This is a story about a medical puzzle. It involves a very successful research physician and his father, a dentist who was also a hypnotist. It also involves the research physician’s wife, who is suffering from ovarian cancer.
I am writing this story because I am truly mystified by the doctor, who I will call David. I met him and his wife a few weeks ago at a dinner party. We got talking about medical issues. He did his training at Harvard, and my husband, who was at the table too, mentioned that I had been treated at Dana Farber, a Harvard-affiliated hospital, for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
David asked me how long I had been healthy, and I told him five or six years and he gave me a big smile and a thumbs up. As we proceeded to dine on barbecued chicken and string beans and orzo salad, David told one amazing story about his father the dentist.
Somewhere along the line, his father (I will call him Isaac) had learned about the power of hypnosis. Being an open-minded kind of guy, Isaac decided to try using hypnosis — instead of anesthesia — on his dental patients.
David himself experienced the astonishing power of hypnosis. Just before he went off to college, David needed his wisdom teeth removed. His father did the oral surgery, using only hypnosis. A day later, David had to leave for school. Isaac arranged for David to be seen in another city by a different dentist.
When the second dentist peered into David’s mouth, he was puzzled. “When did you say you had your wisdom teeth removed?” he asked David.
“Yesterday,” David answered.
“But that’s impossible,” the dentist said. The four holes in David’s mouth were virtually healed. A day later, David traveled on to another city, and a third dentist inspected his mouth. Same reaction: David’s recovery from oral surgery was absolutely astonishing.
David said he suffered no pain at all, until the third day, when suddenly he felt some twitches of discomfort. He called his father. Isaac told David that he wasn’t surprised that David felt pain after the third day.
“When I hypnotized you, I told you that you would have no pain on days one, two and three,” Isaac told his son.
I was entranced by David’s story. But there’s more.
At age 75, Isaac needed open heart surgery for a bypass. At that point, his son was a physician. Isaac explained to David how to hypnotize him before he went into surgery. David did the hypnosis. Isaac had the heart surgery — they opened his chest at the breastbone with a long incision. They closed him up with a long row of metal staples.
Isaac sailed through the surgery. A day later, he reported no pain. Two days later, he told his son, and his doctor, that he felt he was healed enough to have the staples removed. Naturally, the doctor was at first reluctant, but when he went to remove the staples, they came out with ease. Indeed, a miracle had occurred. This 75-year-old man with a mammoth breast incision had virtually healed in two days.
By now our dinner was over. I was completely mesmerized by David’s stories. And his explanation for why hypnosis had led to such rapid healing. “I believe that the hypnosis gave the subconscious mind an instruction to release some kind of healing substance,” he said. I nodded in agreement, and suggested that it might be interesting to test it further.
But this is where the real mystery ensues.
At this point in the conversation, David’s wife, who I will call Carla, leaned toward me and whispered that she has ovarian cancer. And that recently it had recurred for the third time. I am always at a loss for what to say when someone confides information like this in me (it happens because of my health history). I don’t really like to ask a person about their treatment, or their prognosis, but I did inquire very gently about how she was faring. Carla was vague but suggested that she was getting additional treatment. I nodded.
She turned the conversation back to me. Was I getting follow-up treatment for Hodgkins? No, I said, I had completed my treatment five years ago. But I told her I was trying to live as “meticulously” as I could. She wanted to know what that meant.
I told her that I focus on a good diet, low in sugar and fat, and big on greens and garlic, everything organic. I told her that I take barley powder at least twice daily (with my doctor’s encouragement) and a second fiber blend powder to “detoxify.” I told her that I meditate and do yoga daily, to try to stay positive, and to keep stress levels low.
I didn’t mention the chanting I do. Or the visualization. Or the Reiki I’ve had. Or the jin shin jitsu. Or the classes I take weekly in gnosticism.
I did say, however, that I spend a good deal of time in prayer of one kind or another.
Carla was intrigued. She wanted the Internet address for the company from which I buy the barley powder. And she was astonished to learn that sugar was a no-no. She turned to her husband. “David, did you know that I shouldn’t be eating sugar?” she demanded. He looked confused. “Why didn’t my oncologist tell me that?” she snapped.
I pointed out to her that none of the three oncologists I saw when I was treated for cancer ever said a word to me about avoiding sugar; nor did they ever attempt to offer any nutritional advice. They had no interest whatsoever in what I ate, only in what chemicals they were pumping into my veins.
At that point, with Carla’s prompting, I tried to explain to David why I do what I do to try to stay healthy. I told him that the more I read and learn about medicine, the more firmly I believe that the human body is, at heart, a complex energy system. And that the mind plays a critical role in controlling how the body fares.
This is where the most astonishing part comes in. After spending most of the evening explaining to me in great detail his father’s use of hypnosis both to stave off pain, AND to heal in miraculous ways, David told me that he didn’t buy into alternative medicine, not one bit. He dismissed it all in one sentence, saying that he was a scientist (he works as a pathologist) and that he is highly suspicious of people who adhere to unscientific notions with a kind of blind faith, or idolatry.
I don’t remember his exact words, but basically he said: “There is no scientific evidence for most of what the alternative practitioners play around with.”
Well, OK, I said, but at least you must agree with the idea that we should try to reduce stress.
Nope, he said. Why should we?
Why? I said. “Because high stress levels leave us more vulnerable to illness.”
“How do we know that for sure?” he asked. “We need stress in order to stimulate our fight or flight response.”
At that point, I just looked at him and thought, this man may be a brilliant Harvard-trained scientist and doctor but he is also . . . arrogant, and a little nuts. There was no point in trying to convince him that alternative therapies, and herbals, and other non-traditional remedies are worth a consideration.
Dessert was being served. I decided to get up from the table before cake arrived.
I wished his wife well. She seemed vaguely irritated at her husband, as if she had relied completely on his knowing what was best for her, and now, she was hearing that maybe there were other ideas that might also make sense.
I left that party thoroughly puzzled. And I still am. Here is a highly-intelligent doctor with so much firsthand experience showing him that the mind is capable of things way beyond what we currently understand. How, I keep asking, could he be so completely closed to trying to understand that power in the mind and the body?
What a sad thing. Because he is a powerful man. He sits on the admissions committee of a major medical school. He controls a very large research department at a big university. If he wanted to, he could do amazing stuff. He could advocate, among his colleagues, for a double-blind research study on hypnosis.
He could also try something else. Why not try hypnotizing his wife? Her condition is very serious. He could try planting a subconscious message in her mind, one that suggested to her body that it find a way of fighting off this newest round of ovarian cancer. It might not cure her, but considering the severity of her illness, it would be worth a go, no?
There are more and more doctors all the time who express their willingness to embrace alternative remedies. But we’ve still got such a long way to go. After an encounter like this one, I wonder if conventional practitioners and the medical research establishment will ever seriously embrace the many fascinating alternatives that give so many people so much health.
Claudia Ricci, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, teaches journalism and English at the University at Albany. She lives in Spencertown.