Healing Body, Mind, and Spirit

Martha’s Vineyard is a vortex for a wide variety of holistic treatments and services by professionals who range from scientists to psychics.

In her Vineyard Haven office, reflexologist Betsy Shands applies pressure to the heel of a man’s foot to reduce his sciatic pain. In her West Tisbury studio, Elaine Allen places crystals on and around a reclining client in preparation for a reiki treatment. At her home in Chilmark, astrologer Arlan Wise creates an astrological chart based on the exact moment of a client’s birth.

For generations, Martha’s Vineyard has inspired artists, musicians, and writers to flock to the Island to fuel their passions. For decades, that same Island karma has also attracted a large number of practitioners of non-traditional therapies. In turn, the receptive community on the Vineyard provides a welcoming clientele for these practitioners of everything from craniosacral therapy to psychic intuitive healing. Many say that the Island itself is a vortex, not of wind or water, but of spiraling spiritual energy.

It was this energy that brought Susan Sanford (president and founder of Vineyard Complementary Medicine in West Tisbury) to the Island a dozen years ago to begin a career as a physical therapist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, where she worked for six years. Susan’s patients included people in chronic pain, primarily low back pain, from such conditions as fibromyalgia and stress. After recognizing there are emotional and spiritual components to physical healing, she wanted to offer a more integrative pain management system.

While continuing to live and work almost full-time hours on the Vineyard, Susan commuted to Newton to attend a full-time graduate degree program at the New England School of Acupuncture. After earning her master’s in 2002, she opened her clinic – Vineyard Complementary Medicine – in Vineyard Haven the following year. Because of her experience and reputation at the hospital, as well as the openness of Vineyarders to integrate complementary treatments into their healthcare programs, the referrals flowed in.

“Martha’s Vineyard is an exceptionally open-minded community,” Susan says. “I can’t think of a place where Eastern and Western modalities could better work hand in hand.”

After outgrowing the Vineyard Haven office in just two years, the clinic relocated to its current spot (formerly the Vineyard Wellness Center) in West Tisbury. Today, Vineyard Complementary Medicine has evolved into arguably the most comprehensive outpatient physical therapy and wellness clinic on the Island, with many private treatment rooms and multiple practitioners. The clinic offers an integrative approach to healthcare that includes chiropractic care, acupuncture, massage, craniosacral therapy, and yoga – all under one roof. Susan says the clinic also specializes in the less-mainstream physical therapy areas of pediatrics, women’s health, and aquatic therapy – and is the only place on the Island to do so.

Despite its small size and low year-round population, the Island has no shortage of residents who practice alternative healing modalities. So even with its extensive offerings, Vineyard Complementary Medicine has no monopoly. There are plenty of practitioners who have offices here, some in business settings and some in homes.

After a long career with non-profit organizations in Baltimore, Nancy Gilfoy made a transformative mid-life career shift in 1993. “Things were harder in my life than they had to be,” she says candidly. Taking a leap of faith, Nancy began to study acupuncture. She moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1998 to establish her practice in a rambling old house in Vineyard Haven.

Nancy was familiar with the Vineyard from summers on Nantucket and rightly believed it was the ideal place to hang up her shingle. “I felt a connection with the community from the start,” she says. When she began her practice in Vineyard Haven, there were two other licensed acupuncturists here, Michele Lazerow and Marjorie Lau. She reached out to them, seeking information and support. They responded in a welcoming and non-competitive way. Today, more than a decade later, the three still cover for one another from time to time.

Nancy says the increasing interest in acupuncture in this country over the past two decades is not a trend, but a response to the success of an ages-old approach. “Chinese medicine has been in place for thousands of years,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see complementary and alternative modalities moving into mainstream medicine.”

Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin needles through the skin, to various depths at strategic points on the body. It can be used as a stand-alone therapy for some conditions or in conjunction with more conventional Western-
medicine treatments. Doctors may combine acupuncture and drugs to control headaches and rheumatoid arthritis, for example. The World Health Organization recognizes acupuncture as a successful treatment for more than two dozen symptoms, diseases, and conditions.

With a busy year-round practice, Nancy balances her work with her love of nature in general and animals in particular. In addition to performing acupuncture on people, she also practices on pets. With her professional expertise and credentials (this is her fourth year as president of the Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Society of Massachusetts), she regularly presents workshops and talks at the West Tisbury Library about living in harmony with nature.

