Acupuncturist Heather Grant’s journey

By Ross Howell Jr.  .  Photographs By Lynn Donovan

On walks with Sprinkles, I’d often noted a business sign for Paradox Wellness in front of a two-story brick building on Bessemer Avenue, just around the block from where we live.

What both Sprinkles and I especially remarked as we passed was a black-and-white dog about the size of a Shetland pony poking his head between the balusters of the upstairs patio.

Turns out he’s a 1-year-old puppy named Big Puff. He’s in training as a service dog and patient greeter.

His person is Heather Grant, DACM (Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine), the owner of Paradox Wellness.

And like many dog stories, this one is about a journey.

Heather moved to Greensboro from northern New Jersey when she was a teenager. Her father, an engineer, had taken a new job and was building a house for the family in Lake Jeanette. Heather first attended high school in McLeansville, then transferred to Page High School.

Since she’d taken extra classes as a student in New Jersey, “I had a lot of flexibility my senior year,” Heather says. “It was neat, because I took four art classes and AP chemistry.”

Accepted to North Carolina State University, Heather enrolled in chemical engineering.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she says, “but my Dad’s an engineer, and since I’m really good in math and science, everybody in the family would say, ‘Heather’s going to be an engineer.’”

But an elective class in cultural anthropology at NCSU opened a path quite different from traditional chemical engineering — though it still involved chemistry.

“I wanted to go live with the Yanomami tribe in the rainforest of Brazil,” Heather says, “and learn about their natural medicines.”

So her sophomore year, Heather changed her major to anthropology. She applied to participate in the NCSU ethnographic field school program in Costa Rica.

Not long after she arrived in Costa Rica, a man broke through Heather’s window and assaulted her. To this day she copes with posttraumatic stress disorder.

“I tried to stay in the program but I just couldn’t sleep,” she says. “I decided I didn’t want to be an ethnographer anymore.”

So Heather returned to North Carolina, deciding the Outer Banks might be a good place to heal. She wound up staying there for five years, mostly in Corolla. She found a roommate to share expenses, a woman who had lived on the Outer Banks for more than 40 years.

“My roommate was really neat,” Heather says. Importantly, her roomie taught her a good trade — bartending.

“But I didn’t want to spend my whole life tending bar on the Outer Banks,” she continues. “I wanted to do more.”

Heather describes waking up one night from a dream. “I just felt like I had to go back and finish school,” she says.

As she was leaving the Outer Banks, Heather stopped at Sanderling Resort to get a massage.

“The therapist told me that if I liked what he did, I would love what his wife did with her needles,” Heather says. “That’s how I discovered acupuncture.”

A few months after returning to Greensboro to be near her family, she came across a stray puppy at a gas station off Bessemer Avenue.

It was life changing.

“That was Jasmine Joy,” Heather says. She brought the puppy home: “She was my companion.”

The two lived together in an apartment on Hendrix Street, very near the location of her business today. When Heather found she needed to move out of her apartment, she decided to take an even bigger step.

She loaded puppy Jasmine in her car and traveled cross country to study at Yo San University of Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine in Los Angeles.

“My study was really intense,” Heather says. Typically, a Master’s degree requires four years of year-round, full-time study. Not only did Heather have to work in order to pay for school and support herself, but she also lost stability function in her left ear in reaction to a medication.

“The spinning was so bad,” she comments, “I was hardly able to open my eyes.”

“That’s when I trained Jasmine to be a service dog,” Heather says. “She just saved me.”

It took Heather five-and-a-half years to complete her degree. After a decade in California, degree and license in hand, she returned to Greensboro.

“I flew on travel miles and Jasmine flew first class so she’d have enough leg room,” she laughs.

Heather opened Paradox Wellness at the corner of Bessemer Avenue and Elm Street on January 4, 2017. Her residence was an upstairs apartment in downtown Greensboro.

Then Jasmine became paralyzed in her hips.

The dog weighed 65 pounds, too heavy for Heather to carry up and down steps.

“I moved into my business because it was on ground level,” she says. “I got her a wheelchair.” And she treated Jasmine with acupuncture every day.

“People thought I should’ve put her down,” Heather adds, “but I see this medicine do miracles all the time.”

Jasmine finally was able to walk again and enjoyed her last few months.

“When she died, I just sat on my couch and stared,” Heather says. “She was a great dog.”

Heather whispers, “I pray about her every day.”

She had no plans to get another dog.

But after moving into her current location, Heather kept having what she calls an “intuition.”

“It was Jasmine, really, saying, ‘Look for a dog, look for a dog,’” Heather recalls.

“And I would say, ‘I’m not ready!’” she continues.

Eventually Heather Googled, and up popped a 25-pound, 10-week-old, last-of-the-litter son of a Newfoundland mother and Great Pyrenees father. Both breeds are heralded for their strength, calm demeanor and size — adults can weigh 150 pounds.

Heather drove out to visit the couple who owned the puppy.

“I told them my heart’s not attached to this,” Heather explains, “but I want to see if we choose each other, you know? So I went over and sat next to him.”

“And he chose me,” Heather says. “When I was first beside him, he was kind of reserved and then he was panting and doing his big smile and the woman said to her husband, ‘I feel good about that, do you feel good about that?’ And he said, ‘I feel good about that,’ and I said, ‘I feel good about that,’ and that was that.”

Almost. Heather, at the time, drove a Fiat. When a friend saw Big Puff in the car, the friend told her, “You’re going to need a new car.”

So she changed her lease to a Ford Ecosport, and realized that vehicle also was too small. Now Heather has a Honda Pilot.

“Having a dog, that’s a lifestyle, that’s a huge commitment,” Heather says.

“I love Puff so much,” she continues. “He brings me so much joy, but he’s not a replacement for Jasmine. I love him in his own special way.”

Then there’s his job. Heather tells me how he loves to greet the patients. He likes to lie outside their treatment rooms, guarding them.  When treatment is finished, he likes to accompany patients to the door.

“I have a lot of people I’m treating with acupuncture for anxiety,” Heather says. “When they come in for the first time, some of them aren’t real excited about the idea of needles, right? But having Puff here helps calm them. They’ll say, ‘I’m so happy he’s here.’”

“Everybody loves Puff,” Heather says.

“I’ve learned in life you can’t plan a lot of things,” she continues. “You have to stay flexible and keep moving forward. I always ask myself, ‘How can I make my dream workable for Puff?’”

We’re sitting in Heather’s office, another point in her journey. The room is painted a dark, soothing color. I see glittering glass jars of Chinese herbs — her apothecary — in an adjoining room.

Big Puff lies on the floor by my chair, resting his big head on his paws.

“I found Jasmine right up the street,” Heather says. “I don’t know what the significance of this little block of Fisher Park is, but for some reason, there’s something here that has always pulled me back.”

The windows behind her are decorated with jasmine flowers.Heather explains how patients come to her thinking they have all sorts of individual things wrong with them, while Chinese medicine looks at diagnoses in terms of patterns.

“It’s awesome,” she says. “I treat a lot of difficult cases — Bell’s palsy, Ramsay Hunt syndrome, stroke patients, insomniacs — and I get to watch this medicine create joy in people’s lives.”

“I have what I wanted,” Heather continues. “It just didn’t come to me the way I thought it would. All these beautiful things happen, but it can be hard roads to get there.”

She pauses, reflecting.

“And Puff makes everything so much better,” Heather concludes. Then smiles. OH

Ross Howell Jr.’s novel, Forsaken, was nominated for the 2017 Southern Book Prize in Historical Fiction. It’s available wherever books are sold.

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