A successful RMT practice North of 60

Although Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, has only about 20,000 people, there are 15 or more massage therapists in town, and they are all busy.

Vicars graduate Shirley Harrison was one of them until the pandemic nudged her into early retirement. As in larger centres, Yellowknife RMTs work in clinics, spas or in their own homes, with the same business standards and customer service approaches. But living in a smaller Northern community means there are some unique differences.

“Everybody knows everybody,” says Shirley. “People are comfortable going into somebody’s home because office space is very expensive. I suspect that in Calgary or Edmonton, I might not want to go to somebody’s basement, but it’s normal here.”

Shirley addressed a wide range of needs in her practice, from sports injuries to pre- and post-pregnancy care, to general stress relief. “In Yellowknife a lot of people work for the Northwest Territories government and have very good extended health care benefits packages that include massage,” says Shirley.

“Many clients came to me because they wanted to use their benefits. Once they felt comfortable and safe then they wanted to see me on a monthly schedule.

The thing I’ll say about Yellowknife is that if you are pretty good at your job, and you’re consistent, you’ll have more business than you ever could imagine. I never advertised, and I was always as booked up as I wanted to be—with lovely people.

“If people are worried about the cost of the massage training program, you can recoup that very quickly,” she says

Shirley wrapped up her massage therapy career in Yellowknife sooner than she expected at the onset of Covid. Three years on, she still misses it.

“My clients were just the best in the world,” Shirley says. “There was not one person that I didn’t look forward to seeing when they came through the door.”

Like several Vicars alumni featured in this blog, Shirley trained at the Edmonton campus as a mature student. “That was a very scary thing, going back to school in my mid-forties,” Shirley says. “Not only because I was older but because I had never done anything science-based before.”

Vicars School turned out to be perfect for her. She loved the one four-day weekend per month schedule, as she still had a teenager at home. “I would fly down to Edmonton for that one weekend,” says Shirley. “When I returned home, I studied constantly because I was terrified of failing,” says Shirley. “The teachers really understood everything about being an adult student so the whole experience for me was wonderful.”

After graduation she worked for a year at a Yellowknife spa, which gave her some extra on-the-job and time management experience. By then, the last of Shirley’s three children had left home. She wanted to set up her own business, so she and her husband renovated their basement into a massage studio with a separate entrance from their home. Sometimes clients would run into each other coming or going, but no one really minded, says Shirley. It’s all part of living in a small Northern town.

More often than not, clients came in generations. “I would have the mum or dad as a client and then a grandparent would come, and then the son or daughter because they are in soccer,” says Shirley. “It was really fun to get to know families like that.”

As with other RMTs who run their own businesses, Shirley loved the flexibility of her schedule, and the work-life balance. “I started going to the gym in the evenings after my workday,” she says. “I became very fit and strong, which you have to be to do massage—and then doing massage helps you to stay fit and strong.”

One aspect of her practice caught her off-guard: her response to people’s pain. “I think many massage therapists are very sensitive people and we pick up on peoples’ energies,” Shirley says. “I know it was mentioned at school but for me to experience it was a huge surprise.”

“One time I experienced sudden neck pain, and it turned out the client had broken his neck in the past and neglected to put it on his intake form,” she says. “Or I would get headaches or become nauseated, mirroring what they felt,” she says.

Shirley had to learn to ground herself to manage her responses. Part of that involved developing a little ritual before a client arrived: “It really helped create a space between me and them.”

Shirley lives just outside Yellowknife, in the wilderness, which means she can be alone, as she says, a little bit too much. “The wonderful thing about running my business from home is that I would have to be physically and mentally prepared for clients,” she says. “I would have three or four clients a day and I would have to get out of my own head and think about them.” She loved the rhythm of seeing and caring for her clients, a gap that she’s still looking to replace.

Shirley has a couple of tips for RMTs who are thinking of working in a small community.

The first is the importance of the professional barrier between RMTs and clients, something all massage therapy students learn at Vicars, but that has special resonance in a small town. “There’s a fine line between being compassionate and getting a little bit too comfortable and too personal with your clients,” she says. “You have to keep clients at arm’s-length. You can’t become their friend.”

The second is advice she got from Janine Borger, one of her instructors, that she found particularly helpful. “I really encourage people starting out to go with their own strengths, their own personality and remember that whatever you offer and whatever your approach, people who are looking for that will find you,” Shirley says. “Go with who you really are. Don’t think you have to be somebody else because you don’t. Just be a very good version of yourself and people who want that will show up.

“I loved being a massage therapist and I’m so thankful for Vicars because it was very doable, and it really did change my life. It gave me a profession that I was proud of,” Shirley says. “When people would ask me what I did and I would say I’m a registered massage therapist, they would get that look on their face, that everybody-loves-a-massage-therapist look!”

Kathleen Thurber
Author: Kathleen Thurber

Kathleen Thurber is an Edmonton-based health and science writer.