While it might appear that acupuncture primarily addresses the physical body, Nancy stresses that this is not the case: “The Chinese didn’t separate issues. The Taoist approach is that we’re all one, and the medicine takes the same approach.” She explains, “Acupuncture addresses the body, mind, and spirit.” This holistic approach is common among most practitioners in alternative healthcare.

Elaine Allen began practicing yoga and meditation in her teens in the early 1970s. When her mother was diagnosed with cancer, she engaged in what has become a lifelong journey of helping persons with disease. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Elaine also aspired to be a teacher.

She first came to Martha’s Vineyard as a student teacher while earning an early childhood education degree at Wheelock College in Boston. After graduating in 1976, she moved here full time and a year later began working as director of Island Children’s School in West Tisbury, balancing her commitments there with her reiki work. Since resigning in 2001, she’s had more time for Golden Lotus Healing Arts, the busy practice she runs out of her home in Vineyard Haven, which she says is unaffected by the comings and goings of seasonal residents as she caters to year-rounders.

Reiki (pronounced ray-key) is a form of energy healing, where the energy is channeled through the practitioner’s palms into and around the body of the patient. This energy is said to flow through pathways in the body called chakras, meridians, and nadis, as well as around the body in the outer field of energy called the aura. Reiki helps to clear any blockages in these pathways, and many practitioners use crystals to aid the process.

Some patients say that receiving reiki feels like having a glowing radiance flow through and around them. It treats holistically, that is, the whole person, both the physical and emotional, creating a sense of peace, while restoring well-being and stimulating the body’s ability to heal itself. Elaine also works as a licensed reverend, helping clients to get in touch with their spiritual sides and performing religious ceremonies, including marriages.

Elaine received her first and second levels of reiki certification while in her twenties, and in 1999 achieved her master’s certification after having graduated from the Barbara Brennan School of Healing in Florida, which describes itself as “the world’s premier institute of hands-on healing and personal transformation.” For some skeptics, Dr. Brennan’s background as a NASA physicist lends credence to the idea that this healing process has some scientific as well as metaphysical basis.

Many people who are open to addressing “dis-ease” (which some practitioners suggest is a good way to look at the word, as a lack of ease in the body) with complementary or alternative therapies also seek inspiration for their spiritual selves. Luckily for them, such options are also readily available on the Island – some even explore the paranormal.

On the psychic spectrum is David Merritt, who practices as a medium. The forty-six-year-old Oak Bluffs resident says he has been communicating with the spirit world since he was a child growing up in Rhode Island and that a vision of an angel in 2004 led him to his current focus as a medical intuitive.

“The spirit world has shown me how to scan, diagnose, and cure certain ailments of some of my clients,” says David, who has lived on the Vineyard since 1979, taking time out to study in England at the Arthur Findley College for psychic mediums.

“I look at a person and scan them visually,” he says. “I close my eyes and scan again until my visualization of the person is pure white. If there are gray areas, I tell them to pay attention to possible health issues that may be developing. If there is a black area, I advise clients to go to a medical doctor immediately for an examination. Recently, a client whose scan revealed a black line on the side of her neck was diagnosed with thyroid cancer when I advised her to see a doctor. Fortunately, she is in remission.”

David says another experience he had with an angel four years ago relieved him of his own agonizing arthritis, which had him recoiling at touch and feeling as if he’d been sleeping on a bed of rocks for four months. One night, he says, an angel appeared to him in the form of a green mist. After she opened her wings with a whishing sound, his pain vanished.

“I literally jumped up and down,” he says, “because my pain was gone, and because I could.”

Another psychic is Karen Coffey. At a wooden table at the back of Pyewacket’s, her antiques shop in Vineyard Haven, you’ll often find her doing a tarot card reading. Karen believes the current interest in the healing arts is the result of a cosmic shift that has created a powerful energy movement for personal, planetary, and cosmic change. “It’s an age of spirituality – a time to look at things differently,” she says.

Karen moved to the Vineyard in 1971 from Natick. “I was drawn to the Island for its healing powers and way of life,” she says. “I was born psychic, but it wasn’t until I was older that I recognized that card reading would be my medium for using this gift.”

Karen started reading cards in her late teens but didn’t do so professionally until 1993. That year, she set up shop as a psychic and did a hundred readings for free as a way, she says, “of testing myself,” before beginning to charge for her services. She was the first psychic to be licensed on Martha’s Vineyard and was required by the town to get one, she says, because of an archaic but still-standing law.

