Masthead Image

Physiotherapist, friend, unexpected mentor

The following appeared in the May 26 issue of the Times Herald-Record.

I am sitting in the fire hall of Milford Square, Pa., at the beginning of a three-day Orthomassage workshop, and I’m thinking about Jim Mathews.

It’s not surprising. Milford Square is a few miles away from my alma mater, Lehigh University, where Mathews had served as a physiotherapist from 1947-78. And just this week I had read Mathews’ obituary in the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin.

What is surprising is that I’m even taking a class in Orthomassage — or, indeed, that for the last six years I’ve been a nationally certified masage therapist with a part-time practice. For a newspaper copy editor with a B.A. in journalism/English/drama, it’s an unexpected career path that had its start at Lehigh, with Mathews as the initial inspiration.

For, in Mathews’ last four years at Lehigh, among the hundreds of students and faculty members that the physiotherapist treated each week, I was a fixture in the University Health Center treatment room, an hour a day, six days a week. Ultrasound, whirlpool, massage, strengthening and stretching exercises — all were employed to ease my leg and back pain in my efforts to run track and cross country.

From my earliest, gloomiest days at Lehigh, when carry-over injuries from high school caused me to miss the first two months of the 1974 cross-country season, to the high point of my South Mountain career, a 30.58.9 fourth-place 10K East Coast Conference track performance in 1978, Mathews was a mainstay of my life at Lehigh. His mock gruffness, the way he yelled “Owwww” so his client wouldn’t have to, his favorite turns of phrase such as calling someone “old shoe” — all created a convivial atmosphere for healing and friendship. In fact, when an ill-advised 20-mile run back from the senior class picnic left me in mighty pain, Mathews did me a mighty favor by giving me one last treatment the morning of my graduation that hot Sunday in May 1978.

Though such nurturing sessions had come to a close, my need to bolster and understand my personal health had only begun. Toward that end I have been treated and mentored by many health-care practitioners. Dr. Phil Maffetone, a Putnam County chiropractor, identified via applied kinesiology and nutritional testing that my adrenal glands needed strengthening via supplements and the avoidance of refined sugar. During my years of writing Broadway and film reviews, the late bodyworker John Albano foresaw my years-later conversion to his way of thinking when he said he’d rather be massaging people than directing them in his former life in the theater.

Continuing to keep my energy level stable by helping me to hone my diet, Dr. LuviaJane Swanson, formerly of Cuddebackville, advised me to stay away from gluten and yeast; she also encouraged me to attend massage school and, later, Upledger Institute CranioSacral Therapy workshops — workshops she now teaches as she and her husband, Bruce Swanson, gave up their individual chiropractic practices to move to Puerto Rico, where Bruce is a scuba instructor. And osteopathic physician Dr. John Upledger and his CranioSacral staff, as well as James Waslaski, the instructor and founder of the aforementioned Orthomassage Workshop. All have guided me along a professional path I never would have predicted that first day in Jim Mathews’ office in 1974.

But Mathews was the first, and for that I’ll forever be grateful, even as our friendship gave way over time and distance from visits to Mathews’ North Carolina retirement residence in 1979, 1980 and 1982 to occasional letters to yearly Christmas cards. The last one I sent, in December 2003, was returned marked “address unknown,” leading me to suspect what Mathews’ obituary in the Spring 2004 Alumni Bulletin confirmed — that Mathews had died at age 91 in 2003.

Rest in peace, old shoe. And thanks.