Changing the conversation about health

‘We don’t do it for clinical improvements, we do it to relax patients’: How complementary therapies are helping Manchester hospital’s renal unit

Glamourous 80-year-old Ann Critchley, who travels to the Salford Hope dialysis unit three times a week for her four hourly dialysis sessions, was quick to praise the work of Christine, her therapist as she massaged deep into Ann’s ankles and lower legs.

‘It’s such a treat for me’, said Ann. ‘I have a session with Christine every Tuesday morning and now I really look forward to coming into the unit for this’.

Offering this range of complementary therapies to dialysing patients was the brainchild of renal consultant, Dr Janet Hegarty.

Patient Ann Critchley, 80, surrounded by the team on the Salford Hope dialysis unit; Ann travels to the unit three times a week for the four-hour dialysis treatment and says complementary therapies offered by the practitioners have made a huge difference
Therapists Janet Cairnie, left, and Christine with Ann; the team, who offer treatments including massage therapies, wear purple uniforms to make themselves easily identifiable to patients

Dr Hegarty had witnessed the benefits of massage and a range of complementary therapies experienced by patients being treated for cancer and felt strongly that dialysis patients would, and should be offered the opportunity to benefit in the same way.

‘Sitting still for four hours is enough to test a person’s endurance even if they have good physical health, so why wouldn’t you look at ways to ease the back and neck pain associated with sitting still for long periods of time and the sometimes awful leg cramps suffered by a large proportion of dialysis patients who have to come in and sit still for this length of time three times a week?’.

Dr Janet hegarty

Dr Hegarty sourced funding for one full time therapist, and now the dialysis unit at Salford Hope employs Janet Cairnie, a Member of the Federation of Holistic Therapists, to lead a team of volunteer therapists. Janet and her team all work exclusively on the large dialysis unit there to offer a range of therapies to the patients as they dialyse.

Working with the medical team Janet and her team now offer a range of therapies to the dialysis patients at times and in an environment that doesn’t compromise the medical procedures being carried out there.

Janet says ‘We get to know our patients well and we wait until they are all settled into their dialysis session before we go along to see if they would like to book a session with one of the therapists. We follow a strict hygiene protocol to prevent any chance of contaminating the patient’s surroundings.

The programme at Salford Hope is the brainchild of Renal Consultant Dr Janet Hegarty, pictured, who saw the benefits complementary therapies had brought to cancer patients and decided to introduce it on the renal unit

In the early days patients were a bit wary of booking sessions with us, but as soon as we explained that there was no charge to them we became very busy very quickly.’ At present Janet and her team of volunteers are able to offer this service only to the unit based dialysis patients, but the aim is to attract some additional funding so that patients dialysing at home may also benefit from this service. We met three of Janet’s volunteers on our visit to the unit in June.

The whole team wear purple uniforms to make themselves easily identifiable to the patients. Their backgrounds and objectives vary; Musarah had been carer to her sick son and became frustrated at the limited pain relief he had been offered. She was determined to find ways to help him and make his chronic illness a less painful experience, and so turned to complementary therapies.

Now her son is well Musarah offers her expertise to Janet, on the ward. Rebecca is employed outside of the hospital as a beauty therapist, but finding this employment a little unrewarding at times wanted to find ways to use her experience in complementary therapies to help patients with chronic illnesses (and indeed came to the hospital to volunteer her expertise to victims and their families during the Manchester terrorist attack in 2017).

The programme’s aim is not to seek clinical improvement through complementary therapies but to simple relax patients going through medical procedures

And Christopher, who is working towards a formal qualification in complementary therapies so that he may one day join forces with his mother, a counsellor, to offer patients with chronic illnesses treatment in their homes.

They each volunteer on the unit between one day and three mornings a week. A range of therapies are offered to patients. Some patients find a relaxing head and shoulder massage extremely comforting as they sit in their dialysis chair, in one position for their entire four hour dialysis session.

Other patients may ask for a lower leg and feet massage to help them relax and ease their ‘twitching legs’. To date several patients have reported a marked improvement in their ability to sleep after a therapy, with some who had suffered with excruciating night cramps reporting their cramps had eased considerably after a leg massage from one of Janet’s team.

The wife of one patient called Janet recently to report that her husband, a dialysis patient on the unit had wandered off one evening and had caused her considerable concern. Her husband had spent years battling against chronic leg cramps that had rendered him unable to walk unaided outside of his house.

However, after a course of leg and ankle massages on the unit whilst dialysing, he had taken on the challenge of leaving the house and garden and had managed to walk the return trip to his local park unaided, without his walking sticks. He is now able to take regular walks which benefit his overall health substantially.

But the object at this stage is not to seek out clinical improvements in patients to justify the introduction of these therapies on the ward, but simply to help patients relax whilst they are dialysing and feel the benefit of a range of complementary therapies in the same way that complementary therapies constitute an integral part of the personal treatment plan for patients receiving treatment for cancer. In time clinical improvements in patients, if any, will be reported. Janet speaks on beautician and massage courses at the local college to help sustain and expand her team of volunteer therapists.

She finds that once students are aware of the broad range of potential applications of complementary therapies they are keen to help in whatever way they can. Whilst volunteer therapist Christopher is the first person to work towards a formal qualification in a medical application of complementary therapy, Janet hopes this he represents the tip of the iceberg and that soon students from across the country will choose to spend some of their formal training on hospital wards treating patients with chronic conditions.

Janet leads a very happy and engaged team of volunteers, and the ward is buzzing with activity and conversation. Everyone is busy. In an ideal world Janet would employ another full time therapist to handle some of her administrative workload, but as things currently stand the funding achieved so far allows only for her salary, uniforms and the purchase of some of the oils used in the massage therapies.

Oils used in massage are expensive and Janet spends a great deal of time prioritising the ones she is able to afford.

If you are a patient or a health worker on a dialysis unit and would like to know more about the work of this team of therapists with a view perhaps to introducing a similar program, or if you are local to the Salford Hope Dialysis Unit and can offer assistance in any way please contact Janet on

This article first appeared in Kidney Life magazine