Switzerland's Medical Enigma: Healing Burns
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
An ancient burn-healing mystery is alive and well in the modern age.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Rachel Beata was 3 when she severely burned her hand with an iron. After a month of treatment, doctors said the wound wasn’t healing and told her she would have a scar for life.
Desperate, her mother called a traditional healer and put her daughter on the phone while the man recited a prayer. “When the doctors took the bandage off a few days later, I had completely healed! No scar, nothing,” recalls Rachel, showing her blemish-free hand.
It sounds like magic but hers is just one of thousands of similar cases of people who saw burns miraculously healed over the phone, at least so it seems. The so-called “Carriers of the Secret” or “Fire-Cutters” are believed to possess an otherworldly gift. In some Swiss regions, turning to them is so ordinary that pharmacies and hospitals provide their phone numbers.
Like the rest of the fire-cutters, he doesn’t charge a single centime for his service. ‘We receive it freely so we give it freely,’ he explains.
“I don’t understand it but it works,” says Mireille Lineham, a small-town pharmacist who claims to have seen Carriers of the Secret help cure a number of severe burns. “I’m naturally a skeptic but it’s just miraculous.”
So what’s “the Secret”? A religious prayer that dates back to the Middle Ages — some say it’s even older — and is passed down through generations, commonly used to heal burns but also to stop bleeding, reduce pain and cure skin conditions.
Despite its esoteric nature in the age of reason, the practice is still widespread in many Catholic and rural regions of Switzerland such as the Jura, Fribourg, Valais and Appenzell.
Georges Delaloye is a 59-year-old from the Valais who comes from a long line of fire-cutters and agreed to demonstrate the process.
Wearing jeans and sporting a big mustache, and even bigger smile, he picks up his phone when it rings, asks the person’s name and where the burn is located. He then recites the prayer in silence and says, “Voilà.” It’s all over in a matter of two minutes.
Of course, Delaloye could easily be labeled a charlatan or a scammer if it weren’t for one thing: Like the rest of the fire-cutters, he doesn’t charge a single centime for his service.
“We receive it freely so we give it freely,” he explains.
Most healers practice “the Secret” in addition to conventional jobs as teachers, cooks or prison guards. Some receive as many as a hundred calls a day, which can become stressful. “It does get monotonous and hard sometimes,” says Reynald Jaccard, a middle-aged fire-cutter who works as a baker in Vaud and received “the gift” from his dad, “but it’s such a pleasure to be able to help.”
Surprisingly, even the medical profession has embraced the practice. The country’s leading facilities for serious burn victims, in the University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV), is one of many that have fire-cutters on call. The Valais Hospital offers a combined care option.
I think in medicine there are things that can’t be measured, and we have to accept that there are things that escape us.
— Dr. Mette Berger, CHUV burn center
“Hospitals practice medicine in conditions of stress and uncertainty,” explains Jacques de Haller, former president of the Swiss National Medical Association. “So if a solution exists — and clearly there are people who the healers do help — it would be stupid not to use it.”
Still, no one is close to finding a rational explanation for what the fire-cutters apparently do. Many talk about placebo effect or hypnosis. “Suggestion can be very efficient in reducing pain. That has been clinically proven,” points out Dr. Jules Demeules from the University Hospital of Geneva.
But what about the disappearing scars and instantly healed burns? That, medical professionals admit, defies reason.
“I think in medicine there are things that can’t be measured, and we have to accept that there are things that escape us,” says Dr. Mette Berger, who used to coordinate the burn center at CHUV.
Of course, some see the practice as a potentially harmful scam if clients skip conventional care. “I don’t believe in it and I think it’s very important to keep both realms separate,” says Dr. Bertrand Kiefer, editor of the Swiss Medical Revue.
Fire-cutters, however, insist they don’t claim to be infallible or better than modern medicine. “I never pretend I can heal everything,” says Delaloye, “and I always recommend that people go visit the doctor.”
The strongly Catholic practice could, however, face difficulties in an increasingly secular environment, although the the growing interest in New Age alternative medicine could compensate.
For now, despite sparking criticism, confounding doctors and bewildering patients, the ancestral “Secret” continues to coexist with the latest medical advances. When it comes to ending pain, every bit helps.