As a massage therapist, you probably get the occasional request for impromptu shoulder massages at family events.

For sisters Karen Gray, Susan Blease, and Joyce Nordell, this kind of request is likely to be reciprocated—because all three became licensed massage therapists.

“We know it’s unusual to people that all three of us wanted to do this,” Gray told MASSAGE Magazine, adding that she and Blease are both coming up on their 20th year in the massage business. “And we still love it!”

A Natural Fit

The sisters’ interest in complementary and alternative health care started early in life.

“Our family never turned to pharmaceuticals to solve anything with sickness,” said Gray. “Our grandparents were from Czechoslovakia, and they truly believed in home remedies.

“That had to be the seed for all three of us to want to go this way,” she added. “How can we help people in pain, chronic or temporary, find relief a natural way?”

The Path to Becoming Massage Therapists

Blease says she became a massage therapist after working in the airline industry for 17 years. Her inspiration? Her own massage therapist.

“I needed a change,” she said. “And my massage therapist, who I went to every month because I stood on my feet all day, she … [said], ‘You know what? You would be a wonderful massage therapist. I really think that you should try it.’ And so I’m thinking, OK. I’ll give it a go. And I’m glad I did.”

Gray became a massage therapist after working as a certified personal trainer for 12 years. During that time, she often suggested to her clients that they get massages. Her husband’s job required relocating every few years, and when his work called for them to move back to her hometown of Omaha, she decided to attend the Midwest School of Massage.

That’s when she found out Blease planned to attend the New York Institute of Massage in Buffalo.

“Susan and I actually went to school in different states, her in New York, me in Omaha, Nebraska, at the exact same time,” Gray said. Each enrolled independently, not knowing the other had also signed up, until they chatted on the phone about their new career plans.

They enjoyed their careers as massage therapists so much that they inspired their other sister, Nordell, who had worked in child care for 23 years, to pursue the same path and become a massage therapist herself.

Nordell turned to her sisters for encouragement when she was contemplating her career change. “Do you think I should?” she recalls asking them. “At 48, do you think this is something I can get into and actually succeed in?

She decided to attend the Midwest School of Massage in Omaha, as Gray had.

Support System

Gray and Blease naturally became mentors for their sister, often stepping in to help and encourage Nordell as she went through massage therapy education. “We’d been practicing 13 years when Joyce went to school. Which was great, because we could help her a lot when it came to questions she had,” said Gray. “It’d be nice for all new massage therapists to have some mentoring because it can be a tough field.

“The support has been great between the three of us,” she added. “Even down to what classes for continuing education we should take. If one of us takes a really good class, we tell the others. We go almost every year, someplace, for continuing education. We just got back from [Las] Vegas in August for the World Massage Conference.”

“We had a great time,” Blease said.

Specialized Skills

While the sisters seek out moral support from each other, they have never worked together as massage therapists; each has a different approach and a unique client base.

“Almost 90 percent of my practice is therapeutic massage,” said Gray, adding that she does a lot of lymphatic drainage, cupping and cranial work. “My latest thing is … acupressure, which I did the level one class in Vegas.” Gray is self-employed as a solo practitioner, and also works with a group of therapists, all independent contractors.

Blease, a self-employed solo practitioner, also does cupping and lymphatic drainage, but says her work is more of a mix between therapeutic and relaxation massage. “I also do a lot of reflexology … [and] oncology massage with stones. I do get a lot of that, especially in the winter.”

Nordell, who does a lot of deep tissue massage, typically works as an employee, and often shares her knowledge and skills with co-workers; she also does some work as a hospice massage therapist. 

Family Tradition

With three massage therapist siblings, the talk—and the activity—at family gatherings often turns to bodywork.

“We see each other two times a year,” said Gray, for Christmas and the Fourth of July. She recalls one such event, where “the three of us are sitting in a circle working on each other’s feet doing reflexology … we’re all grabbing each other’s feet doing pressure points. We were laughing so hard at that.”

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is associate editor of MASSAGE Magazine and Chiropractic Economics.