Boynton’s massage therapist soothes students

For Coca-Ioana Vladislav, her sense of touch guides her work and life.

Coca-Iona Vladislav, a professional massage therapist at Boynton Health Service, sits posed on the massage table where she tends to her patients on Friday.

Liam James Doyle

Coca-Iona Vladislav, a professional massage therapist at Boynton Health Service, sits posed on the massage table where she tends to her patients on Friday.

by Olivia Johnson

Coca-Ioana Vladislav was born with a visual impairment, so she relied on her her hands to create a new life 5,000 miles away from her birthplace in northeastern Romania. For the past 16 years, she’s been Boynton Health Service’s massage therapist.


“As a visually [impaired person], for example, you need the senses,” she said. “This is much better because you can’t look at somebody… it will take you longer time to get to that point to feel everything that I feel, because…it’s all my life.”


Vladislav often shares tales her storied life during massages. Her accounts range from the serious — escaping political turmoil — to the downright unusual: participating in a blind bowling league and learning gymnastics at a Romanian boarding school. Her clients, whether for her therapeutic massages or the company they come with, often leave delighted.


“She was just full of stories,” said marketing junior Christine Drews, who earlier this month got a massage from Vladislav, as well as anecdotes about her daughter, granddaughter, heritage, and Romanian food.


Drews said she didn’t realize Vladislav was visually impaired until the massage therapist asked her to move a backpack so she wouldn’t trip over it.


Drews said her neck had been hurting throughout the semester, even after seeing a chiropractor multiple times.


While at Boynton for a different appointment, Drews noticed the massage therapy service.


“She was awesome,” Drews said. “My neck has not hurt since I saw her.”


University communications graduate John Murray said he has been going to Vladislav for massages since 2008. Murray, a former Goldy Gopher mascot for alumni events, said his frequent golf sessions leave him sore.


Murray said he prefers Vladislav because she works on his muscles more intensely than other therapists do.


“She does it right. I’ve been to other places where they just give you that real light. They don’t really get into your muscles,” Murray said.


A storied life


Born visually impaired in Piatra-NeamÈõ   in 1952, Vladislav grew up in the then-communist Romania. Although the government was restrictive, she said she had a good education.


From first through eighth grade, Vladislav attended a boarding school for the blind where she learned gymnastics, was on a track team and eventually learned massage therapy.


“We didn’t wear canes. We went on the street. We could walk straight,” Vladislav said.  “In the school for the blind we were trained. You use all other senses.”


She’s not completely blind, though, and is able to see things at very close distances.


Vladislav learned chess in second grade with a chess board and pieces that were specially modified for the visually impaired, with squares slotted for the pieces to fit in, and black squares elevated by a millimeter. The board had letters on one side and numbers on the other, giving each square a name that could be memorized like a code.


“In first grade we started with gymnastics,” Vladislav said. “What you think about is so extraordinary to us was nothing, it didn’t mean anything.”


While at the school for the visually impaired, coaches and teachers massaged students as a form of physical therapy, and eventually passed along those therapeutic skills.


Early exposure to massage therapy pushed Vladislav to choose to pursue it as a trade instead of going to high school. She said she knew that not only would she be able to find a job, but that her visual impairment actually boosted her skill as a therapist.


“It’s harder to get in touch with everything or to learn because… the brain is already wired,” she said, “but in our case it’s not.”


In 1988, just a year and a half before the country’s communist government collapsed, Vladislav was given political asylum and a humanitarian parole visa that allowed her and her daughter to come to the U.S. She said it was a difficult for Romanians to leave their country, and credits God for the opportunity to come to Minnesota.


Once she arrived, Vladislav applied for around 300 chiropractor jobs but didn’t hear back from any of them. Eventually, she opened her own business, Coca’s Therapeutic Massage.

Since Boynton hired her in 1999, she has continued to build a following of students and alumni.