IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Failure of surgery and pills drives healing quest

When Western medicine no longer met his needs, one writer turned to a Brazilian shaman and embarked on a quest for healing.
/ Source: Mens Health

Somewhere out there, a Capital Blue Cross agent is losing sleep over me. In the past 13 years, I have accrued $1 million in medical bills. My insurance profile (which, when cued up for review, no doubt sets off an alarm in some office in central Oklahoma) breaks down like this:

120 trips to 12 different doctors: $30,000

16-plus pills a day: $16,200

Four hospitalizations: $170,000

Two major surgical procedures, each requiring a week of recovery time in the hospital and megadoses of morphine: $500,000

An IV infusion of high-intensity anti-inflammatories every 8 weeks for the past 4 1/2 years: $275,000

I began running this tab in October 1994, at the age of 14, when doctors noticed, under the nuclear glow of a barium x-ray, that the walls of my small intestine were shrinking. They diagnosed me with Crohn's disease, an autoimmune disorder of the digestive tract. My small intestine swells and scars, shrinking my internal piping from a silver-dollar diameter to that of a number-two pencil, creating obstacles for everything I ingest. Two types of pain come from this: a dull ache that can last for days, or a knife jab that stabs spasmodically. When the disease is at its worst, I feel both, with my abdomen as the epicenter. Even morphine isn't strong enough to soothe that agony.

After that initial intervention, the doctors sent me home with a cache of drugs, including a prescription for an elephantine dose of prednisone, a potent steroid with a list of side effects long enough to make a pharmaceutical rep blush.

The severe reality of chronic illness soon became apparent in the wild distortions of my teenage frame: The meds inflated my face like a beach ball, while a vanishing appetite left my waist and limbs emaciated. Like most Crohn's carriers, I felt my energy plummet. To start each school year, my mom would sit down with my teachers and tell them that when I fell asleep in class, it wasn't from a lack of interest. When my buddies were dipping their tater tots, I sipped my soup, popped my pills, and held my gut against the next wrenching spasm.

In the summer of 1996, at age 16, I had my first surgery: a lower-bowel resection. The surgeon cut out 2 feet of intestine, and, in a painful irony, found an undigested anti-inflammatory pill blocking traffic. He joined the severed ends, and I was back in business until 2003, when surgeons sliced 18 more inches from my digestive tract.

I'm not the only one with gut problems in my family. We catch Crohn's the way most people catch colds: My dad, two of my brothers, and an uncle and cousin on my mom's side also have constricted guts. My dad was the charter member of the Goulding Family Crohn's Club, and his story couldn't be more different from mine.

Embracing alternative therapies
During my childhood in California, he worked 60-hour weeks as a commission-based life-insurance salesman, coached every sport we ever played, and volunteered whatever time was left to anybody who needed it. That all changed in 1994 when, at age 44, he was diagnosed with Crohn's. He decided that major life changes were in order, so after 30 years in California, he transplanted my family to the relative calm of North Carolina.

He completely transformed his life, going from a man so high-strung he was once tossed out of a Little League game for f-bombing the ump, to a guy who now spends each dawn folded up on a yoga mat, surrounded by burning incense and candles.

"My health problem was so much more than just physical, and I was willing to try anything to fix it," he says.

He did: Four years after he was diagnosed, my dad lulled his Crohn's disease into remission.

My father, the yoga-stretching, meditating man, is part of a groundswell of Americans who are breaking out of their doctors' offices in search of better health. Nearly two-thirds of Americans have tried some form of alternative medicine, from acupuncture to Asian herbal diets. Acknowledging this trend, the National Institutes of Health established the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which has invested nearly a billion dollars since 1999 to separate the bunk from the brilliant.

"The idea of healing is no longer just about what a traditional doctor can do for you but also what you can do to help heal yourself," says Larry Dossey, M.D., the author of "The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things" and a onetime chief of staff at the Medical City Dallas Hospital.

My dad improved his condition by embracing nontraditional therapies, while I've made myself sicker by avoiding them. I work too much, sleep too little, eat and drink with religious intensity. When the swelling and pain in my intestine escalate, I up my dosages or talk to my surgeon. But with every slice of the scalpel, the outlook grows grimmer. "You need the small intestine to absorb calories and fluids," says Kim Isaacs, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the gastroenterologist for me, my dad, and my brother Rex. "Cut too much and you'll need to be hooked up to an IV constantly, and life becomes pretty difficult."

Last summer, I added a new malady. A detached retina — unrelated to my gut, as far as I know — led to a permanent and nearly full loss of vision in my left eye.

