"I was a bit sceptical at first. But the first time I saw Gill White she traced my psoriasis back to when my brother had died five years before, at the age of 32. She could sense how I was feeling inside. She talked to me and put her arms around me and I cried uncontrollably. I hadn't grieved at the time because I'd been so busy making all the arrangements and looking after my mum and dad. My psoriasis had started a year later, but until I saw Gill I hadn't had a clue as to what caused it. The psoriasis improved within a couple of weeks."
Carole, of Uffculme, Devon, was, surprisingly enough, recommended to the healer Gill White by her GP. All seven GPs who work at the College surgery in nearby Cullompton have been referring chronically ill patients, suffering from conditions including arthritis, eczema, back pain, stress and depression, to Gill White for the past three years. Ms White sees around five patients a week at the surgery for an average of eight to 10 sessions. She has been achieving good results and a second healer has recently been taken on.
Half the doctors in the practice were sceptical about healing and the rest thought it worth a try, says the Cullompton GP Dr Michael Dixon, who is currently researching the possible benefits of healing. In spite of the doctors' initial reluctance to embrace the idea of some kind of energy flowing from the healer to the patient, Ms White says she has been made very welcome at the practice. "My way of thinking about healing differs from Michael Dixon's," she says. "Although we co-operate very well, we come from different directions and we talk a different language. I know the healing comes from God and I am just a channel."
According to Dr Dixon's research involving the first 50 patients, the results of which were recently published in Connection, the membership journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, more than halfsaid that their main symptom was much better, very much better or had disappeared altogether.
"These are good results, particularly when you consider that these patients have tried everything else, often including other complementary treatments, with no success," says Dr Dixon, who is now also half-way through a random controlled trial on the effects of healing, funded by the Family Health Services Authority.
Carole, for one, is a convert to the power of healing, even though her psoriasis has recently reappeared.
"I don't know why it's flared up now - I try not to get stressed, but I've got four children! It's only on my legs this time. I'm going to be seeing Gill again for a 'top-up' - I told the doctor I don't want to depend on creams and tablets all the time when Gill can help."
In the meantime, Carole is no longer bothered by the looks that her condition invariably elicits. "I've always had to cover myself up," she says, "but in May I went on holiday and wore shorts! Gill is the only person who's made me able to accept it. Now I feel sorry for people who stare."
So what does healing actually involve? "First of all I talk to the patients and get them to tell me what's wrong," explains Ms White. "Then I spend 20 to 25 minutes on the actual healing. I stand behind them and put my hands on their shoulders. I have to become very quiet within, and attune to God so that the healing can flow. Then I move my hands around the body - not necessarily touching it. In the silence the healing starts to work at a deep level.
"It's not about success and failure, or bringing about a cure - it's more about being alongside people in their suffering, and replacing fear with love, so that their inner healing can begin."
People who don't have any religious faith are helped just as much as those who do, she says. "I don't set out to explain to the patients how it works. Obviously if they ask I will tell them what I believe, but I don't push it."
She believes anyone has the potential to be a healer. "Healers shouldn't be seen as people with a special power. Anyone helping someone with compassion and love is healing - a mother or a nurse, for instance."
Ms White also does healing in the pain relief clinic at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, and would like to see healers in hospitals and surgeries all over the country.
At the Cullompton practice, anyone who is chronically ill is offered the chance of seeing the healer. Dr Dixon says he was surprised at the positive response among patients. "Most jumped at it; others would say 'it sounds a bit daft but I've got nothing to lose', while one or two turned it down. All except one said the healing had been a positive experience."
There were more tangible benefits, too. Of those patients whose healing had ended a year prior to the analysis, the consultation rate showed a significant reduction from an average of more than 12 consultations a year before the healing to just over seven during it, and eight in the following year. Their doctors also noted that the consultations had become more positive. Thirty-six per cent of the patients either stopped or reduced their medication, which represented an annual saving of pounds 1,500 on the practice's drugs bill.
The big change in the patients after seeing the healer, says Dr Dixon, was that they became less passive and more involved in helping themselves. Relaxation, touch, empathy, boosting the patient's self-esteem and spending more time on the consultation all play a part in this, he believes. Healers are exercising many of the skills which doctors used to have, but which they have lost as they have become able to offer more and more effective modern medicines.
"If you've been chronically ill you can get what the Americans call 'skin starvation' - you become chronically unloved and untouched and your self- esteem falls. Spending 40 minutes a week with someone who is touching you and fully involved with you and your illness is a very positive experience.
"Healers are also very good at offering hope, whereas we doctors sometimes crack people's hopes by saying 'I'm sorry, there's nothing we can do.'
"The other important factor is the element of mystery. Increasingly, as GPs, we end up with a list of 20 or so drugs we can give, all of which are well known to us and the patients. We probably lose the mystery which the healers keep."
How does he believe a consultation with a healer reduces someone's symptoms?
"After you have seen a healer or a healing doctor you behave slightly differently and people perceive you differently, leading to a circle of positive effects which increases your general level of happiness and well- being, reducing your symptoms and increasing your pain threshold.
"This 'whole person medicine' is something that alternative therapists are very good at but which we in conventional medicine have become rather bad at."
He believes the success of the project could have something to do with the special qualities of the Devon people. "Devonians are a very liberal- minded, slightly eccentric population who are open to new ideas. And this is an area of Devon where people are quite used to seeing alternative practitioners and using all sorts of old country liniments."
In fact, Dr Dixon first had the idea when he realised how many of his patients were already seeing healers and getting better. "As doctors we end up as bad as our patients - and I think that's probably what's happened here," he admits cheerfully.
Gill White regrets she can only see patients who have been referred to her by the practice.