I was struggling with the vacuum hose to reach an awkward corner of the kitchen.
“What’s wrong? Afraid to bend your back?” my wife asked. I felt a little pain and it didn’t go away. It got worse, seemed to improve for a day, stayed barely tolerable for a week, and then became intense.
It spread, and by the following weekend I was virtually immobile — unable to roll over in bed, racked with unbearable pain every time I moved. I finally phoned Skeptic Barrie Tait, who agreed to see me the next morning. My panic was dictated by an important conference I had to attend on Monday morning in Wellington. Things were looking bleak.
Dr Tait was the soul of courtesy and good-humoured professionalism. He’s the head of Musculoskeletal Medicine at Christchurch Hospital. I bragged about that. People always want to convince everyone — especially themselves — that their doctor is a genius.
Finally, after a gentle, thorough and obviously expert examination, Barrie took the crucial first step on the road to my recovery — he gave my disease a name.
“It’s lumbar dysfunction,” he said with quiet authority. I tried to translate from the Latin and kept coming up with something that seemed to mean “back not working too well.” What could he do for it, I asked eagerly.
“Nothing,” he said. Take pain killers and anti-inflammatories and your back will gradually heal itself. There was no specific medicine or treatment. I should go ahead and walk as much as possible.
Which is what I did. I stopped by the chemist and, by the time I was limping up to Victoria University things were improving. As the hours wore on, my back got better and better, and at home later that evening I was virtually able to turn cartwheels. The pain was gone. After over two weeks of agony, my tortured back was miraculously “cured”.
Over the years, the Skeptics have been relatively unsuccessful in altering the general public credulousness toward alternative medicine. In light of my experience, it’s not hard to see why.
What if Barrie had twirled a pendulum over me, said a mantra, given me chiropractic manipulation, a homeopathic preparation, or analysed my irises? And what if — like most desperate, pain-wracked patients — I’d wanted to believe it?
Barrie would have had a convert for life. The psychological evidence of my spectacular “cure”, coming as it did after weeks of suffering, was overwhelming. Who cares what the Skeptics think about alternative medicine when sufferers are similarly “cured” on a daily basis by chiropractors and other healers?
And it’s not just back pain that has spontaneous remission, but countless other afflictions. This — combined with the fact that people want to believe in their healer, orthodox or quack — means there will always be an army of satisfied customers ready to testify that some placebo cured them after all the marvels of scientific medicine had failed.
Having said all that, and accepting it at a rational level, I still in my heart believe Barrie Tait is a medical genius. I can’t help it. You see, once when my back was crook…