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Helping hands bring touching therapy to terminally ill

Rachel Aldrette, 85, is gently touched in her home in West Sacramento by Monica Martinez-Pleinis, a touch therapist with Healing Hands, Healing Hearts, a nonprofit organization that brings touch therapy to those with critical or terminal illnesses.
Rachel Aldrette, 85, is gently touched in her home in West Sacramento by Monica Martinez-Pleinis, a touch therapist with Healing Hands, Healing Hearts, a nonprofit organization that brings touch therapy to those with critical or terminal illnesses. lsterling@sacbee.com

Donald Sanderson fought in two wars, raised five kids, fixed diesel engines, owned a feed store and ran a cattle ranch. He was about as robust and hardworking as they come.

But age, dementia and Parkinson’s disease gradually conspired to shrink his world, and for the past two years Sanderson, 87, has spent his life entirely in bed.

His daughter Pam Aldrette cares for her father in the living room of her West Sacramento home. But Aldrette says it’s someone else whose presence most often brings a smile to the veteran’s face.

That would be Monica Martinez-Pleinis, who visits Sanderson every Friday and uses touch therapy to help his body and mind relax. The technique involves using light, rhythmic massage to stimulate circulation and help the lymphatic system do its job.

Martinez-Pleinis is a volunteer for Healing Hands, Healing Hearts, a nonprofit organization that brings touch therapy to those with critical or terminal illnesses. In addition to treating patients, the group trains other massage therapists in the technique.

“Touch has always been a powerful healing tool, but today when someone is terminally ill, our Western culture just wants to turn them over to the medical world and leave it at that,” said David Dowdy, the organization’s president. “Our therapy helps them relax and feel whole, not just like a dying person others are afraid to touch.”

The power of the therapy was evident one recent Friday when Martinez-Pleinis paid Sanderson a visit. Staring at a wall hung with his military medals and a portrait of his late wife, Geraldine, Sanderson looked lost, his hands clenching the tan blanket covering his frail body.

Martinez-Pleinis approached the bed, placed one hand on her patient’s head and another on his upper chest and leaned in to catch his gaze. As Sanderson’s bright blue eyes found her face, a smile unfolded, softening his square jaw.

For the next 20 minutes the therapist moved her hands across Sanderson’s body in an undulating motion, murmuring loving words as she went. The silver-haired veteran visibly relaxed beneath her touch, and even dozed off for a while – a common and welcome response.

“It’s really a privilege to work with Donald,” Martinez-Pleinis said. “When he smiles at me and calls me his ‘beautiful angel,’ I know how meaningful this touch is to him.”

Aldrette validated that perception, saying the therapist’s visits bring peace to her father, who served as a military policeman in World War II and Korea.

“If he’s had a rough morning, his whole attitude changes when she gets here,” Aldrette said. “It softens him and allows him to relax. We wish she could come every day.”

Healing Hands, Healing Hearts has asked Book of Dreams readers for equipment to expand therapist training and help more patients experience relief. Donations would cover the purchase of massage tables and chairs, stools, textbooks, two laptop computers and a projector.

“The importance of human touch has been pushed aside for too long, and it’s time to bring it back into our world of care,” Dowdy said. “These donations would help us increase our reach significantly … It sounds crazy, but I want to spread Healing Hands, Healing Hearts to every state before I die.”

Needed: Equipment to help terminally ill patients

Cost: $4,985

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