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Back Dance

Massage therapist MeeO Ward offers people living with HIV and AIDS a new way to feel good.

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The clinic on Thompson Street, one of 42 free health clinics in Virginia, offers an array of health-related services to those who need them.

It also provides help, counseling and resources to 1,198 clients in the Richmond area who have tested positive for HIV or AIDS. The number is significant. Last year, the clinic's services and programs for HIV/AIDS clients were used 18,000 times.

This will grow in years to come. Since AIDS was first identified more than two decades ago, 65 million people around the world have tested positive for the virus; 25 million have died. And although the number of those infected with HIV in the United States is less than one percent, health experts say that as treatments continue to improve and delay symptoms of the disease, the number of people living with HIV or AIDS will surely rise.

That's why education about HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it is ever vital to public health, says Shawn McNulty, the clinic's prevention specialist. Without it, the risks of contracting the virus could escalate. "This is a disease that has touched, is touching or will touch every life in Richmond," McNulty says. "It's not limited to people of any particular group. It goes wherever it can."

When it does, it takes its toll on people like Zack, who has braved the sleet and snow to come to the clinic for a support group meeting. (The client asked that his real name be withheld.) The clinic is unusually quiet. Few people mill about. Because of the inclement weather, even the comfortable waiting room, which is primed with computers and aromatic candles, is empty, except for Ward.

Ward spies Zack and alights from her chair as if she expected that, at the very least, he would come. On a typical Wednesday, Ward gives anywhere from six to 10 massages. No appointments are necessary — it's first-come, first-served.

She takes Zack halfway down the hallway and into a small room that is painted sage green. In it, there is a table, a lamp, a radio — and a chair that looks like a hybrid weight bench or futuristic La-Z-Boy.

It's the massage chair that makes the difference, Ward says. It makes clients feel comfortable. The clinic tried to offer massages in the past. But clients had to get up on a table that was awkward. And disrobing partially may have made them feel vulnerable, Ward says. Plus, the process of moving from one client to the next took a long time to complete.

Ward has simplified things. Once a person is in the chair, she delivers 15 minutes of what appears to be hassle-free, hands-on heaven.

"She does excellent work," Zack says after his massage.

Zack is three times the size of Ward, who is tiny. They laugh about this and how others respond to Ward.

"Some people think: Here's this really small Asian woman getting ready to pounce them," Ward says. "And then some are amused at how I use my massage power to quiet them."

At times, the interaction with her clients is difficult and emotional. It gets personal, too.

"I have come home and cried," she says. AIDS clients have come to her for a massage and confessed they haven't been touched by anyone in months. She is sympathetic to this because she says massage can produce "almost a trancelike state. It's very personal," cautioning: "But I'm not a therapist."

Ward hopes to inspire other massage therapists to volunteer their time, too, so free massages can be offered every week. Eventually, she'd like to grow her volunteer effort to include other groups.

It's almost 6 p.m. This day has been slow — just one client. Ward says she'll soon pack up and go home.

Just then, a volunteer peers around the doorway to ask if she can get a massage — since there's no wait. Ward agrees. The woman sits, leans forward and places her head face-first in a doughnut-shaped cushion.

"How's that feel? Are you able to sink into the chair?" Ward asks the volunteer.

"Uh, huh," the woman replies.

In moments, Ward's fingers and elbows begin their dance, tapping invisible circles onto a stranger's back as if it were a puppet stage.

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