Hands-On & Hopeful: Woman opens massage studio after MS diagnosis

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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photoElements Therapeutic Massage Licensed Massage Practitioner Tiffany Knighten works on a client at the Salmon Creek studio on Wednesday.

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Regina Swartz is living proof that the human spirit is no abstract concept.

More than a year ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

That terrible fact capsized her life, including forcing her to leave her career as a mail carrier.

More than a few people, faced with the same circumstances, would fall into despair. Permanently, perhaps.

Not Swartz. It's not that the weight of things doesn't get to her. "It's been debilitating at moments," she said.

But hopelessness is not an option for this purposeful 42-year-old.

In fact, the only way for her to go is forward. So much so, she's reinvented herself as an entrepreneur, becoming a franchisee and launching Elements Therapeutic Massage -- the first Elements studio in Vancouver.

It's not easy to open a new business.

In an economy that's hardly fully recovered, "small-business failure rates have increased by 40 percent from 2007 to 2010," according to a recent Dun & Bradstreet report.

But Swartz believes she'll make it.

Suffice it to say, it's difficult to doubt her.

'I planned on retiring'

For 13 1/2 years, Swartz carried mail for the U.S. Postal Service.

"I planned on retiring," she said. "I was going to be a lifer."

The job involved the wear and tear of pounding the pavement, and of repetitive motion. A few years ago, she underwent surgery to repair a full tear in her rotator cuff. Otherwise, nothing slowed her down.

But then the symptoms invaded. Parts of her body and face went numb. Double vision and dizziness ensued.

In June 2011, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It floored her.

But she picked herself up. She wrestled reality to the ground. About a year after learning she had MS, in July 2012, she left the post office, knowing her disease wouldn't allow her to continue to take on the rigors of the job.

A single mom with three children, Swartz needed to build a new professional foundation, a new framework for her life.

A friend suggested she investigate becoming a franchisee. So she searched her soul, did her homework.

Owning her own business wasn't such a stretch.

She'd worked in her family's freight brokerage company. Handled export and import documents. Monitored sales. "I wore every hat," she said.

And there were times she'd handled managerial duties at the post office.

She'd discovered massage therapy as a vehicle for healing from her rotator cuff surgery. It was helping her cope with her disease, too.

Things started to click.

She would take the remedy and solace she found in therapeutic massage, blend it with her work experience, and take a chance as a new business owner.

She liquidated some assets, including retirement funds, to cover the startup costs. And, in October, she opened the doors to Elements Therapeutic Massage, off Northeast 134th Street in Salmon Creek. "As soon as I found Elements," Swartz said, "I knew it was the right decision."

Plans for expansion

Elements, which offers a variety of massage techniques, has treated more than 500 clients so far. Swartz employs 12 people -- eight therapists and four front-desk staffers.

She said she'll break even when she reaches about $350,000 in annual revenue. She said she expects to become profitable, including covering all of her startup costs, in about three years.

There are three other Elements studios in the Portland-Vancouver region: West Linn, Lake Oswego and Wilsonville.

Swartz, who purchased three franchise licenses, hopes to open a second Elements in east Vancouver by the end of 2013.

Meanwhile, she's handling her multiple sclerosis with remarkable resolve. "I have symptoms every day," she said. But that's not stopping her from carving out the life she wants and supporting her children.

She takes her daily injections to treat her MS. She exercises too, including walking, stretching and lifting weights.

She focuses on the positives in her life.

Through Elements, she's helping others reduce stress and relieve pain.

When you ask her to describe how she feels about all of this, she gives you a perfect two-word answer. It sums up everything.

"It's awesome," she said.

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com