The Crohn's kicked in soon after, and I was half blind and bedridden. I'd had enough. I took medical leave from work and retreated to North Carolina. That's when my dad told me about a man in Brazil who might have a solution to our problems.

Placing faith elsewhere
I don't believe in miracles. I never have. Even as a devout young Catholic, I questioned the loaves-and-fishes story. My brain wasn't willing to go there.

I know I'm in the minority: A Fox News survey on faith and spirituality found that 84 percent of Americans believe in miracles. These days, the buzz is all about spectacular feats of healing, says Jacalyn Duffin, M.D., Ph.D., a professor in the history of medicine department at Queen's University, in Ontario. "People want to believe that if doctors can't heal them, someone or something else can," Dr. Duffin says.

Someone like João Teixeira de Faria, known to his followers as João de Deus (John of God). Believers claim he has cured hundreds of thousands of people over the past 35 years, giving sight to the blind, movement to the paralyzed, and new life to the cancer- and HIV-stricken. But he's no doctor. With a second-grade education and zero medical background, he has no business diagnosing people, let alone cutting them open. Yet every year, tens of thousands of people converge on his clinic — Casa de Dom Inácio, located in a tiny hillside village in central Brazil — to seek his help.

John of God grew up as the son of a poor tailor. At 16 he began treating people in spectacular fits of healing that he wouldn't remember immediately after. As John and his followers tell it, he is a medium through whom dozens of history's most prolific healers — King Solomon and Saint Ignatius of Loyola among them — do their work.

Those who make the trek from the far-flung corners of the planet continue to find some mysterious forces at work in Brazil. "There are things going on down there that medical science simply cannot explain," says Mehmet Oz, M.D., a professor and surgeon at Columbia University. Dr. Oz incorporates techniques similar to those used by John of God — therapeutic touch and hypnosis, for example — into his own surgeries.

My dad first heard about John of God through John Orr, who is on the faculty at Duke University and has been his spiritual therapist for 8 years. Orr, who once suffered from ulcerative colitis, a disease closely linked to Crohn's, did a long stint in Abadiânia, where John of God does his work. After his time at the Casa, his symptoms retreated.

He suggested that we consider the trip.

"I went because I wanted other options," Orr told me. "You might, too."

I needed other options, but was this one really for me? Shouldn't you have faith before you seek help from a faith healer?

I had invested my hope in the powers of Western medicine. And yet after spending a million dollars, losing a dozen years, and sacrificing 42 inches of my small intestine, I was still sick, and getting sicker. Maybe it was time to place my faith elsewhere.

A quest for healing
It takes three airplanes, two taxis, and a full 24 hours to reach tiny, dusty Abadiânia. My dad and I arrive at the Jardim dos Anjos, the Garden of Angels, one of the dozen or so spartan pousadas (a cross between a hotel and a hostel) packed in John of God's side of town. The manager, Mauricio Tagle, 64, is our host. He lived in Denver for 20 years but came to Abadiânia with a bad hip about 5 years ago. His pain left, but he stayed.

"Hello, my friends," he greets us. "How are you? You must be hungry... . "

The next day, the streets are flooded with hundreds of hopeful pilgrims limping, staggering, and wheeling their way down to the Casa. The vast majority of visitors are Brazilian — people who believe in miracles like Americans believe in death and taxes.

The Casa itself consists of a half dozen single-story buildings spread out over a few acres. The main hall seats about 100 people. Everything is painted either pure white or sky blue, so even during an anesthesia-free surgery you have the feeling that you're floating among the clouds. The Casa also houses a pharmacy that dispenses herbal medicines; a store that sells books, videos, and large crystals from a mine John of God owns; and a room for spare crutches and wheelchairs cast off by their owners.

I know what you're thinking: There is a certain amount of money churning through the outfit. The crystals sell for $10 to $100; the pharmacy charges $20 for 5 weeks' worth of herbs. But the healing attention from John of God is free, as is the "spiritual soup" served to each visitor after every morning session. The Casa provides about 75,000 bowls every year. From all this activity, the Casa takes in approximately $500,000 annually, which pays the electric bills and upkeep, plus the salaries of 15 to 20 staff members.

John promises to see every individual who shows up Wednesday through Friday — 300 to 500 people a day. During the weeklong festival celebrating Saint Ignatius in June, those numbers swell well into the thousands. Awaiting him are children with cerebral palsy and old men with glaucoma, beautiful Brazilian women with HIV, and pink, sunburned men with failing livers.

And, my dad and me.

We are here because Western medicine has failed us, as it has so many of the people who pass through these halls. Many of us have spent our lives filling and emptying prescriptions, taking stethoscopes to the chest and needles in the arm, answering the same questions until they feel like a catechism, and following the advice of fine doctors and the findings in the very latest medical studies.

