Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at

Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid at

I spent a few years volunteering for a local hospice organization, to do massage with their terminally ill patients. I know the patients benefited from the touch they received, but many of those sessions transformed my life as well. There is nothing like the presence you feel when you are touching someone who is acutely aware of their own mortal condition. Our good friend, Pamela Ferguson, who teaches palliative care workshops, has graciously shared some thoughts with us for this week’s blog:


Palliative Care Thoughts

Imagine a convention on Asian Medicine, with several hundred delegates listening to a panel of us introduce snippets of the workshops we would teach during the weekend. When I gave a thumbnail sketch of my workshop on palliative care, two thirds of the delegates rose and left the hall. I kid you not. “Wow,” I said, “This can’t be because I’m wearing the wrong deodorant, surely?”

The dozen or so who attended my workshop later were all accomplished Licensed Acupuncturists, and were also Asian Bodywork Therapists or Massage Therapists. Therein lies the key. Those of us with bodywork skills aren’t afraid to work with clients who are terminally ill. In fact it’s a gift. An honor. Especially to have a chance to work on a long term client through his or her final few months or weeks. The experience can be profound. I don’t buy into that very conventional and hardline theory held by some practitioners that view the death of a patient as a “failure”. Quite the contrary. As I tell my students, “there can be a healing on so many levels through a terminal illness – even as the physical body declines.”

Pain Control

On a practical level, pain control is essential. This can often mean stepping outside standard protocols and working patiently with the client to see which combination of acupoints or techniques ease both physical and emotional pain.  It’s helpful to focus on the client’s hands and feet, especially in a hospital or hospice setting. Having a skilled, compassionate, and mindful touch with a minimum of points is essential.


I often teach family members of clients some very simple acupressure work for those long hours when they sit beside a terminally ill loved one, feeling helpless or staring at some noisy game on TV. Sometimes a practitioner provides a calming center or focus in the room (home or hospital), when family members of the client fall apart – or – start heated arguments. I’ve seen all shades of behavior.  Qi work is paramount. Not only to keep the practitioner centered and focused, but to maintain a calming atmosphere around the client. It’s equally important to remind family members that the sense of hearing is the last to go, and never to assume that a loved one can’t hear, even while appearing unresponsive or in a coma.

pamPamela Ellen Ferguson is the co-author of Sand to Sky: Conversation with Teachers of Asian Medicine (and many other titles), and teaches workshops for Asian Bodywork Therapists and Massage Therapists. For more information on palliative care, read Pam’s article “Compassionate ABT for Palliative Care” in Acupuncture Today, where she is a regular columnist.


What experiences have you had with terminally ill clients? Share your own thoughts below…