There was a time when Susan Fox didn’t believe acupuncture worked. Her Midwestern upbringing had taught her such things were nonsense. Then something made a believer out of her.
Fox grew up in Chicago, where she was a typical teen. She worked hard, loved pizza, and cheered on friends and family at baseball games. Her everyday world was turned upside down when, at the age of 18, she suffered a traumatic brain injury during a car accident. The damage resulted in a neurological dysfunction that brought her active late-teen lifestyle to a slamming halt. “It was bad. At its worst, I couldn’t stand for more than five minutes without having a neurological attack,” she says. “I had to drop out of school and move back in with my parents.”
Fox’s cardiologist suggested she see an acupuncturist. She resisted. “Coming from a family of cops, I didn’t believe in a lot of mumbo jumbo, woo woo stuff,” she says. “So I didn’t think it was going to help me.”
Fox was wrong, and today, she credits Chinese medicine with saving her life. “On my 21st birthday, I went to a bar and had a drink. I cried because I thought I would never be able to live a normal life again,” she says. “That was a big turning point for me. I knew I was going to be OK.”
Fox didn’t, however, know more changes were coming. A self-professed workaholic, she took multiple jobs, none of which offered anything more substantive than a regular paycheck. One day, as she was rushing from one place of employment to the next, a figurative bolt of lightning struck her between her ears. “I stopped and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m going to study Chinese medicine.’ I enrolled in pre-requisite science classes that night,” she says.
Fox earned a Master of Chinese Medicine at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland. Determined to excel in her field, she then spent time in China studying under Huang Huang, well known doctor and herbalist, and interned at a pair of hospitals. She then studied under an herbalist in Thailand.
Armed with a compendium of knowledge and skills, the time eventually came for Fox to settle down and go to work. She and her husband, Ryan, didn’t want to return to Portland or Chicago, so they began looking for a home in the south. Fox’s sister-in-law suggested they visit Chattanooga. As they were walking across the Walnut Street Bridge less than 20 minutes after arriving in the city, Fox looked at her husband and said, “I want to live here.”
When Fox said, “here,” she meant it literally. The couple moved into a place on the North Shore, and Fox set up her clinic, Hill City Acupuncture and Herbs, on the top story of 50 Frazier Avenue, which hugs the overpass. She opened in September.
Fox specializes in the treatment of disorders and diseases she says normally fall through the cracks of Western medicine, including IBS, chronic interstitial cystitis, mild urinary incontinence, chronic acid reflux, migraines due to eye strain, severe dry eyes, Bell’s Palsy, and more. “If I have an acute problem, I’m going to use Western medicine,” she says. “Chinese medicine excels at preventive medicine and chronic care – the very things Western medicine doesn’t do well.”
Another thing Chinese medicine does well is allow for individualized treatment, Fox says. Each person’s body is different, and people respond uniquely to treatments, so she makes sure she has a comprehensive understanding of each patient and their issues before treating them. “I might have eight patients come in for insomnia, and I’ll treat each one differently. One person might have a tendency to be hot, and another person might be weak on one side, both of which will change my treatment. Before I can treat you so you can sleep, I have to find out why you can’t sleep.”
Fox likens the process of diagnosing a patient to a detective looking for clues. “The first visit is very involved. I’ll ask about every part of your body. Then I’ll check the quality of your pulse, your tongue, and your eyes,” she says.
Fox then gets down to what a lot of people think of as the “woo woo” stuff. “Next, I have patients lie on their backs, and I check their major channels. I’m looking for disturbances,” she says.
Fox isn’t talking about disturbances in the Force (sorry, “Star Wars” fans), but about an essential element of Chinese medicine. This is where she sometimes runs into resistance. Having come from a place of skepticism, Fox is adept at taking people through the process of opening up to a different style of treatment. “Once you acquaint yourself with Chinese medicine, the less woo woo it becomes,” she says. “Western medicine treats a person’s anatomy and physiology. That’s what we treat in Chinese medicine, only we call it chi and yin. Chi is the functional force of the body, and yin is the blood. We treat the same things.”
After extensive preliminary work, Fox brings out her needles. While the Internet is replete with pictures of people looking as though they’re undergoing a metamorphosis into a human-shaped porcupine, the first time Fox does acupuncture on someone, she inserts just a couple of needles, and for only for a short time. “I don’t know how your body is going to respond to acupuncture, so I go slow, and I don’t use any intense points,” she says. “I take things easy the first time so I can see how your body reacts.”
A question people commonly ask Fox is whether or not the needles hurt. Fox says it depends on the person and the point of insertion. “But the needles are about as thin as a human hair, and they’re incredibly sharp, so they go in smoothly,” she says. “Some people feel warm, while others feel a tingling, or a deep, dull ache. But most people feel blissed out. We call the place you go after the needles are in ‘aculand.’”
Fox’s other major area of practice is herbs. She opens a large wooden cabinet to reveal dozens of bottles containing what look like pills, but are actually compressed herbs, and liquid extracts. A smile crosses her face. “I’m a geek when it comes to herbs,” she says. “Most practitioners know about 20 classical formulas. I know about 150.”
Fox also knows what each one can do, and talks enthusiastically about how they can act as an alternative treatment for common maladies. “When you get the first inkling that you’re getting a cold, call me. If I’m able to see you that day, it could be the difference between your being sick and not getting a cold at all. If herbs don’t knock it out entirely, they could shorten the strength and length of it.”
Fox also uses herbs to treat high blood pressure, but only in consultation with her patient’s physician. “Maybe you want to take less medicine. Herbs can lower the amount of medication you’re taking. So I’ll work with your doctor on that,” she says.
Fox has fit a plethora of other Chinese medicine treatment options into her small clinic above Frazier Avenue, including cupping and heat therapy. In addition, she does two kinds of Chinese massage – shiatsu and tuina. Her menu of services is no bag of tricks, though. Rather, these things are part of her toolset for healing the human body. “I want to make people feel better,” she says, “and Chinese medicine is good at that.”
Fox isn’t just selling her craft; she’s a living, breathing witness to its benefits. “I visited nearly every physician in Chicago, but my Chinese medicine doctor was the one that helped me to experience the most change. With her help, I was eventually able to lead a normal life,” she says. “This is the kind of change I want to help my patients achieve. I know from experience that there’s nothing more important than getting your life back.”
Treatments at Hill City Acupuncture & Herbs last about 90 minutes, and can be scheduled online at www.hillcityacupuncture.com.
To see more photos, pick up a copy of the Hamilton County Herald.