But these measures don't always add up to a cure. Surely, not all our answers can be pinpointed on x-rays, bottled in blood tests, or expunged on the cold, sterile tables of the O.R. So where else do we turn?

Immersed in meditation
By 8 a.m. the morning after I arrive, the hall is packed. Each person can approach John with three questions, called "intentions." I'm holding mine, translated into Portuguese:

1. Can you help protect my small intestine from further damage?

2. Can you restore vision in my left eye?

3. Can you help strengthen my spirituality?

An old, hunched-over Brazilian man steps up onto the stage and tells the crowd about the two types of surgeries John performs: visible and invisible. Visible surgeries are by request only and are performed onstage for all to behold. Invisible surgeries take place in a separate room, where a group of patients sit, eyes closed, as John focuses healing attention on each individual. Throughout the morning, people crowd the stage to tell their own healing stories or to lead the group in prayer. And always, videos of past surgeries play. After 2 hours of this, the first-timers are called forward. My dad and I fall in line behind 50 others.

Inside the Casa are two large, rectangular rooms joined together to form an L. Seated in each room are more than 75 people deep in meditation. We pivot left at the L junction, and there, at the end of the second room, is John, sitting calmly in a wooden rocking chair. He is 60, maybe, and sturdy as a tight end; his barrel chest strains against the buttons on his gauzy shirt. To his left is a crystal the size of a dishwasher; translators crowd around. The line moves quickly; John gives each person 5 to 10 seconds before a volunteer sweeps him or her away.

My turn.

I step forward, and he gently takes my hands in his. The translator reads my intentions, and John pauses for a moment. "Sit in my current and come back to see me Friday," he says.

The current rooms play a fundamental role at the Casa. According to some seminal sitters, the area is as important as John of God himself. I gave meditation a shot in college after my dad promised it would slow me down. I never meditated for more than 15 minutes, which was my functional definition of eternity at the time. But as I look around the current room today and see 85-year-old men and 9-year-old girls doing it without any apparent trouble, I figure it's time to dig deep. Over the next 2 days, I log 10 hours of deep meditation interspersed with the occasional power nap.

Research shows the technique can be effective in treating epilepsy, and mood and anxiety disorders. The benefits can extend beyond the brain, including treatment of autoimmune illnesses like Crohn's. And a recent study from the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, in Iowa, found that long-term practitioners of meditation can dampen response to pain by 40 to 50 percent. Could it be that all these perfectly still, silent people are healing themselves? Or are they just feeling their pain less acutely?

'Nothing to lose'
If you go to the Casa today, Matthew Ireland will probably be the first man you'll see, helping a newcomer or bringing water to people in the current room. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor when he was 29. He was working in the Rockies, building ski trails, until persistent migraines drove him out of the wilderness and into a hospital. The tumor advanced quickly, from stage II to an inoperable stage IV glioblastoma multiforme. At that late stage, survival rates hover around 2 percent.

"The doctor told me to go see my family," he tells me. "He was sending me home to die."

Not long after, a neighbor called. "She said, 'I've been to John of God, and I think you should come over to talk,' " Ireland says. "A few hours later, I had a pousada reservation in Abadiânia."

He said his goodbyes to friends and family and headed for the Casa. John told Matthew to sit in the current. He did so for months, inching ever closer to his forecasted death day, in this tiny, unfamiliar town thousands of miles from his loved ones.

"I wasn't even a spiritual guy," he says. "I stayed because I had nothing to lose."

After his death date had come and gone, he returned to the States for an MRI. The tumor had shrunk. His family and friends, former skeptics all, pushed him back onto the first plane to Brazil.

He went straight to the current room. One day, deep in meditation, he felt a hand on his head. He opened his eyes and found John standing above him. "You are cured," he said. "Go to the hospital and have the tests." So Matthew went into Goiania, to the largest hospital in the region, and had his final MRI. "The brain tumor was gone," Matthew says. "All that was left was a bit of scar tissue."

While it is physiologically possible that Matthew's tumor healed itself or that 2 weeks of chemo (all he could take) did the trick, he sees only one explanation.

"This place gave me my life back," he says. "I have all the proof I need: me, walking around, not dying of a brain tumor."

Dr. Oz reviewed another kind of proof and came away impressed: "I took Matthew's MRIs to our radiology department and reviewed them. The tumor had shrunk significantly. If I had that diagnosis, I would make my way down there to see what João could do for me."