There are different tarot decks and Karen uses one, the Aquarian deck, because of its gentle, healing colors and imagery. Readings are influenced by the order in which the cards are dealt, positioning within spreads, and by the interpretation of the reader. Karen, who is a member of the American Tarot Association and of the International Tarot Association, makes it clear that she isn’t a fortuneteller. Rather, she conveys information to her clients. They make their own choices. People most often come to Karen for answers to questions about love, health, and finances.

The same is true of people who trek to Chilmark to consult astrologer Arlan Wise. Although astrology has stood the test of time, Arlan says, its role has been diminished in today’s world. “Throughout history, royalty had astrologers to guide them through the important decisions they had to make. Today, horoscopes share the newspaper page with comic strips. Yet, in reality, astrology can be very useful in determining the best time to do things.”

Arlan has had an interest in astrology for as long as she can remember. During the 1970s, she would prepare astrological charts for her friends. After a traditional education at Brown University, where she earned a degree in classics, Arlan came to the Vineyard to raise her family. When each of her three children was born, in the late sixties and early seventies, she prepared their birth charts. Doing so, she says, proved to be a terrific guide for her in how to raise each of them. It gave her insight, for example, for times in their lives when her children would be facing health issues or making important choices.

In 1978, Arlan attended her first professional astrologers conference. That same year she began to work as a professional astrologer, charging for her consultations. Since the mid-
nineties, she’s been on the Organization for Professional Astrology’s board and was its president from 2003 to 2007.

“Astrology doesn’t predict the future, but it provides guidance regarding what to expect during different periods in the life of an individual,” Arlan says. “But, no matter how the stars align, people will still have freedom of choice.”

Arlan prepares and interprets birth charts, which she says compare to a blueprint of someone’s life: “You get the framework, but not the details of the design.” By studying their charts and Arlan’s interpretations, clients might better understand why certain events happen at certain times, and learn how to work with those energies.

For some, this kind of guidance, spiritual exploration, or complementary medicine can be essential to their lives or healthcare regimes. For others, they can be used as occasional support. Whether the Island is truly a vortex of healing energy or not, given the prevalence and variety of services available here, people have options year-round.

Betsy Shands, who has summered here since she was three years old, says she’s been familiar with the Island’s energy since childhood. After twenty-six years living in France, where she was immersed in the study and practice of various healing arts, she returned to the Vineyard in 2003 and established her reflexology business, Betsy’s Hands, in Vineyard Haven.

The Island is, Betsy says, “a place where it’s easier to get in tune with your own rhythms.”

Though she also does house calls, the treatment room in Betsy’s home is a retreat for clients from the stresses of the world, where she employs her keen ability to read their bodies through the soles of their feet. Betsy explains, “The foot acts like a miniature switchboard to the rest of the body.” By applying pressure to different reflex points on the foot, she says, “you solicit a physiological reaction elsewhere in the body.”

Once ensconced in her treatment chair, clients find themselves literally in her hands. Those hands lead, through intuition and knowledge, to the point or points in the foot that correspond to the problem areas in the body. As Betsy works what might seem to be her magic, clients often ask what part of my body is that? when she presses on a point that registers discomfort. She may, for example, work on the big toe to relieve headache pain.

Her reflexology sessions can be enhanced with some of the many alternative modalities that she practices. These include neuro-linguistic programming, where she trains people in self-awareness as to the messages they send themselves by their own thoughts and verbal expressions. In combination with reflexology, different treatments like this and others she employs can help her clients to modify beliefs that limit their potential, and help them
to improve their overall health and well-being.

Betsy explains, “One of the things that differentiates the medical model and the healing arts model is that we tend to see the body as a whole and to encourage the body’s own mechanism to heal itself.”

Betsy becomes so engaged in her work that she has, at times, herself experienced a client’s pain. While working on the feet of an elderly man in France, she not only felt the heat emanating from his ankle, but assumed the pain in her own ankle. “Experiences like that are not unusual for me,” Betsy explains. “I become keenly attuned to my clients’ physical and psychic issues.”

Though she is also a licensed massage therapist, Betsy says she makes it a point not to use the word massage when she’s talking about reflexology, as it is a lot more than a foot massage. Betsy says, “This isn’t spa stuff.”