Like most people who come across healers, Gary Shadbolt was sceptical. But when he was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma in April this year there was one thing that persuaded the 44-year-old IT worker to give it a go - the sessions were being offered on his ward at University College Hospital, London.
Angie Buxton is the only paid healer within the NHS. She works three days a week at UCH's haematology unit, channelling what she describes as "healing energy" into willing patients via her hands, which she places both on and off the body. The process has nothing to do with religion. The 30-minute sessions take place either in the patient's room or in a small, tranquil treatment room, painted pink and smelling of lavender.
"Many patients have used healing to relieve side effects, alleviate pain and help with depression and stress, all of which can create a more positive attitude," says her leaflet, which persuaded Gary to try the complementary therapy. "It has been well documented that a positive attitude can greatly enhance your quality of life. This can be very difficult for patients to achieve in the hospital and healing will often help to create it naturally."
Angie knows how much effort it takes to keep positive, having lost both her mother and younger son to illness. In 1988 her mother was diagnosed with inoperable ovarian cancer. It was while she was at the Bristol Cancer Centre, which specialises in complementary treatments, that Angie first came across healing. "I was sitting in the room while my mother was having healing and my hands got really hot and I felt flushed, and the lady who was giving the treatment said it was a sure sign that I could channel energy. I now know that everybody can channel energy," says Angie, 47.
After her mother's death eight months later Angie, who worked as as an airport duty manager before having two children, tooka number of courses run by the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. She also trained as a reiki master (reiki is an ancient Japanese philosophy of hands-on healing).
In 1995, her seven-year-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with leukaemia. "It seemed to me that everything I had learnt and played around with suddenly had a purpose after the initial shock had worn off," says Angie, who gave him healing every day at Great Ormond Street Hospital. "His journey was just amazing compared to that of his peers. His hair fell out, but he didn't have side effects, apart from fevers, but they didn't keep him in bed. He could have had any life-threatening disease."
But Sam's diagnosis was very poor. "I and my then-husband were told that he would not respond to chemotherapy and would probably pass over in three or four months." Instead, with further conventional treatment that Angie insisted upon, as well as ongoing healing, he lived until he was 10.
A year after his death, Angie approached the haematology unit at Great Ormond Street Hospital offering her services as a healer, in the hope of being able to help other children. "The doctors there were all very receptive, because they remembered Sam and how well he had done, but they didn't want to offer it to their patients," she says. She then approached the haematology department at University College Hospital, and was told they couldn't afford to pay her. "I said I don't want to be paid yet, give me an opportunity to prove a need, and if I can then you can pay me." She was given one day a week, and after a month of treating patients and staff, the feedback was so positive that the unit decided to employ her. That was four years ago. She now works three days a week and manages a team of two therapists who practise both aromatherapy and reflexology, a part-time counsellor and a hypnotherapist.
Stephen Rowley, now a senior nurse in UCL's haematology unit, looked after Sam when he was at Great Ormond Street: "Healing really seemed to make a difference to the way he coped. All things considered, in Sam's particular case, he coped well, for an unusually long time.
"The reality of acute haematology is that a number of patients won't achieve a long-term cure. Many will, but some won't. That makes the journey or experience through treatment all the more important and, from a health-provider perspective, relevant to what we provide. The idea of having treatments such as aromatherapy in a leukemia unit is about helping patients cope by providing some positive experiences to balance the negative. Healing was taking the next step into this ethos - a relaxing physical experience, but also a hugely significant and profound psychological experience for some.
"Many of the staff here now have seen the benefits of Angie's healing. Many have experienced it themselves. Whatever the mechanism is, it helps many patients cope with their treatment. That is for sure. That may be by helping patients to cope better with nausea or pain, or helping them cope with the roller-coaster of stresses and emotions that treatment entails. For patients for whom treatment options have run out, who are now facing death, healing seems to be a way to bridge the gap to a state of mind that helps them cope. And not in a desperate manner either, but often in a calm, rational and peaceful way."
Gary had about a dozen sessions with Angie from April to August this year. "It just seemed to relax me, which was very important," says Gary, who also had reflexology. "It helped me get through the week and took a lot of the stress away. It's very difficult to put your finger on whether it does you any good, but I got through the treatment with very few side effects. I see it as another tool in the armoury to get me through the disease. Angie said that various parts of my body were reacting because I was concerned about my wife and how she was coping. Your left leg, apparently, is connected with emotions and family, and I did notice sometimes during the treatment that my left leg shuddered and my hands would rise off the bed."
Angie says that a patient's body may jerk as the energy moves through his or her pain. "I work on the philosophy that everybody is made up of vibrating energy, and if there is a blockage there then the energy kicks against it and makes it move. Patients often feel very light and see colours if they've got their eyes shut. Some people, if they're close to death, will have an out-of-body experience."
Jilma Defreitas, 49, a patient with sickle cell anaemia who has been having sessions with Angie for almost three years, finds healing gives her a break from pain. "At first I was sceptical, but it's brilliant," she says. "It's another dimension. You can almost fall asleep, and with sickle cell you're in pain most nights. After I've had a session I feel as though I have had a good sleep. I feel refreshed. For 25 minutes you are somewhere else and it's a pleasant feeling."
There have also been a lot of sceptics among staff. Lucy Curry, a nurse on the ward, was one of them, but changed her mind following a treatment. "It's like sunbathing for four hours," she says. "You get a lovely, glowing feeling and you're instantly relaxed." Isobel Salisbury, a receptionist on the unit, has found the therapy profoundly helpful. "I had a lot of personal problems from my past haunting me," she says. "While I was working on the ward I had some bad news, and was encouraged to try healing. It had a profound effect on me. It encouraged me to release a lot of pain and anger. It was a turning point in my life, and I've since moved on emotionally. Healing is very respected on this ward."
When UCL Hospitals NHS Trust, which incorporates University College Hospital, opens its new hospital on Euston Road in 2005, Angie hopes to expand the service into oncology and paediatrics. She has also written a self-help book, The Healing Journey Home, which she hopes will be published soon.
Angie is keen to point out that healers have no "unique powers". "We are ordinary people who have taken the time to look at complementary treatments," she says. "I believe that the destination is less important than the quality of the journey. Healing certainly enhanced the quality of Sam's journey."
* Up to five million people a year consult a therapist in complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) in Britain.
* Homeopathy has been offered bythe NHS since it was founded in 1948. There are now about five NHS homeopathic hospitals in the UK.
* A survey of a random sample of UK family doctors carried out for the British Medical Association found that almost half the GPs who responded had arranged acupuncture for patients. Fifty-eight per cent had arranged some kind of CAM for patients, with osteopathy and homeopathy being next most popular.
* The percentage of CAM funded by the NHS is difficult to judge. "It depends on where you are," says Professor Edzard Ernst, the head of the complementary medicine research unit at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth. "Your GP or primary healthcare trust decides whether to offer CAM on the NHS."
* The British Medical Association says that its approval is cautious: "CAM should be regulated to change the current unacceptable situation in which virtually anyone is free to practise, irrespective of training or experience."
* The BMA always advises people to seek advice from their GP before embarking on a course of treatment.
* Information on CAM and practitioners in your area is available from the British Complementary Medicine Association's website: www.bcma.co.uk.