Camp Hope

By: Clare La Plante

Youngest burn survivors help prove that massage heals

As Nancy Keeney Smith can tell you, life can change in a split second.


On November 18, 1986, a typically cool and sunny late-autumn day in Gainesville, Florida, Smith, then 29, was riding her bike to work. Life was good-Smith was recently married, and had a job she liked as a disk jockey at a local radio station.

Without warning, a school bus driving on the shared road made an illegal turn into the bike lane, knocking Smith over, and dragged her some 60 feet down the paved road. The bus demolished her bike, and the friction from the road tore the skin from her left leg in a severe case of burn-like "road rash."

With her husband of one-and-a-half years by her side, Smith spent the next six weeks in the burn unit of Shands Hospital at the University of Florida where she began the first of more than 30 surgeries, mostly skin grafts. She also underwent physical therapy and debridement-an immensely painful procedure where the non-living skin is surgically and chemically removed so that the skin underneath might have a chance to live.

Once home, Smith's life returned to quasi-normal-she was able to stop the narcotic pain medication, she finished the physical therapy for range of motion, and she returned to work, although this time in marketing, which was less stressful than disk jockeying.


Normalcy returned with a vengeance with the birth of her children-a son in 1990 and a daughter in 1992. However, by this time, the grafted skin on her left leg had caused chronic lymphedema-swelling from accumulated lymphatic fluid. The doctors' only recommendation was bulky compression garments and several hours of bed rest a day, a tall order for a working mother of two young children.

In frustration, Smith turned to a friend, a personal trainer who was also a student at the Florida School of Massage, for exercise suggestions. The friend, who had just taken a class in sports flushing (a drainage technique), had a better idea. She asked Smith if she would be a case study for her.

Smith hesitated at first. "With traumatic scarring, you're very conscious of anyone outside your personal sphere seeing your injury," says Smith. With doctors offering no other feasible alternative, she gave it a try.

After 20 minutes of massage, "the edema was flushed out for 24 hours and the color changed from red-purple to almost natural skin tone, a tone that I hadn't seen in years," Smith says. She's had no surgery since, and was able to stop her daily dose of 2500 mg of ibuprofen.


"What If ?"

Over the next few years, she continued receiving massage. On September 11, 2001, when the planes hit the Twin Towers, she had an epiphany. "I realized how quickly your life can change, especially with [my accident]. I needed to do something more valuable in my life. Exactly a year later I started massage school."

She graduated from the Florida School of Massage in 2003, with a vague notion of helping other survivors. A year-and-a-half post-graduation, while working part-time at the school as she built her practice, fate took a hand. Another burn survivor, a woman named Rose Dean, 45, a nurse from Gainesville, who had been scalded over 55 percent of her body as a 19-month-old when a vaporizer's hot content fell on her, came to the school's front desk while Smith was working and asked for massage therapy for her scars.

With permission from the school, Smith began an independent study project with Dean. For six weeks, in 15-minute sessions, she massaged contractures on Dean's arm. Dean, who for more than 40 years had not been able to flatten her right hand on a surface, was now able to.

More importantly, the relationship between the two women blossomed into a game of "What if," hypotheses of what life would look like if massage were a part of a burn survivor's care. "Massage is not incorporated in any [burn] aftercare," Smith says. Doctors typically do not recommend or prescribe it. "As Nancy was massaging me, it came to me-what if I had had massage on a regular basis during my formative years? Would I have needed surgery when I was seven?" says Dean. (Dean had follow-up surgery when she was seven, and nearly died from an operating room infection). She firmly believed not.

Joyce Welch, an administrator at the Shands burn unit, had been trying to recruit Smith to volunteer as a counselor at Camp Amigo, a burn camp for children, sponsored by southeast Florida firefighters. Each year the camp hosts approximately 40 children, ranging from 6 to 18 years old. The camp assigns a counselor to each child-usually a firefighter or adult burn survivor.