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Finding one’s calling

Houghton woman tranforms from Silicon Valley executive to therapist for Springsteen

February 27, 2010
By Garrett Neese, DMG Writer

HOUGHTON - Any good massage therapist considers it a calling, said Isabelle Curtin.

"My purpose in life is to perpetuate the healing arts that are natural, because there are some diseases that won't go away by medicine," she said. "The symptom is the cure."

Curtin, who has worked for nearly two years at Maggie's Massage Spa Resort in Houghton, found that calling relatively late in life. When she did, it touched off a journey that included using her training to heal everyone from multiple-sclerosis patients to millionaires.

Article Photos

Daily Mining Gazette/Garrett Neese
Shown is Isabelle Curtin, a massage therapist at Maggie’s Massage Spa Resort in Houghton that has been everything from a corporate executive in Silicon Valley to a massage therapist for Bruce Springsteen.

Massage wasn't Curtin's first career. That one, the one she later walked away from, was as a corporate executive in Silicon Valley.

She entered the world of computers while working at Michigan Technological University and taking computer science classes. She started working as a software designer in the Silicon Valley, eventually transitioning into marketing and serving $10 to $50 million dollar accounts.

"It was a pretty powerful position for a woman in the semi-conductor industry," she said.

A series of events left her disillusioned with her status. A survey of her employees revealed they found her to be impersonal and uncaring. And in 1991, she began taking care of her father, who had returned from Saudi Arabia with cancer.

The doctors said he was beyond their help. Curtin looked for qualified massage therapists, but to no avail. And Curtin still didn't know how to comfort him.

"I wasn't comfortable touching him, I wasn't comfortable hugging him, I wasn't comofrtable holding his hand," she said.

During all this, she was still ping-ponging between California and places such as Japan and Hong Kong. One day, after her father's death, she left her office for lunch. After nearly a quarter of a century, that was it for semiconductors.

"I took a really long drive in a really expensive car and never looked back," she said.

She began investigating Eastern treatments, which led to an internship in Zen shiatsu. While she was out of the corporate world, she hadn't fully shed her corporate mentality. The first clients she requested was the Stanford football team: smart, rich, athletic future captains of industry.

"I was pretty snobby," she said. "I didn't think I could communicate with anyone less than a Ph.D. in science."

Her counselor gave her an address to what wound up being a recreational center for the handicapped. Her first assignment was an autistic group. She called her counselor and asked if there'd been a mistake. There hadn't.

"I said, 'This isn't about me, is it?" she said. "He said, "No, it's not. It's about the people, you've got to make them feel safe with you."

She also worked with people with arthritis,

In one case, a client was a young man in his 20s confined to a wheelchair. When she massaged him, he started crying. She felt she'd hurt him, until someone at the center told her, "He's not hurt, it's just that he hasn't been touched for so long."

"That just brought me to my knees," she said.

As part of her internship, she was an on-call therapist for four- and five-star hotels in San Francisco. Clients included venture capitalist Laurance Rockefeller ("an absolute riot") and Liza Minnelli ("crazy, but in a good way").

One day, she got a high-profile client using a pseudonym. She wasn't sure who it was, though the lines told her it was someone important.

At the room, she saw a man in sweatpants, flannel shirt and a hat: Bruce Springsteen.

"Hi, I'm Bruce," Curtin recalled him saying. A flustered Curtin said, "Hi, I'm fabulous!" to which Bruce replied, "Hi, Fabulous!"

Despite the awkward start, the two bonded. At one point, Curtin was massaging him three times a week. He was "very cool," Curtin said, agreeing with whatever music she wanted to put on.

"He's a very spiritual man," she said. "Very concerned with the blue-collar workers, very dedicated to his family. He didn't talk much, but he listened."

She recounted one time when she was walking to her home from the hotel.

"All the people where I walked home had down comforters and a lunch from the Mandalay Hotel, saying, 'Bruce is in town!'" she said. "I think he does that wherever he goes."

Another client was an equally big deal for the former semiconductor executive - one of the inventors of voicemail.

"We spent hours talking about semiconductors and technology," she said.

But Curtin grew tired of the isolation that came with being an on-call therapist. She resettled to Plymouth, Mich., and then in Douglas County, Nev., where she worked at the David Walley Resort Spa.

Three years ago, Curtin moved back to the Copper Country, where her husband of 42 years grew up, when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with lung cancer. The diagnosis proved to be wrong, but Curtin remained, using the medical training that came with her training in massage therapy.

Almost two years ago, she began working at Maggie's.

"I felt that I was too old to work," she said. "Then I came in and met Maggie. I immediately liked her ... she's such a wonderful person in the community and gives so much."

Curtin uses a mix of modalities, ranging from shiatsu to Swedish massage. Other techniques include hot stones to warm up dense muscles and aromatherapy.

"My intent is to do no harm," she said. "Sometimes, my intent is, "If I find it, I want to fix it." But it didn't happen in a day and I can't fix it in an hour. So I have to let it go, which is unfortunate."

Curtin plans to keep going until she's physically unable to. But she's still in good shape, she said.

"I love the people," she said. "I love the area. I don't want to open up my own shop - been there, done that - I just want to come in, meet my clients, do the best job I can do, and go home."

Garrett Neese can be reached at gneese@



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