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A Test of Faith 

A controversial San Francisco study is spending taxpayers' money to see if Christian clergy, Indian medicine men, and Tibetan lamas can heal patients with AIDS and brain tumors

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
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For 15 years, Catherine Karas has made a living as an "energy healer," working for some years from a spotless but cozy Tiburon condo with a remarkable view of the San Francisco Bay. A middle-aged woman with a maternal presence and a belief in psychics, Karas supposedly alters her clients' well-being and health by accessing "subtle energies."

Her simple home office consists of a white couch, a glass coffee table crammed with Tibetan Buddhist trinkets, and a small boombox playing a New Age soundtrack titled Music for Self-Exciting.

It is in this room on a gray Monday afternoon that Karas sits cross-legged on a stack of purple pillows in a meditative pose, attempting to heal a patient from a distance by tapping into the energies of the universe. Her upturned palms rest gently on her knees; her eyes are shut. The room is silent, except for the sweeping music and Karas' deep breathing. Occasionally, she opens her eyes to check the alarm clock at her side. After a quick glance, her eyes close again, and her head begins to nod gently until she becomes completely still.

After half an hour, the healing session ends and she opens her eyes. "I was keeping my mind focused, and I would check the time, but my mind wanders and comes back, and then I slip into a deep state, and I try to stay there and follow whatever is evolving," she says. "Because once I set up the connection of energies, my job is to stay out of the way. I set up the intention and the energy that goes behind that intention, and the rest you have to trust."

Today's session is similar to the healing she has been doing as part of a government-funded study to find out whether prayer and meditation can make sick people better. For a small stipend, Karas performs 30 hours of healing over 20 weeks for a patient participating in the study -- someone she knows exists only because researchers sent her an envelope with a picture, name, and basic medical information.

Karas is just one of dozens of "healing professionals" around the country -- ranging from energy healers to Native American medicine men to Jewish rabbis -- who are trying to use their spiritual powers to heal patients with AIDS or brain tumors.

The study of "distant healing," as it's called, is being conducted out of San Francisco, using taxpayer dollars from the National Institutes of Health. It is led by Dr. Elisabeth Targ of the California Pacific Medical Center; she has already done two smaller trials that found that distant healing benefited AIDS patients, though even she will admit that they were far from conclusive.

But Targ's current study -- like previous examinations of prayer and distant healing -- has roused ardent criticism from scientists across the country who say it is a grand waste of public money. These skeptics say distant healing is extremely difficult to measure, that science should not concern itself with spiritual belief, and that these studies are not based on any valid scientific theories.

Targ, who has a reputation for doing solid research, says that by posing difficult questions about the relationship between spirituality and medicine, she is trying to expand the boundaries of science. When asked to address her critics, Targ and her colleagues summon analogies of Copernicus and liken the critics to "flatlanders," or those who refused to believe the Earth was round.

Both camps in the debate have passionate views. Both claim to have "empirical evidence" to prove the other side wrong. Neither side can fathom why the other thinks the way it does. Indeed, Targ's research is about much more than the efficacy of distant healing -- it also exemplifies the philosophical gap within the medical community when it comes to the role of spirituality in medicine.

Is Targ a visionary heroine or a naive ideologue? Is her study a trampling or an advancement of science? It depends on whom you ask.

Energy healer Karas, for one, says she is putting her faith in Targ's research findings, which should be released as early as 2003. "I hope that research will find that the healing will have positive effects," she says. "Otherwise, I'm going to have to change my profession."


It is a few minutes past 9 on a December Monday morning as Dr. Targ hurries into her office, a plastic bag containing her lunch in one hand and a leather satchel in the other. Her office is in a back corner of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at the California Pacific Medical Center.

The institute looks like it was decorated with a shopping spree at Cost Plus World Market: Tibetan Buddhist bells, a chair covered with an antique Japanese tapestry, and a large poster that proclaims, "Practice random acts of kindness and senseless beauty."

Targ is greeted by half a dozen colleagues, and in a few minutes the group takes the elevator to a first-floor conference room for its weekly research meeting, passing by the Healing Store on the ground level, which sells Deepak Chopra books and smells of incense and aromatherapy oils.

Targ runs the meetings and launches into the first subject: the distant healing research. The AIDS study involves 150 patients who have been randomly divided into three groups: one that will receive spiritual healing, one that will not receive healing, and one that will receive mental well-wishes from nurses (to see whether people without training in a healing method can affect health). For 20 weeks, professional healers such as Tibetan lamas, shamans, and Christian groups will try prayers and distant healing on one group, while the nurses will focus on another.

At the end of that time, Targ and her team will look at differences between all three groups, including the number of hospitalizations and new illnesses, to see whether the group that received professional healing did better than those that didn't.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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