Taking an Alternative Route
By Hilary Kraus
Photography by Christian Lee
Bring up the topics of alternative medicine, the human body or the cultural differences between people around the world, and Cheryl McCarthy’s voice fills with enthusiasm. And her words are filled with knowledge. “I’m passionate about health. I can’t read enough about health,” Cheryl said. “The human body is a beautiful, complex machine that has an innate intelligence which we might never fully understand.”
Cheryl, whose long hair and natural appearance becomes her, has parlayed her passions into a career of healing people. She is a licensed acupuncturist who has practiced in Okatie for eight years and has had a second office in downtown Beaufort for four years.
Her career in Oriental medicine did not begin straight after graduating from Boston College. The Massachusetts native studied management and computer science and worked for about eight years as a software engineer for the Fortune 500 company Honeywell. The job, which involved debugging computer problems, allowed her the opportunity to travel all over the world. “I loved the intellectual stimulation of the job, but computers weren’t my passion. I was envious of those engineers who knew that’s what they wanted to do with their lives,” said Cheryl, pausing to take a sip of herbal tea. “I really loved the travel portion of the job, but I ended up leaving.”
What came next for Cheryl was the envy of many: more than two years backpacking throughout Asia and Africa. Her travels, from February 1991 to April 1993, took her to 22 countries. When in Taiwan, Cheryl taught English as a second language to Chinese people. “India was particularly memorable with its exotic food, clothing, religions and culture. Many of the states have their own language, food, clothing and customs,” said Cheryl, when asked about her favorite destination.
The journey was not without lasting and life-changing experiences. One of Cheryl’s language students took her to a Chinese doctor, which she described as “fascinating.” Cheryl also met a backpacker who was studying Chinese medicine in England.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) originated in ancient China more than 2,000 years ago and has evolved over thousands of years. TCM practitioners use herbal medicines and various mind and body practices, such as acupuncture and tai chi, to treat or prevent health problems, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
When Cheryl returned to the U.S., she said she still was uncertain about what she wanted to do professionally, but she knew helping people and solving problems were her main interests. In her mid-30s at the time, Cheryl took a leap of faith and moved across the country to attend the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, after taking two years of science prerequisites at a community college in Massachusetts. Four years later, she earned her Masters of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine degree in TCM.
Cheryl settled in the Lowcountry after her mother, Martha McCarthy, who was living at Sun City Hilton Head at the time, mentioned to her chiropractor that her daughter was going to school to be an acupuncturist. Cheryl took a job at the chiropractor’s office, where she still works. Her mother has since returned to the Northeast.
Cheryl said the number one reason people come to her is because they are in pain and are not getting the help to make them feel better. Headache, migraines, fibromyalgia, Carpal tunnel syndrome and plantar fasciitis are some of the most common ailments. "On the flipside, the number one reason people don’t seek the help of an acupuncturist is because of the fear factor associated with needles," Cheryl said.
“The first thing I show people are the very fine needles, because most people are afraid,” Cheryl said. “Even with personal referrals—you’ve got somebody you love and trust and tells you you’ve got to try acupuncture—they’re afraid of the needles.” Cheryl explained the procedure feels like a small prick as it goes through the skin.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be like. It wasn’t a prick in the normal sense when you think of a needle,” said Mike Olivia, who sought Cheryl’s help when he thought he was having a gout attack. Mike said he was impressed with Cheryl’s knowledge. “And, as a person, she took an interest in my total health, as far as my diet,” he added. “And she asked about my family.”
Background: Born in Boston, raised in Duxbury, Mass. Single, no children.
Cheryl’s offices: Carolina Spine & Wellness Center (formerly Joint-Effort Wellness Center in Okatie); and Beaufort Chiropractic.
What activities do you enjoy? “I garden and go to the farmers market. I am very involved with my church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry. I also love to kayak with the Swampgirls (kayaking group).”
Where do you want to travel next? “Bhutan and Iran (but not at the moment). Bhutan for its ability to have remained isolated from the rest of the world until the last 20 years. Iran because of the Persian culture. I would love to learn other medical modalities that can further help me treat my patients here in the Lowcountry.”
Cheryl’s typical daily diet: Vegetable stir fry or a grain for breakfast. She’s on an Indian food kick for lunch. Fish and vegetables for dinner.