Good health, from the bottom up


Reflexology is an ancient practice, but its acceptance as a complementary medical therapy is relatively new.

Dee D'Atri deftly manipulates her client's foot, pausing over some areas, moving on, then going back for another feel, describing   what she is "reading" with her fingertips. "Your hips are good…pancreas too," she'll say. All good signs. Then, "Are you getting enough sleep? How is your digestion? Your intestines seem….mushy."

A fair analysis, if she actually had her hands on intestines, but her investigation remains focused on the feet. This is not science fiction — and yet D'Atri's observations will prove on-base. She is a Medical Reflexologist, and through the touch of her hands she can "see," with some accuracy, disturbances in the body's internal systems. It may not be a practiced embraced by modern Western medicine, but globally, it has certainly stood the test of time. Here, today, her client reveals that he has been getting by on little sleep, and will corroborate, if not elaborate on, "mushy" digestion.

Reflexology, the process by which pressure is applied to specific points on the feet, hands, or ears, has been around for a while — before antiquity, perhaps. Historians think it began as an oral tradition before recorded history and may have been first recorded as a pictograph on the Egyptian tomb of Ankhamor in 2330 BC, as well as on the feet of statues of Buddha in India and China. "The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine", a classic Chinese text written around 1,000 BC, devoted a chapter to reflexology as the "Examining Foot Method."

Marco Polo is thought to have brought reflexology to Europe when he translated a Chinese massage book into Italian in the 1300s, followed by other European physicians who published works on what they called "zone therapy" in the late 1500's.

The practice finally made it to the United States around the end of WWI. Dr. William H. Fitzgerald, MD, known (in the U.S., at least) as the father of reflexology, wrote about ten vertical zones that extended the length of the body, noting that in his experience, the application of pressure to a zone that corresponded to the location of an injury could serve as relief of pain during minor surgeries.

Dr. Shelby Riley took Dr. Fitzgerald's work a step further, developing a map of horizontal zones across the body along with specific reflex points on the feet, hands, and outer ear. Eunice Ingham, a contemporary of Dr. Riley, is credited with the development of  the foot maps still in use today.

Reflexologists believe that areas and reflex points not only correspond to body organs and systems, but that appropriate pressure to areas and points (there are over 7000 in the human body) can affect the function of the corresponding organ or system, at times, instantly.

Reflexologists are quick to point out that they do not claim to be able to either cure disease, or diagnose. D'Atri's observations are meant to be taken for what they are — observations — to increase awareness of your body and be taken to a medical doctor for follow up if needed. That in itself is a tremendous benefit, but where the practice is most valuable is as a complementary therapy for patients dealing with anxiety, asthma, cancer treatment, and headaches, sciatica, neuropathy, hormonal imbalance, and stress. Anectodal evidence suggests that reflexology can lessen and and eliminate nausea resulting from chemotherapy treatments, and when practiced as part of a health maintenance plan, leads to a marked reduction in sick leave and absenteeism.

Tragedy and serendipity lead to a calling

D'Atri became interested in Medical Reflexology in 2000, when her brother was losing his battle with colorectal cancer. One day, near the end of his life, she was trimming his toenails. "The act of touching his feet relaxed him so instantly and completely that he fell asleep on the spot," she says. It made her think more about the foot-body connection that, at this point, was well mapped out. She was in the process of relocating to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and discovered that coincidentally, her new home was a short distance from Lorena Telepo, whose International Academy of Medical Reflexology was the only such institution at the time. It was, it seemed, meant to be. D'atri trained under Telepo and began practicing in 2005. She has been practicing in Bristol since 2007.

These days, D'Atri splits her time between Hair, Heart & Soul in Bristol, where she meets clients by appointment; Franklin Court, where a coterie of repeat elderly clientele appreciate the benefits reflexology brings to their health maintenance plans; and Hematology and Oncology Associates of Rhode Island and the Gloria Gemma Foundation. Here, her ability to give comfort and relief to cancer patients brings her journey full circle to the day she found her gift, ministering to her sick brother.

A combination of coursework, apprenticeship, and continuing education taught D'Atri the practical skill of reflexology, but it doesn't take long to see that she naturally brings an intangible, yet critical benefit to the table: her true, abiding passion for her work. "This is my gift," she says. "My life's work."


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.