World's most underqualified surgeon
I wake up late Thursday night with acute stomach pain; I'm shivering under two blankets. It's 80°F outside and hotter in my room. It's a Crohn's attack, my first in several months, and it's still riding me when the sun comes up. I should stay in bed, but John told me to come back Friday, so I must. I hobble out to the road and find a cab to the Casa.

I'm hoping for a speedy path to John, but this is his morning for physical surgeries. First up is a plump German woman, swaddled in white from sandals to shawl. She stands serenely before us, eyes half-closed, her breaths deep and rhythmic. Seven people surround her on the stage, holding trays of knives, forceps, and stainless-steel bowls filled with water.

After a few moments of agitated silence, John appears from behind a side door, chanting in a smoky baritone voice. The crowd parts as he makes his way to the stage.

He delivers a few words to us in thick, slow Portuguese and then fixes an intense gaze upon the woman. As he grabs a scalpel from a tray and dips it into one of the bowls of water, the hall breaks into the Our Father. His eyes never leave the patient. There are no plastic gloves or anesthetics, nor is there even a glimmer of recognition in the woman's heavy, sunken eyes that she is about to be cut by the world's most underqualified surgeon.

The prayer comes to an end as he unbuttons her blouse. He slips his hand underneath her bra and gently pops out her left breast. As he slices into her flesh, her fingers hang loose; her brow is undisturbed. My gut burns like hellfire.

After making the 2-inch incision, he places the scalpel back onto a tray and, with his naked index finger, digs through the gash and removes a small, fleshy pebble covered in blood. Then he uses an oversize needle to make two rough sutures before returning her breast to the bra.

She is left with a wound on her left breast, a small trail of blood running down toward her stomach, and hope that her breast cancer has been cured. A roomful of observers gape at her composure.

Next John grabs a set of 6-inch, stainless-steel nasal forceps from one of the trays, clamps down on a piece of cotton with the ends, and twists it into a tight ball. He turns to a young Italian man — he has a kidney complaint — and in one swift move jams the length of the forceps into his nasal cavity. John drops his hand and lets the forceps dangle from the man's nostril for a 10 count as he makes a few laps around the stage, looking stoically out over the crowd. He grabs hold of the forceps again, twisting them three or four times before ripping them back out with one dramatic sweeping motion. The man rolls off in a wheelchair. (The other common surgery John performs involves sitting a patient down in a chair, cocking the patient's head backward, and scraping the cornea with a kitchen knife.)

A world less delicious
An hour later I'm standing before John for the second time. The fire in my gut is burning uncontrollably. The woman in line in front of me, seized by a fit of emotion, has fallen into John's lap, weeping. I'm tempted to do the same, but when I step toward him, he takes my hand softly in his and listens carefully to my intentions. The translator mentions the eye first. John shakes his head and tells me something in Portuguese, using his free hand to make a slashing motion.

"He can't improve your left eye, but he can stop your vision from getting worse," whispers the translator. "And he'll do his best to protect your right eye."

Then we get to the Crohn's.

Before the whole question is translated, John cuts the translator off and says, "Cirurgia. Esa tarde." (Surgery. This afternoon.) With that, I'm led away, but I hear John's deep voice calling me back. He holds his right hand over his stomach and says something excitedly.

"He says you must be willing to go 6 months without eating red meat," the translator tells me. "Can you do that?"

My world has suddenly grown less delicious. I look John in the eye and nod my head. "Of course."

At lunch, I mull over the idea of physical surgery. John has been in and out of jail many times for practicing medicine without a license. Responding to the controversy surrounding John and his work, a team of Brazilian doctors and researchers analyzed 30 surgical procedures performed at the Casa. They examined cell samples from patients and the methods and tools employed in each procedure.

They published their findings in 2000 in Revista da Associação Médica Brasileira — the journal of the Brazilian Medical Association. "We wanted to make sure the surgeries weren't a fraud," says Alexander Mureira de Almeida, lead author of the study. "We found that John of God was really performing these surgeries without anesthetics or antiseptics, and largely without the presence of pain."

Follow-ups failed to find any incidence of infection. They documented no dramatic signs of recovery and suggested more research be conducted to monitor the short- and long-term effects of John's procedures. So far, there has been no research.

Opting for spiritual treatment
My intestinal uprising continues.

But I struggle back to the Casa for my appointment. They take me to a back room with 20 other people scheduled for surgery.

A grandmotherly woman comes in holding a tray of surgical tools like a batch of warm cookies: "Would anyone like to volunteer for physical surgery?" Four people (an eye-scraping candidate, two nasal-forceps patients, and a man with some large cuts on his back) follow her back out to the stage.

