By Kyle LoJacono
Like most people in the United States, Sylla Hanger was devastated by what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
For the Lutz resident, it wasn’t enough to send some supplies or money. She needed to get out and give back with all her skills to try and help the emergency workers around ground zero.
Sylla decided to use her knowledge of massage and aromatherapy to help make working in the devastated area a little easier. She became a licensed massage therapist in 1979 and has been using essential oils for decades.
“In the early ’80s I was making my own perfumes from oils at the health food stores,” Sylla said. “I realized that there was more relaxation from the massage with a nice scented oil. I thought I’d invented something, but I found that aromatherapy was being taught in England.”
Sylla helped form the first aromatherapy organization in the United States, which eventually led to the creation of the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA). When 9/11 happened it was natural for her to give back using her expertise.
“My friend Doug started a massage team called North Carolina Emergency Response Massage Team, or CERMT,” Sylla said. “He was taking care of flood victims in Carolina before 9/11. I knew our skills could do some good. It actually came to me while I was doing a massage treatment and I knew we had to aromatize Manhattan. There was all that smoke in the air. I knew we had to get these oils there.”
Sylla and the team first went in November 2001 and returned during Christmas, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day. The trips were one to two weeks long.
Sylla said people sent her $10,000 worth of aromatherapy products for the first trip. Significantly more came for the last three trips. During the second trip the group developed the name United Aromatherapy Effort (UAE), an official nonprofit group.
“We worked at the stations, at the chapel by ground zero, at the landfill on Staten Island and in the temporary morgues,” Sylla said. “Mostly we did the chair massage, which is about 15 minutes long. It’s mostly head, neck and shoulders and it’s very relaxing. It leaves people very refreshed. Then we’d give them some product with them. Often it was sprays, lotions and breathing potions.”
They would also give the workers cotton swabs with oils on it to put in their respirator.
“They loved that because the masks smelled horrible and it was hard to breath,” Sylla said. “A lot of them told us they wouldn’t use them without the oils.”
Sylla and the team started adopting fire stations during the second trip. In total, UAE adopted 22 stations, which received oils, a diffuser and a vaporizer.
“They couldn’t get over that we came from out of town to help them, and paid our own way to do it,” Sylla said. “It made them feel really good, which made us feel really good. A lot of them had survivor guilt and didn’t want to relax after so many of their friends died. We told them to let us help. Let us help you because that’s all the thanks we need.”
Sylla’s daughter Nyssa Hanger, who was in high school at the time, went on two of the trips.
“I didn’t decide to go until my mom came home from her trip in November and said she was going back for Christmas,” Nyssa said. “I wasn’t able to see it until years later, but my mother has instilled in me a deep drive for helping others. Seeing what she gained through helping, I wanted to go as well. I knew that there were many people hurting up there and it was consoling to know I might be able to help.”
Nyssa, who attended Gaither High her first two and then went to Blake High for its magnet program, was picked as one of the “20 Coolest Teens in America” by YM magazine in November 2002 because of her work after 9/11. Those trips also helped her decide to become a physical therapist.
“Though I wasn’t doing massage formally, I spent three weeks working side-by-side with other massage therapists and saw the amazing effects of loving touch,” Nyssa said. She then added, “Though Sept 11, 2001 will be a day remembered as a national tragedy, I can say that it actually changed my life in a profound and surprisingly positive way.”
The experience has changed Sylla’s life as well, and she still can’t help but get emotional while recalling the trips.
“I learned you can’t care too much,” Sylla said, choked up with the memory. “I had a lot of post-traumatic stress when I left because it felt so good to help that I wanted to keep going back. It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done, and when it was over it was like a hole in my life even though it cost me a fortune to do it. … I wanted to do it again and again, and I knew that I could do it.”
Sylla and UAE also went up the Gulf Coast to help after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Now the group is focusing on sending aromatherapy products to U.S. soldiers serving overseas in places like Afghanistan. Sylla also goes to the VA hospital in Tampa to give the massage therapy treatments to veterans.
“We’ll put the supplies where they’re needed,” Sylla said. “The best thing is if anyone has money to help with shipping. We have product, but not the money to ship it.”
How to help
To help UAE, visit unitedaromatherapy.org. From there people can find phone numbers and addresses if they want to donate money, supplies or their time and expertise in aromatherapy. People can also email .
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