TAMPA HEIGHTS — Natalie Maddox sits on the couch sipping tea after giving an acupuncture treatment to a patient. She opened the Palm Wellness Center last month in a Victorian house with spacious rooms and pastel colored walls.
The peaceful atmosphere is much different from Maddox's hot and clamorous days on the field as a Buccaneers cheerleader, where jets roared over the stadium and crowds went wild.
"It was very fun and I miss it," she said, "but there is no time to do both now."
Originally from New Jersey, Maddox, 29, grew up with a passion for dance and a lifestyle that focused on exercise and eating healthfully because of her mother's views.
"I think it kind of trickled down to me," Maddox said.
Her love of performing led her to the Tampa Bay Bucs cheerleading team.
Her healthy lifestyle and holistic views inspired her to become a doctor of acupuncture and a certified Pilates instructor.
"It is surprising that she has such a variety of things that she loves, such as dancing and acupuncture, and there is no connection, but she loves them both very much," her mother, Madolyn Maddox, 58, said.
Natalie started dancing as a child, but she had back problems in adolescence. Her mother, who has always turned to alternative methods before traditional Western medicine, took her to acupuncture treatments.
"It helped me immensely," Maddox said. "It relaxed me, and it didn't hurt."
She always knew that she wanted to do something in the medical field, and her personal experience spurred her interest in the practice.
Acupuncture originated in China thousands of years ago and consists of inserting thin needles into the skin at strategic points, often to relieve pain. It is used to treat everything from migraines to infertility.
"When you insert the needles, endorphins are released, and these are natural pain relievers," said Maddox, who moved to Florida to attend college in 1996. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a double science major in biology and chemistry in 2000.
After college, she worked for a couple of years at Genzyme Genetics, where she "looked at chromosomes under the microscope."
She had doubts about her true passion and questioned whether she would be viewed as a credible and competent professional if she entered an alternative medical field.
"I didn't do it right away because it wasn't mainstream," she said.
As more medical studies on the benefits of acupuncture were published, she decided to enroll at the East West College of Natural Medicine in Sarasota, where she obtained a master's degree in "Oriental medicine," which includes acupuncture and herbal medicine, in 2005.
While going to school, she cheered for the Bucs for three seasons. She was a captain during the 2006-07 season, her last.
According to cheerleading manager Sandy Charboneau, a cheerleader becomes a captain after showing strong leadership abilities and must be someone the other women can look up to.
"She was extremely professional with us," Charboneau said. "She was willing to go the extra mile."
Although Bucs cheerleaders don't get paid, Maddox cherishes the memories and recalls feeling "nervous with excitement" when on the field. She traveled to Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom with the team. She did community work and made meaningful friendships with other cheerleaders, including Jennette Harshman, who is now a patient.
"She really cares about what she is doing and how she can help people," Harshman said.
Deborah Culbert, 54, is also a client at the center on Palm Avenue.
She suffered a spinal injury after a car accident a few years ago. Culbert doesn't want to have surgery, preferring to manage her pain by combining acupuncture and Pilates.
Some clients are surprised to learn that Maddox is a former cheerleader, but Culbert is not.
"Obviously, she is beautiful," she said, "but she is more intelligent than she is beautiful, if you can imagine."
Alessandra Da Pra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3434.