Jul 22, 2016

The Right Chemistry: Brazilian 'healer' John of God leads cancer patients by the nose

July 22, 2016


“Up your nose with a surgical clamp!” That is Joao Teixeira’s prescription for treating breast cancer.

I first came across this Brazilian “healer” known as John of God, in 2005 when he was featured on the ABC television program Primetime Live.

John, who has all of two years of schooling, claims he is only an instrument in God’s divine hands and that during a healing session, his body is taken over by the spirits of long-dead physicians who guide his actions. Judging by the instructions they provide, it seems these physicians missed quite a few classes in med school. John, however, does not solely rely on departed physicians for advice, King Solomon can also be called upon when needed. The spiritual connections also allow John to diagnose a patient with just a glance.

Once the diagnosis has been made, the healing procedure begins. It may be “visible” or “invisible” spiritual surgery. If the patient chooses invisible, they are directed to a room to meditate while the spirits do their work. “Visible surgery” can involve sticking a surgical clamp up the patient’s nose. It looks very impressive, but is nothing but an old carny trick, usually performed with a long nail and a hammer. Any anatomical text will reveal that there is a roughly four-inch-long passage up through the nasal cavity that is quite ready to accommodate a foreign object without any harm.

I recently saw an entertaining performance of this effect in front of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum in New York, of course without any implication of therapeutic value. The woman standing beside me gasped and exclaimed “I don’t believe it,” despite just having examined the nail and having witnessed the show in front of her nose. It is easy to see how desperate people can be led by the nose to believe that some sort of supernatural power must be involved, and that someone capable of carrying out such a feat can perform other miracles, as well.

John maintains that the success of his treatment hinges on the patient abstaining from drinking alcohol, eating pork and having sex for 40 days after treatment. That can provide for a convenient “out” in case no miracle occurs. Patients can be healed even if they are unable to travel to Brazil. All that is needed is a surrogate willing to undergo the spiritual surgery. No evidence for this remote healing is provided.

The forceps up the nose is not the only trick up John’s sleeve. To treat nervous conditions, he appears to scrape the patient’s eyeball with a knife while other problems are doctored with small random cuts on the body. As the Primetime cameras recorded, none of the patients showed any sign of distress after these rather invasive procedures. Quite the opposite. They believed they had been helped.

Belief is a powerful tool indeed! There is a long history of television faith healers having the infirm throw away crutches and walk away unaided. Of course, no cameras are present when they crumple to the floor backstage. An adrenalin rush stimulated by faith can produce amazing effects.

In an attempt to provide a critical view of John’s antics, the producers invited two experts, cardiac surgeon Mehmet Oz and James Randi, the world’s leading investigator of “paranormal” phenomena. Oz was probably chosen because he was a proponent of various “alternative” therapies such as therapeutic touch and reflexology and would be likely to be somewhat sympathetic to faith healing and perhaps add an air of legitimacy. Randi was invited as the token skeptic.

Oz appeared repeatedly in the hour-long show, basically echoing the refrain that science doesn’t have all the answers and that other forms of healing need consideration. Science of course doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but it does look for evidence before jumping on a bandwagon. Randi, who could have provided evidence for methods of trickery and for psychological manipulation, was given a total of 19 seconds on the show after being interviewed for hours. Why? Because the possibility that cancer can be healed by penetrating the nose with surgical forceps by a healer chosen by God makes for better television than declaring him to be a self-delusional simpleton or a calculating fraud artist.

In any case, it is a fact that people spend thousands of dollars to travel to Brazil to be poked, prodded and scraped. Why? Because they are desperate and desperate people do desperate things. And many will provide alluring accounts of benefits. As Benjamin Franklin said, “There are no greater liars than quacks — except for their patients.” Nobody wants to admit that they were swindled by some peasant who put tweezers up their nose. It is more comforting to believe that they were helped. 

But what about the ones who give up conventional care to go this route because they believe it to be more effective? Like South African singer Lisa Melman, who refused breast cancer surgery to be treated by John in 2005 and appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s show singing his praises. Unfortunately, in 2012 she stopped singing forever, succumbing to the disease of which she was supposedly cured.

In an ironic twist, in 2015 John of God complained of a pain in the stomach to his cardiologist. Yes, the medium who claims wondrous healing powers has a cardiologist who without fanfare years earlier had implanted three stents in John’s narrowed arteries. Now he sent his patient for an endoscopy that revealed a tumour. A 10-hour surgery, not the spiritual variety, was followed by extensive chemotherapy. A year later, John appears to be well, cured not by mumbo jumbo, but my modern surgery and drugs. No problem affording the treatment. John is wealthy from donations and sales of blessed water and magic triangles.

When asked why he did not heal himself the way he is able to heal others, he replied with the stunning rhetorical question, “what barber cuts his own hair?”


Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.




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