Class of ’90 | Say you’re walking to your car in a dimly lit parking garage and suddenly find yourself surrounded by a band of thugs. Dr. Charles Terry C’90 Res’98, a seventh-degree black belt, is the guy you really hope is within earshot. Having practiced martial arts for over three decades, the 41-year-old Terry has been inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, filmed in action by a National Geographic television crew, and interviewed for numerous magazine and newspaper stories on subjects ranging from physiological pressure points to proper self-defense. (At a recent black-belt test, as multiple attackers came at him at once, he used pressure points to knock out one of them before quickly dispensing with the others.)
But given that he’s a board-certified physician who specializes in physiatry (physical medicine and rehabilitation), he’s also the guy to see if you’ve been run over by a car or thrown out your back. As a doctor, Terry stands behind the Hippocratic Oath. (First, do no harm.) But as a martial-arts teacher, he’s also part of a practice that, by definition, is a form of physical combat. The key to both is balance.
Terry started taking martial-arts classes when he was six years old. “It was a way of holding my own in a neighborhood where I was one of the smaller kids,” he says. Before his 10th birthday, he earned his first black belt in a Korean style of martial arts known as Tang Soo Do. At age 11, he started practicing his current style, Okinawan karate.
As the years rolled on, he began to teach, eventually reaching the rank of grand master. At Penn, where he majored in biology, he founded a chapter of the Rukyu Kempo Club, a martial-arts club that averaged about 30 students per year. Later, he opened MKA Karate, a martial-arts studio in Drexel Hill, with the help of former classmates from Penn and his wife, Tricia Quarmby W’97, who was the office manager.
After finishing his undergraduate degree at Penn, Terry went on to medical school. Becoming a physician was a “noble calling,”
he says. He never thought his two passions—martial arts and medicine—would converge. But he was wrong.
“I was doing an elective course in medical school on physical rehabilitation,” he recalls, “and after a week, I realized this was what I wanted to do.” Physical rehabilitation, which sometimes involves enabling those in wheelchairs to walk after a serious injury, is about teaching people how to move—just like martial arts. “After you’ve had a major surgery, you’re in a lot of pain,” Terry says. “If you don’t exercise in a certain way, it can compound the problem.”
He gradually came to see this profession as a way to improve people’s lives—and round out his own.
“I became a doctor because I wanted to help people,” he says, “but I also thought it would help me develop further as a person and as a martial artist. I’ve always had a fascination with the ‘mysterious martial-arts master’ who included the healing arts as part of the martial arts.”
After discovering that many of the pressure points used in Ryukyu Kempo are also used in acupuncture, he began using that venerable science on an outpatient basis for patients with back or neck pain or people trying to quit smoking.
Terry is not an alternative-medicine zealot, however.
“I am a Western-trained physician with an open mind,” he says, noting that while he orders X-rays and prescribes medicine, he also believes there is much to learn about the human body from other cultural approaches—“the best of both worlds,” as he puts it.
Though Terry has attracted attention from media outlets as diverse as Black Belt Magazine and Good Day Philadelphia, he has also published dozens of studies in the field of biomedicine, some of them related to martial arts. In one study on knockouts, he took a battery of measurements—including blood pressure, heart rhythms, and oxygen saturation—from fighters rendered temporarily unconscious by a common pressure-point technique that he advocates as a self-defense measure. Ultimately, he found no dangerous physiological changes.
“I didn’t get into martial arts to learn how to hurt others,” he says, noting that he focuses on self-defense through the use of pressure points. “It’s not about gouging someone’s eyes out and breaking their legs. It’s more about how not to get hurt or hurt others.”
Normally, Terry is somewhat taciturn on the subject of martial arts when dealing with patients at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. But after he injured his finger badly enough that it had to be dressed in a splint, he couldn’t avoid the subject.
“I thought about saying something like, ‘I jammed it on somebody’s elbow,’” he says wryly. “But I ended up just telling them I hurt it in a martial-arts-related injury.”
Though he hasn’t had to use his martial-arts training outside of a studio very often, he has been in situations where patients have gotten out of control. “It’s best to use your verbal skills,” he says. “I look at self-defense as a continuum. If you can de-escalate the situation, it doesn’t have to get physical. When it does get physical, it means that one person has already conceded that you’ve defeated them mentally.”
Should anything go wrong while he’s at work as a doctor, however, he’s ready.
“It’s called a Code Green when someone gets out of control in the medical center,” says Terry. “And I’ll admit that I run as fast as I can when I hear it. If it gets physical, I’d rather it be me who gets in the way. It’s not like I haven’t been hit before. I ran a brain-injury unit, and those people can’t always control what they are doing.”
Another reason he has stuck with martial arts for all these years is simply to remain healthy and fit. “It’s good exercise,” he says. “I would be 300 pounds if I didn’t train.”
Working with patients who are often severely injured or disabled, Terry says he often finds himself serving as a “coach and cheerleader,” adding: “I have to help people redirect their energy and help them work through difficult times.”
At night, however, he can let out his own energy by hitting bags or breaking boards in the martial-arts studio.
“If I’m running a class, my students know if I’ve had a bad day,” he says. “I get manic. I have tons of energy. I share it with my class in
a constructive way. Then, the next day, when I’m back to being a doctor, I can start fresh.”
— Christopher Percy Collier