a surprise for Meryanos. “I smiled, and said to her, ‘What’s the surprise?’ She brought her right hand to her mouth. She gained about 65 degrees of range of motion in her arm. She could close her hand completely.”

Meryanos teared up at the memory. “The last day I worked on her, she came fully dressed in her Sunday best. I was working on her, and out of habit I started talking with her like I do with my clients back home in Charleston.

“I said, ‘What are you doing today?’ She said, ‘I’m going home, and I’m going to read my Bible and pray.’ And I went, ‘Wait a minute. You speak English?’ She told me, ‘I want to teach you how to read my language.’ It was her way of giving something back. I came back to the United States, thinking people need to hear this woman’s story.” The patient agreed to let Meryanos talk about her experience.

So the massage therapist, who had never before written an article, wrote a case report about her patient’s remarkable recovery. It won the Gold Award for 2015 Practitioner Case Report from the Massage Therapy Foundation and is being published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork.

But her story doesn’t end there. Meryanos returned to Ghana, saw the woman again and got another surprise. “She’s lost 30 pounds. She’s out and about, she’s mobile. Being socially accepted again made a difference in her state of mind.”

Meryanos said the experience reminded her of how transformative massage therapy can be. “It made me see things from a different perspective. More importantly, it changed her life.”

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