Excerpt from Chapter One of You Are the Placebo
Victory Over Voodoo
In 1938, a 60-year-old man in rural Tennessee spent four months getting sicker and sicker, before his wife brought him to a 15-bed hospital at the edge of town. By this time, Vance Vanders (not his real name) had lost more than 50 pounds and appeared to be near death. The doctor, Drayton Doherty, suspected that Vanders was suffering from tuberculosis or possibly cancer, but repeated tests and x-rays came up negative. Dr. Doherty’s physical examination showed nothing that could be causing Vanders’s distress. Vanders refused to eat, so he was given a feeding tube, but he stubbornly vomited whatever was put down the tube. He continued to get worse, repeating the conviction that he was going to die, and eventually he was barely able to talk. The end seemed near, although Dr. Doherty still had no idea what the man’s affliction was.
Vanders’s distraught wife asked to speak to Dr. Doherty privately and, swearing him to secrecy, told him that her husband’s problem was that he’d been “voodoo’d.” It seems that Vanders, who lived in a community where voodoo was a common practice, had had an argument with a local voodoo priest. The priest had summoned Vanders to the cemetery late one night, where he put a hex on the man by waving a bottle of malodorous liquid in front of Vanders’s face. The priest told Vanders that he would soon die and that no one could save him. That was it. Vanders was convinced that his days were numbered and thus believed in a new, dismal future reality. The defeated man returned home and refused to eat. Eventually, his wife brought him to the hospital.
After Dr. Doherty had heard the whole story, he came up with a rather unorthodox plan for treating his patient. In the morning, he summoned Vanders’s family to his bedside and told them that he was now certain that he knew how to cure the sick man. The family listened intently as Dr. Doherty spun the following fabricated tale. He said that on the previous night, he had gone to the cemetery, where he’d tricked the voodoo priest into meeting with him and divulging how he had voodoo’d Vanders. It hadn’t been easy, Dr. Doherty said. The priest had understandably not wanted to cooperate, although he finally relented once Dr. Doherty had pinned him against a tree and choked him.
Dr. Doherty said that the priest had told him that he’d rubbed some lizard eggs onto Vanders’s skin and that the eggs had found their way to Vanders’s stomach, where they’d hatched. Most of the lizards had died, but a large one had survived and was now eating Vanders’s body from the inside out. The doctor announced that all he had to do was remove the lizard from Vanders’s body and the man would be cured.
He then called for the nurse, who dutifully brought a large syringe filled with what Dr. Doherty claimed was a powerful medicine. In truth, the syringe was filled with a drug that induced vomiting. Dr. Doherty carefully inspected the syringe to make sure it was working right and then ceremoniously injected his frightened patient with the fluid. In a grand gesture, he left the room, not saying another word to the stunned family.
It wasn’t long before the patient began to vomit. The nurse provided a basin and Vanders heaved, wailed, and retched for a time. At a point that Dr. Doherty judged to be near the end of the vomiting, he confidently strode back into the room. Nearing the bedside, he reached into his black doctor’s bag and scooped up a green lizard, hiding it in his palm beyond anyone’s notice. Then just as Vanders vomited again, Dr. Doherty slipped the reptile into the basin.
“Look, Vance!” he immediately cried out with all the drama he could muster. “Look what has come out of you. You are now cured. The voodoo curse is lifted!”
The room was buzzing. Some family members fell to the floor, moaning. Vanders himself jumped back away from the basin, in a wide-eyed daze. Within a few minutes, he’d fallen into a deep sleep that lasted more than 12 hours.
When Vanders finally awoke, he was very hungry and eagerly consumed so much food that the doctor feared his stomach would burst. Within a week, the patient had regained all his weight and strength. He left the hospital a well man and lived at least another ten years.
Is it possible that a man could just curl up and die simply because he thought he’d been hexed? Does the contemporary witch doctor, adorned with a stethoscope and holding a prescription pad, speak with the same conviction for us as the voodoo priest did for Vanders—and is our belief the same? And if it’s indeed true that a person could, on one level, just decide to die, then could it also be true that a person with a terminal disease could make the decision to live? Can someone permanently change his or her internal state—dropping his or her identity as a cancer or arthritis victim or a heart patient or a person with Parkinson’s—and simply walk into a healthy body just as easily as shedding one set of clothes and donning another? In the upcoming chapters, we’ll explore what’s really possible and how that applies to you.