Hands-On Approach

A spa owner in Massachusetts uses therapeutic massage to help a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Photos Courtesy Mary Schwalm

Three years ago, four-year-old Keelan Pothier was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), one of nine types in this genetic and degenerative disease group. According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, DMD primarily affects boys, and onset usually occurs between the ages of two and six. Because the disease compromises the ability of muscle cells to remain intact, most afflicted children become confined to a wheelchair by age 12 and face a drastically shortened life expectancy.

When Deb Canejo, licensed massage therapist, naturopath and owner of Elite Body Spa & Laser Center and Salon Nikol in South Lawrence, Massachusetts, learned of young Keelan’s condition, she felt an immediate desire to help. Canejo’s spa specializes in therapeutic and orthopedic massage, so the conscientious owner/therapist set to researching DMD and, with approval from doctors, implemented a once-a-week therapy plan to help relax and stretch Keelan’s muscles—free of charge. She went on to promote her salon’s one-year anniversary celebration as a fundraiser for Keelan’s family.

Canejo’s efforts on the Pothiers’ behalf demonstrates that it doesn’t take a massive business—or a massive budget—to make a big difference in people’s lives. It does, however, require a caring heart and a willingness to act. We spoke with Canejo about the logistics surrounding her efforts and how her one small idea became an infinite inspiration. —Liz Barrett

DAYSPA: How did you come to learn about Keelan Pothier?
Deb Canejo:
I met Keelan’s mother, Kathy Pothier, through one of our hairstylists, who thought I might be able to help Kathy with her problem knee. She’d had surgery a year earlier and was heartbroken that she couldn’t participate in a triathlon to raise money for her son. I set up an appointment to see if I could help increase Kathy’s range of motion. Within six to eight sessions she was running three miles on the treadmill with no pain.

During our sessions Kathy would talk about her son and his daily challenges with DMD. I asked a lot of questions; I was driven to know as much as I could about this little boy’s muscle condition. I researched it for almost two months, until I felt comfortable enough in my knowledge to ask Kathy if I could try to do something to help Keelan. The family checked with his doctor—who said yes—and I began to donate my time to see if I could make a difference in Keelan’s life. Now he comes into the spa once a week for therapy and Kathy works with him at home. We change up what she does depending on how Keelan’s muscles respond during each session.

How can massage help in relieving symptoms of muscular dystrophy?
Massage techniques are unique to each client. I use many different types of massage therapy techniques that I combine depending on the individual client’s needs or health conditions: muscle stripping, lymphatic, myofascial release, neuromuscular release, cross-fiber friction, orthopedic muscular modalities and medical massage techniques, to name a few. Keelan has a form of MD in which his muscles, when torn, cannot repair themselves. The goal of my therapy is to remove any toxins that build up in the muscle while stretching them to keep them as pliable [and therefore, less apt to tear] as possible—to keep him out of a wheelchair for as long as possible.

Do you find it frustrating, or even heartbreaking, to work with a client whom you can’t actually cure?
If my therapy can help to give Keelan even one extra year to walk, it’s worth it! I donate my time as a therapist to make a difference in people’s lives. Helping someone improve the quality of their life, even for a short period of time, is a reward in itself.

Let’s talk about the salon side of your business, and your one-year anniversary event. What inspired you to donate proceeds to Keelan’s family?
The inspiration was Kathy. No matter how tired she may be, she always finds time to work with Keelan so she can give him the best quality of life possible—while continuing to be attentive to her daughter and not play favorites. I am honored to have met such an incredible person.

How did you ensure the success of the event?
We promoted it through word-of-mouth, Facebook, email blasts to our clients, invitations to contacts and businesses in the local area, and through the media. There was also an article written in the local newspaper as well as a video posted on YouTube. On the day of the event, the salon sold various items—body lotions, hair products, gift certificates, makeup, etc.—but we also invited vendors to sell things like jewelry, clothing, accessories, health products, baked goods and nutritional drinks. Our salon and all of the vendors donated a percentage of our profits to help Keelan. In addition, we conducted a raffle. Every vendor donated an item, we donated multiple gift certificates and even local businesses (Edible Arrangements, Salvatore’s Restaurant and Andover Liquors) also donated raffle prizes.

How did you get your staff involved?
Our dedicated team at Elite is always ready and willing to participate in any event we sponsor, working together as one unit no matter the job. I have a group of passionate and caring, career-driven individuals who make these events not only successful, but a pleasure to host. I should mention, though, that many of our friends and clients volunteered their time for Keelan’s event; my mother, who’d had back surgery two weeks before the event, still prepared and cooked all the food that was served that evening.

Would you consider the event a success for your business?
Our business received great exposure, but that being said, we would do it all over again without any spotlight because the goal of the event was helping a family in need. And we raised a generous donation for Keelan.

Do you plan to hold future fundraising events?
Our team is always donating to charities or public auctions to help raise money in our community. We plan to choose a different child each year and host an event to make a difference in that child’s life, no matter how big or small that difference may be.

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