I've elected spiritual surgery. My pre-op team includes a man in a wheelchair, chanting in Portuguese, and a woman who speaks over him in a slow, deep voice: "Focus on the areas you wish for the Entities to work on. Place your hand on the places if you like."

So I place my left hand over my eye and my right hand over my belly button, close my other eye, and focus as instructed. John enters the room, and his powerful voice rises over those of the others. The repetitive, lulling chant stretches on for what feels like hours. I am neither physically touched nor, as far as I can tell, addressed personally, but when a woman tells us to open our eyes, I notice that the wail from my stomach has been reduced to a whimper. Fifteen minutes have passed since we first sat down.

She leads the five English speakers into a room with a picnic bench, where Matthew is waiting to give us the postoperative breakdown. "I know that it may not feel like it, but you have all just been through surgery," he says. "Please take it easy. Collect your herbs from the pharmacy, and go back to your rooms. You will sleep for 24 hours."

I have slept maybe 12 hours total since arriving in Brazil 5 days ago, so I'm not expecting much as I close the curtains in my room. My head hits the pillow, and I'm out for 23 hours.

'No magic pills here'
I 've seen scary postop instructions, but nothing quite like the nightmarish message that hangs in the Casa: No sex for 40 days after the operation; this includes any raising of sexual energies, not just orgasm. Under the section labeled "If you take herbs" is the prescription warning from hell:

1. No alcoholic beverages.

2. No pig meat.

3. No hot spices: no chilies, no black/white/red pepper.

And I thought my gut hurt.

The idea of life without pepper, without wine, without beef and bacon, and most of all, without arousal, seems physiologically impossible. (I am assured by a Casa administrator later that "uncontrollable erections" — aren't they all? — are permitted.)

John is right about my diet. Spicy food, booze, and red meat are digestive challenges my intestines don't need. In the past, I'd kept on eating and drinking the stuff out of pure physiological fatalism: I am sick and will be for a long time, so why deprive myself of any pleasures that come my way?

The Casa breaks people of their resignation. "There are no magic pills here," I've been told. "You must be willing to work hard for your transformation."

Pain in remission
It's Super Bowl Sunday — Colts versus Bears — and my dad and I are glued to the tube, making quick work of a pizza and a six-pack. We're in our hotel room, high above Brasilia, and okay, the pizza is meatless, the beer is nonalcoholic, and the play-by-play is in Portuguese. Still, we're pumped.

At halftime, we pack. My suitcase is swollen with white garments and herbs. The face of Saint Ignatius adorns each little bottle. Inside are 40 capsules stuffed with dried flowers of the passion-fruit tree. They have been blessed by John of God but have no proven therapeutic value. Tucked in next to them are two large bottles of Pentasa, my drug of necessity for nearly 8 years.

My dad is packing holy water blessed by John, a cache of crystals he bought in Abadiânia, and a double dose of pills to shower upon my brothers.

Before bed we toast Saint Ignatius and knock back a flower-petal pill with a swig of warm N.A. beer.

"What do you think of this stuff?" I ask, tilting the bottle.

"I guess we better get used to it."

Taking healing into own hands
The question everyone asks is the hardest one to answer: Did it work? Did what work, exactly? Did Saint Ignatius operate through John to soothe my swollen small intestine? Did John channel Oswaldo Cruz, a 19th-century Brazilian doctor and scientist, to protect my right eye from a future blackout?

I can't prove either effect. But I do feel remarkably better. My eye remains unchanged (as John forecasted), but except for a really painful month following my encounters with John of God, my Crohn's symptoms have relented. And yes, there could be a lot of reasons for the remission of my gut pain, including happy coincidence. Or it could be that John of God reached my disease in a way it had never been reached before.

As Dr. Isaacs said when I told her about my progress, "Why not?"

And Blue Cross will be happy to know that for the first time since my dad was diagnosed with Crohn's, he's down to a token dose of prescription medicine.

But you don't need an 8,000-mile Hail Mary miracle mission to create your own remarkable tale of recovery. In fact, you may need much more than that. My dad's new reality comes after 2 weeks at Casa de Dom Inácio, but it is also the culmination of 14 years of trial and error, tweaking, and fine-tuning. Healing doesn't just mean filling the prescriptions or even following all the advice in Men's Health magazine (though it does mean those things, too).

"Western medicine doesn't hold all the answers," says Dr. Oz. "Healing cannot always be described in numbers."

A doctor once told me that my best shot at living with Crohn's was to stay healthy long enough for researchers to find a stronger drug. I can't wait on pharmaceutical companies to manufacture my solution. If they make it, I might take it, but until then, I'll do what my dad did: take the healing into my own hands.

It's an art form we all need to learn.