A tiny deer tick changed Tom Frey's life forever. About a dozen years ago, he was an insurance broker and a self-acknowledged Type A personality living in Syosset, Long Island. When his normally healthy body began experiencing heart palpitations, joint pain, dyslexia and daily headaches, doctors diagnosed Lyme disease.
During his two years on antibiotics with no improvement, Frey sought help from the world of alternative medicine: amma therapeutic massage, Chinese herbs and acupuncture. He started feeling better within three months and great within a year. There was no going back. Frey's personal progress convinced him to pursue a different career path. He became a healer.
Today, the Grand Isle acupuncturist-herbalist sees human clients during most of the week at his Burlington clinic, called the Vermont Center for Acupuncture, or at Northwestern Hospital in St. Albans. But, as of a month ago, every Tuesday morning he can be found at the Essex Veterinary Center's new facility. Clients and their pets are now offered several unique options in addition to conventional care, including chiropractic.
Frey, 49, is one of the few people administering acupuncture to animals in the state. For him, it's an opportunity to treat all creatures great and small -- though not as small as that damn deer tick.
SEVEN DAYS: What was it like to make such a significant switch in occupations?
TOM FREY: Well, I owned my own insurance company with three offices and 40 employees, so at first I just scaled back. I began by studying qi gong, a gentle martial art that emphasizes breathing. Qi is the life energy force. Stimulating qi can achieve harmony and balance. You can't put your finger on it, but then again, I've never seen air.
SD: After a while, you decided to pursue this interest even more wholeheartedly?
TF: People told me I was crazy. I attended a four-year school, the New York College of Health Professions, to get a master's degree in Oriental medicine. After graduating in 1999, I went to China with my whole family to work at the Longhua Traditional Chinese Medical Hospital in Shanghai for a month. I worked in the cancer, stroke and internal medicine wards. They combine Western with Chinese procedures. So cancer patients would have radiation or chemotherapy, followed by herbal IVs and acupuncture.
SD: What did you learn that was different from your previous training?
TF: It was such an eye-opening experience. The needles were bigger. I wasn't accustomed to that. Also, they leave all the doors and windows open for fresh air. Everyone's bundled up; you can see your breath.
SD: While growing up, had you ever imagined yourself doing this?
TF: At age 17, I wanted to go to St. Michael's College because there was a good pre-med program. But we were too poor. My undergraduate studies, as a biology and environmental chemistry major, were at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. After graduation in 1977, I had a job at a water treatment facility cleaning up Long Island Sound. Then I was a hygienist and safety engineer for an insurance company, making sure workplaces were safe. I finally started my own insurance agency, because those were the people who wore the most expensive suits.
SD: How long did that last?
TF: For 19 years. Until I had one of those major turning points thanks to Lyme disease. I'd been a very healthy person. I worked out, hiked, camped, ran, coached soccer.
SD: What was your plan after China?
TF: We wanted a better place to raise our children and it was post-9/11. I knew three people killed at the World Trade Center. I used to ski at Stratton and Okemo, so I always loved Vermont. We moved up in the beginning of August 2002.
SD: What does your wife do?
TF: Dianne is a registered nurse and a certified nurse-amma therapist at our center. We also have four kids.
SD: Did the practice take off right away?
TF: I now give close to 80 treatments a month. Someone told me that California practitioners are at about 20 to 40. There are many more acupuncturists to choose from there.
SD: What types of ailments do you encounter?
TF: Strokes, paralysis, headaches, gynecological problems, infertility, pediatric diseases and the common cold. It works well on more chronic problems, like diabetes. If I were in a car accident, I'd go to the ER, then for acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
SD: Did you stick with those thick Shanghai needles?
TF: No. I use thin Japanese needles, which are about as thick as a human hair. I went to Hawaii for a few weeks in 2000 to learn Japanese meridian therapy. It's a softer approach. With acupuncture, I burn moxtabustion on or near the skin. Needles move qi, but moxabustion, which warms and comforts, enhances it. We also do acupuncture with micro-electrical stimulation that helps backaches or, for paralysis, builds up the muscles. If there's an ovarian cyst, it can break up the mass.
SD: Is it all about acupuncture?
TF: In some cases, I apply heated glass or bamboo cups that are supposed to pull the wind out. That's good for flu, bronchitis and asthma... Another treatment is guasha, which means scraping the skin with stones or bone. That's excellent for stress because it releases tension in the muscles.
SD: Does it take off the top layer of the epidermis?
TF: I do it with oil, so there's no friction We also have the largest Chinese herbal pharmacy in Vermont.
SD: How do you integrate ancient healing arts with technology?
TF: My latest thing is laser acupuncture, with a shoebox-size device that has a wand. It's a painless way to stimulate the cells to operate better, or decrease production of mast cells that contribute to inflammation and joint pain. I use laser to treat carpal tunnel syndrome.
SD: Laser acupuncture sounds like the wave of the future. Do you transfer most of these techniques to animals?
TF: I always work in conjunction with a vet. I've found that Japanese meridian, which is hands-on palpation, works very well on animals. One client is a cat who has feline leukemia that I've been treating with laser and Chinese herbs.
SD: Feline leukemia is usually fatal.
TF: Yes. I didn't expect to see the cat the following week, but it was actually doing better. A facial tumor had gone down. I've also worked with dogs and ferrets. We've got a rabbit coming soon. And I've been asked to look at some horses. There's a company building me a battery-operated laser for treating large animals.
SD: The animal sideline is too recent for much anecdotal success. But what's your most remarkable accomplishment in working with people?
TF: I have a client whose hand and foot were paralyzed in a car accident 13 years ago. She had not moved her pinky in all that time. I treated her with laser acupuncture at 2 p.m. and five minutes later the finger could move. That was absolutely amazing. And she'd been unable to straighten her thumb but now she can. I hope to get her back to 99 percent. This is so much better than selling insurance.