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Jan 2, 2021

Peter West: The Island’s Pressure Point Frontiersman

Tim Wood

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Hilton Head’s first licensed massage therapist and acupuncturist has forged a roadmap to holistic healing.

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If he had let his name be his compass, the Lowcountry and the world of holistic medicine may have never been blessed with his talents. Truth be told, Peter West didn’t set out to become an acclaimed healer and acupuncturist. His middle-child Pittsburgh upbringing did not foreshadow his path toward Eastern medicine. Fresh out of college and with a rapid disdain for the business world career path he was on, West acted on a series of well-timed whims that changed his life.

“I bought a lottery ticket on a lark and won $5,000. So, I decided to leave Pittsburgh and head to Florida and go to massage therapy school out of desperation,” West said of the 1990 move that sent him South. “I knew I could live cheap; school was half of that $5,000, and I was going to figure the rest of it out. But I never figured this would be my focus 30 years later.”

After three years of intensive training, one of his Florida clients recommended he make a call to a Hilton Head Island resort looking for help. “The Hyatt was increasing their amenity focus. Massage therapy was just starting to take off in the early ’90s, so there were very few licensed masseuses,” West said. “The woman hired me over the phone. I hopped in my 1980 Ford Fairmont that was willed to me when my grandparents passed, hit the road on a Thursday, found an apartment on Sunday and started work Monday.”

As only the second licensed massage therapist on Hilton Head Island in 1993, West quickly built a loyal clientele at both the Hyatt and the Westin hotels and enjoyed the laid-back resort lifestyle and the variety of the folks he met daily. But three years in, he began to feel that his hands were only part of the healing work he could do.

“As I talked and listened to my clients, I realized what was ailing them was more than just the muscles, deeper than just a physical touch,” he said. “I knew nothing about acupuncture, but just from understanding the nervous system, I sensed that if you stuck a needle in my back, I’d feel better. It was an obscure thought. I’d never had acupuncture. My grandmother had had it once, and I remembered the impact. A friend had just finished school and suggested I do it. By 1997, I could see the resorts heading more toward a spa setup, and I knew that wasn’t for me. So, I followed another impulse.”

West dove into schoolwork based on the teachings of J.R. Worsley, a pioneer credited with bringing five-element acupuncture to the Western world in the mid-1900s.

“I thought this might be too holistic for me, too far out. But friends of mine had said the results were amazing, and when I dove in, I quickly understood why,” West said.

This system is centered around the fundamental five elements in nature—fire, earth, metal, water and wood—observed by Chinese practitioners over centuries. It’s a concept the less enlightened and receptive may see as quack medicine and a practice that was even more foreign than massage therapy to the Lowcountry around Y2K. Likewise, South Carolina was one of the slower states to embrace licensing acupuncturists.

“There was no acupuncture board. The laws were archaic then; you needed to work under the supervision of a traditional doctor at that point,” West said. “It was very disrespectful to our industry.”

West became one of the first five licensed acupuncturists in the state and the first on Hilton Head Island in 2000 and set out to introduce the practice in common sense terms. “When I first meet patients, I focus less on the technical terms and more on the concept of treating mind, body and soul,” he said. “Life is energy, and the stresses and fears in our lives can cause physical and emotional blockages of that energy running through our bodies. I spend two hours with new patients because I need to hear what is causing those blockages to truly know how and where to place the needles. It’s never treating one thing. You may come to me with a sore back, but I will also treat your liver and lungs. The more you treat the whole body, the more you improve energy flow and allow the body to heal itself.”

One of West’s earliest island converts was Dr. Joseph Hickey, a doctor who had begun his career in traditional medicine as a general practitioner in upstate New York before moving to Hilton Head, where he evolved a more holistic approach.

“It was a chance meeting. We met at Gold’s Gym in the late ’90s. He was part of the Heritage practice, had four kids, young twins and was feeling a lot of stress,” West said. “One of his friends recommended acupuncture, and after his first session, he thought it was the best thing ever—really responded to the needle points we hit.”

Hickey said the timing was kismet as he was looking to build his own practice of holistic healers. “He’s a very learned man; he knows the body upside and down. The more we talked, the more I realized I’d met my career soulmate,” he said of his 25-year relationship with West. Hickey sponsored West’s license petition and recruited him to work at his newly opened Wellness Center, first in Shelter Cove (now the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office) and in the current New Orleans Road location. “He’s a unique and vital tool in treating both myself and my patients. I’ve had acupuncture at least once a week for 15 years, and Peter has been 40 feet away from me in the offices for 25 years.”

“He’s more the science guy and I’m more the intuitive one. It’s a great pairing, we work so well off of each other,” West said of his friendship with Hickey. “I’ll work with him until he retires, and then I don’t know what I’ll do. I can’t imagine this path without him.”

Hickey explains West’s work as being a master electrician of the body. “Everything is interconnected in our bodies. That energy, it’s circuitry, not much different than how we wire power in a house,” Hickey said. “Peter has better knowledge and ability to keep the energy flowing through the body’s circuit board than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s part psychiatrist, part physical healer. He gets behind the fear, the negative energy that blocks us and finds the formula for clearing the clogs.”

The 58-year-old’s personal path to this evolved approach has been a decades long journey. West gave up alcohol 30 years ago, calling it “a rat poison that needed to be gone.” He replaced partying with hardcore exercise and has become a long-distance runner and Ironman competitor.

Hickey marvels at his friend’s ability to run 26 miles and pivot right into a 200-mile bike ride. West said it’s simply what works for his body and soul.

“I’m a boring guy. Not married, no kids. I have cats. When I’m not with my exercise crew, I’m with the cats. The exercise is what clears my energy, for sure. I have a nine-mile loop from the office to the beach and back that’s my daily cleansing,” West said. “The first time I meet clients, they usually say, ‘Hey, you’re the guy I see jogging down the parkway every day.’”

West is constantly learning new techniques to evolve his practice and has added treatments such as cupping, cold laser treatment, foot reflexology and ear acupuncture to his healing arsenal through the years.

“I feel blessed by this life, by my work with Dr. Hickey and by living this island life, so of course I’m always going to be learning,” he said. “Maybe when I’m 75 I’ll move to Florida, play golf and tennis with my older brother and enjoy his family’s company. I told my mom I’ll be buried in the backyard with all my feral cats. But until then, I’ve found what I’m meant to do and where I’m meant to be. And it’s been a fun journey.”

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