Cathleen Vincent believes people have an inherent abil ity to heal themselves. “You already have all the key ingredients in your body,” the acupuncturist said from her studio at the Yoga Barn in Chilmark. “It’s up to me to hear it and recognize it and hopefully activate it so your body can do what it needs to do to become more balanced.
“The longer I end up working with people the more I see how complicated we are. Whoever came up with our design was pretty freaking smart, our bodies can do really amazing things in terms of fixing and protecting themselves.”
Ms. Vincent, 37, has been practicing acupuncture on the Vineyard since 2006, treating everything from muscle injuries to fertility issues to people experiencing the effects of chemotherapy and radiation.
She came upon her profession by accident. After graduating from Bates College in 1998 as a math major, she thought she wanted to be an actuary. “Do you know what an actuary is?” she said with a slight grimace. “People who are really good at statistics and develop the equations that determine what your insurance rates are.”
But when she went into an insurance office for an exam, Ms. Vincent decided the profession wasn’t for her.
“They looked like gophers — you could see their heads popping out of their cubicles — and all I could see is the whack-a-mole game,” she laughed.
Uncertain of her career path at that point, Ms. Vincent came to the Vineyard for the summer to work at Arrowhead Farm in West Tisbury.
“The Vineyard was the first place that I’d ever been to when I stepped off the ferry that I felt like I had come home,” she said. “I’d never been here before, never even heard of it.”
At the farm that summer she had her first introduction to acupuncture.
“A lot of horses that ended up having some issues that our vet couldn’t help out, she would do acupuncture and for some strange reason these needles put in the horses backs made them look like they were tranquilized,” she recalled. At that point she was considering a new career path, possibly medicine or law. But this brief experience with equine acupuncture and a conversation with a coworker clicked with her.
“A big light bulb went off and I said, of course that’s what I’m going to do,” she said.
She enrolled in the New England Acupuncture School in Boston, and later moved permanently to the Vineyard with her husband, who is an Islander. She is certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and is licensed to practice under the Massachusetts Board of Medicine. She also has the credentials to practice at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, but she said she rarely does due to insurance reimbursement issues.
Looking back, she said her academic background in math was a good foundation for learning acupuncture and its system of symbols and patterns within the human body.
“When people learn math it’s a very linear experience, we love that in our western culture,” Ms. Vincent said. “Chinese medicine is not like that. It’s more about let’s find a basic pattern that is representative in this whole unit and see if we can coin a phrase to it. There’s a lot more room for patterns to develop so you can see the bigger picture.
“I don’t think there’s any judgment or wrong in either one, but when the right medicine is applied to the right person at the right time, that’s the most important thing.”
Many acupuncturists use the tongue or pulse to make diagnoses, but Ms. Vincent uses her palpatory skills.
“I joke that my hands have their own little sensors and they’re listening to your body,” she said. “For me the body speaks louder [through touch].”
Today her practice is so busy that she is not currently accepting new patients.
She said the deep chasm between traditional Western and Chinese medicine is narrowing.
“Twenty years ago there was a really big rift between alternative medicine practitioners and Western medicine practitioners — never the twain shall meet. Even in school it was very much, there’s them and there’s us,” Ms. Vincent said. “There’s no in between. I want to be in the in-between.
“We’re in the midst of seeing alternative medicine becoming more compatible with Western medicine and vice versa.”