All in the Family
By Genevieve Morgan
Photographs by Cara Slifka
Finding Harmony with Acupuncture Associates
Ts’ao-Ts’ao, a warrior-poet in third-century China, was notorious for his skillful tactics and bold maneuvers in war. As family legend has it, Fern and Maureen Tsao, the mother-daughter team that is Acupuncture Associates of Maine, descend from this powerful man—and it shows in their determination to bring Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM, to Maine.
The Tsao family emigrated to North America in 1961, first to Canada and eventually to Maine. Maureen’s father, a conventionally trained physician, opened a practice in Gardiner. His wife, Fern, an expert TCM practitioner, stayed home to raise their four children until, in 1972, she bravely hung out her own shingle.
“We begged her not to do it—we were mortified,” Maureen remembers. “Nobody back then had any idea what acupuncture was. People called her ‘voodoo lady.’ My dad’s colleagues teased him about it, but she didn’t waiver. She said it would help people—and it did. She successfully treated her first patient—a man who had terrible neuropathy that was turning gangrenous—and word began to spread. She’s been in practice ever since.”
TCM is an ancient medical system that focuses on root causes and patterns of disharmony in the body. It is still considered an alternative medical practice in the United States, but for one-quarter of the world’s population it is anything but. In Maine, doctors who practice TCM must pass an exam given by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and fulfill individual state licensing requirements. Maureen smiles at the unorthodox notion many Westerners continue to have about the field. “The Chinese are probably the most practical people on earth. They wouldn’t keep something around for thousands and thousands of years if it didn’t work.”
TCM practitioners such as the Tsaos regard each person as unique, with a body composed of complex interrelated and interdependent systems specific to the individual. Underpinning a person’s physical health is Qi—the vital life energy that flows through the body along pathways called meridians. Acupuncture and acupressure work to harmonize the flow of Qi through the meridians and organs, but they are only one aspect of TCM—proper diagnosis, use of herbal remedies, and diet and lifestyle education are others.
Fern Tsao moved her practice to Yarmouth in the early 1980s, and in time half of her children joined her (the other two followed more conventional medical paths: one became a transplant cardiologist and the other an ophthalmic surgeon). Maureen, the rebel, decided to attend law school. She was a tax attorney for a number of years in San Francisco before answering to her true calling and coming back to Maine. She and her mother have since treated hundreds of patients at Acupuncture Associates for a range of acute and chronic maladies, as well as preventative medicine. Their patients, in addition to yours truly, include Dr. Dora Anne Mills, a former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and women’s health pioneer, Dr. Christiane Northrup, who has this to say: “The Tsaos’ skilled and compassionate approach to Traditional Chinese Medicine is the perfect partner to the conventional Western approach. No one is better at this than Fern Tsao. I have referred scores of people to her over the years and also see her myself. We are blessed to have Fern and Maureen here in our state!”
“I have the perspective of having done something else that was stimulating but not satisfying to my heart or soul,” says Maureen. “Helping people find harmony, find balance—even if it’s just getting in and out of the car without pain—is so rewarding.” Speaking for her mother, she adds, “When people come to us, we try to show them that their health is not something they do that is separate from their life—it is their life.”