Deceiving People Into Health
by Bernie Siegel, MD
Many years ago one of our children brought home a canvas he had decorated in his school art class. He had filled the entire canvas with the word “words.” As a surgeon, what immediately struck me was that you can kill or cure with a sword, or scalpel. You can also kill or cure with words when wordswordswords become swordswordswords. Physicians are not taught how to communicate with their patients. Due to their fear of being sued, physicians tell their patients all of the adverse side effects of therapy and rarely mention the potential benefits. Every time I hear a TV commercial mentioning how a particular pill being advertised can kill you, I wonder why anyone would try it.
Over time, I began to realize how a patient’s beliefs and experiences affected their diagnosis. In a sense, it is summed up by Dr. Milton Erickson writing in a patient’s chart and then excusing himself and stepping out of the office for a minute. When the patient peaked at the chart she saw, “Doing well” written there. How therapeutic!
I also learned to ask people how they would describe what they were experiencing, rather than their diagnosis. If their words were negative, I would ask how their lives fit those words. The words they would share, like pressure describing pain, or failure regarding a cancer experience led me to help patients eliminate the issues in their life that made them feel like a failure.
One day, prior to performing minor surgery in my office, a patient and I got into an intense and interesting discussion. I picked up the scalpel while we were talking and made an incision. I noticed my nurse waving frantically at me. When she caught my attention, she pointed at the syringe containing the local anesthetic which I had not yet used. I asked the patient how he was feeling. He was fine, so I completed the surgery and then told him we were both hypnotized and that I had not used any local anesthetic to numb the area of surgery. Major surgery has been done under hypnosis and I have used hypnotherapists in the operating room too.
As I learned how powerful words can be, I began to pay more attention to what was said in the operating room. Simple things like changing an injection from feeling like a bee sting to a mosquito bite. When an anesthesiologist talked to the patient about their “going out” I would ask the patient, “When was the last time you went out on a date?” I also played music in the O.R. decades ago. It was considered an explosion hazard, but when everyone felt better, the staff stopped complaining. Today we have studies verifying the benefits of music in shortening the time of the surgery, requiring fewer drugs and patients experiencing less pain.
During surgery I would ask my patients not to bleed and divert the blood away from the area of surgery. I was not a normal surgeon, but no one is against success, so if it worked it became hospital policy for which I received no credit. Before my patients awakened from surgery I would say, “You will wake up comfortable, thirsty and hungry.” I had to change that to “but you won’t finish what is on your plate” when my patients all began to gain weight. At that time, I couldn’t get the administrators to use the TV in patients’ rooms to prepare them for surgery with guided imagery. Thankfully, that has changed with time.
But what really opened my mind to the power of words was my experience as a pediatric surgeon. To reassure children that they would not be in pain while they were undergoing surgery, I would say to them while they were in the emergency room, “You will go to sleep when you go into the operating room.” I was shocked to have children fall asleep while they were being wheeled into the O.R. on their stretcher. One boy flipped over and went to sleep as we entered the O.R. When I turned him over for his appendectomy he awakened and said, “You told me I would go to sleep and I sleep on my stomach.” We reached a compromise. Then I began deceiving more kids into health by rubbing them with an alcohol sponge, prior to drawing blood, and saying this will numb your skin. A third had total anesthesia while the others all had a less emotional experience and told me it didn’t work. I apologized and blamed the defective alcohol sponge.
Relabeling vitamin pills, with the parent’s cooperation, reduced side effects of chemotherapy and other treatments. We relabeled the vitamins as anti-nausea, or hair growing or pain pills, and the kids responded well because of the faith they had in their authority figures. One woman I know was feeling nauseated after her chemo. She asked her daughter to get her a Compazine pill since she wasn’t wearing her glasses. Her daughter gave her the pill and she felt fine. Hours later, while wearing her glasses, she asked for another pill. When she saw the bottle, she told her daughter, “That’s not my Compazine… that’s my anti-coagulant Coumadin.” “Well Mom it worked fine the last time I gave it you.” They both were amazed and learned a lot from this enlightening experience.
The most dramatic experience I had came from medical errors due to technical mistakes. One of my patients had no side effects to radiation and the radiation therapist thought his machine was malfunctioning until he saw my name in her chart and then realized, “This is one of Siegel’s crazy patients.” When he asked her why she had no side effects she said, “I get out of the way and let it go to my tumor.”
The examples that were most impressive were when people thought they were receiving chemotherapy, but due to an error preparing the medication, they were not and people who thought they were being radiated were not due to no radioactive material being replaced after the machine was repaired.
The doctors involved felt terrible. The Radiation Oncologist said to me he had not treated anyone for a month and just discovered the problem when the radiation therapy machine underwent its monthly inspection.
I told him he didn’t realize what he was telling me. He repeated how terrible he felt. I said, “You’d have to be an idiot to not know you weren’t treating anyone. So you obviously had people experiencing side effects and shrinking tumors.” His eyes bulged and he said, “Oh my God, you’re right.”
So believe in the mind-body unity and words. Our body responds to our beliefs and I’d rather lie therapeutically than give a patient a list of side effects for treatment and induce all of them because of what they hear from an authority figure. When I did have to share some negative side effects, I would add that they don’t happen to everyone; like everyone isn’t allergic to peanuts.
Here are some of my favorite true stories:
The cousin of my father in law’s nurse’s aide was told she was terminal with leukemia and it was a waste of time to receive chemotherapy which would only make her feel worse. When the aide heard this she called her cousin in North Carolina and told her to come up here because, “Doctor Siegel makes people well all the time.” She arrived and I am told about it, so I admitted her to the hospital. I sat on her bed and explained leukemia was not something I could treat but that I would ask an oncologist friend to come and see her. Then I gave her a big hug and went to call the oncologist. The oncologists I used had learned about Siegel’s crazy patients and had no problem working with them.
My oncologist friend told me he agreed with her doctor about the likely outcome but would begin treatment to give her hope. His letters to me began with, doing well, and ended with, in complete remission. She went home to drive her doctor nuts. I heard later that she told her cousin, “When Doctor Siegel gave me a hug, I knew I would get well.” I also know patients who left their troubles to God and had their cancer disappear. That is called self-induced healing and not a spontaneous remission. So learn from exceptional patients about survival behavior. Ask them why they didn’t die rather than saying what doctors tend to say, “You are doing very well. Whatever you’re doing keep it up.” Personality characteristics and survival are inseparable.
A woman was vomiting after chemotherapy and her husband put bags in the car so that she could throw up on the way home. One day, she is feeling nauseated and asks her husband for a bag. He hands it to her; she opens it and find a dozen roses inside. She never vomits again after receiving chemotherapy.
Remind people of their potential. Our Creator has built survival mechanisms into all living things so we can heal our wounds, alter our genes and overcome disease. Love your life, your body and amazing things can happen. As Ernest Holmes said, “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?”
A woman I was about to operate on was in total panic before her surgery. I spent a long time trying to calm her down but nothing I said or did made a difference. So I stopped trying and wheeled her into the operating room where with a look of fear on her face she said, “Thank God all these wonderful people will be taking care of me.” I knew agreeing with her wouldn’t accomplish anything so I said, “I know these people. I have worked with them for years. They are not wonderful people.” For a second she looked bewildered, but then burst out laughing as did everyone in the O.R. and we all became family. Fear cannot exist in the presence of love and laughter.
As I learned about the power of words, they became my therapeutic tools. With paradox and humor, I was able to positively affect people’s thoughts and feelings.