Prolonging life is one of man's intense obsessions. Amita Sharma, 38, was no exception. Only, she was running out of time. The mother of three daughters with a master's in psychology, had surgery for breast cancer in 1998. Three years later, cancer spread to the liver, and then the hip bones.
Sleight of hand: Alex Orbito getting rid of the 'negativities' in a patient's body
Amita was in the fourth stage-the terminally ill phase-of the disease and there was little that modern medicine could do. Amita, however, clung on to life with yoga, positive thinking and faith. "I want to live for my daughters," she said.
Amita was willing to do anything for a cure. She visited holy shrines, and consulted Reiki practitioners, naadi and pranic healers. "If someone can cure it, it has to be a power beyond man... I am looking for that," she said.
Amita's husband, Satish Chandra Sharma, a cardio-vascular and thoracic surgeon, did everything within his means to treat his wife. Sharma's work in cardiac surgery has earned him international laurels. He combines the ultra-modern with traditional wisdom like yoga.
Which left him open-minded when Filipino psychic surgeon the Rev. Alex L. Orbito came to Bangalore in August. "I have been looking for a yogi," Sharma said. "So far I have not found one. I don't want to feel that I left out anyone because I am sure I will regret it for the rest of my life."
Orbito addressed a massive gathering of Bangalore's elite where he was introduced in terms reserved for gods. Former CBI director D.R. Karthikeyan told the gathering that as an investigator, he had initially been sceptical but was convinced after going to the Philippines and undergoing surgery himself. This testimony from the man who headed the Special Investigation Team in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case carried conviction.
Orbito was invited to perform his psychic surgery at the Vidhana Soudha, the seat of government, where several ministers and legislators lay down on his surgery table. The rush of politicians and the photographs of them being 'operated' upon by Orbito's bare hands completed the publicity campaign. The next two days, Orbito went on to perform his surgery on about 150 patients-some terminally ill, like Amita Sharma-at the healing camp that was organised at Le Meridian hotel by Shree Sharada Loka Seva Foundation and Omkar Ashram.
Dashed hopes: Satish Chandra Sharma with the MRI of his wife Amita, which showed no change in the tumour
Orbito apparently removes 'negativities' from the body by plunging his hands inside the abdomen. The negativities materialise as bloody clots, which he disposes into a trash can. The operation lasts less than two minutes. The 'blood' is wiped off with tissue paper. Several retired judges, serving bureaucrats, doctors and lawyers were convinced that they were seeing a miracle.
Orbito's surgical performances, thus, had the backing of powers that be. He charged Rs 7,500 per head for his two-day healing session. He is known to charge $100 a minute for celebrities including actress Shirley MacLaine who introduced him to Hollywood stars. The Philippines has over a dozen psychic surgeons. Fidel Ramos, former Philippine president, is one of Orbito's patrons.
A few days before Orbito's performances began, Amita began preparing for the miracle that could rid her of her deadly disease. When she went with her husband to register for the healing session, the organisers told them how Orbito would certainly cure her. They did not, however, have any medical records of patients who had been cured. "When I asked them questions, they were rude," said Sharma. "Despite identifying myself as a doctor they treated me like dirt. I was put off at once."
The Sharmas were initially denied a session because there was a rush. It was only when their industrialist-friend Chandrashekara Raju offered to sponsor Orbito's stay in his four-star 'The Chancery' hotel that the organisers softened. Though Orbito stayed elsewhere, his assistants stayed at 'The Chancery' for free.
Raju himself wanted a session with Orbito because he is blind. When Sharma asked one of the organisers, Dr Ramesh Tambat, if the healer could cure Raju's condition, Tambat said Orbito would pull out the eyeball, clean it and place it back in the socket.
"If Orbito does not return to India it is our loss. not his," said D.R. Karthikeyan (seen right, standing next to the healer)
"Have you seen him do it?" Sharma asked. Tambat, a paediatric surgeon, said, "Yes. I have even touched the eyeball placed on the table." Amita's hopes soared. She visualised herself getting up from Orbito's table, with the healer holding the diseased lump of flesh in his hands. She could go back home and live on with her daughters.
Despite the offer to sponsor Orbito's stay, Amita and Raju managed only to get into the waiting-list. On the day of the healing, there was a near stampede at the venue. Orbito sat in the corner of a huge hall, a screen separating him from hundreds of people-some in wheelchairs, some paraplegic, and some who could barely stand-who waited their turn. Politicians were ushered into the enclosure without being made to wait. Meanwhile, a lawyer from Kolar filed a public interest litigation before the High Court, pleading that Orbito be restrained from performing psychic surgeries. The court directed the state health department to study the surgery and report back.
The health department's principal secretary, A.K.M. Nayak, arrived with a team of officials but no one dared question Orbito closely. Just when the team began its 'study', Medical Education Minister A.B. Maalakaraddy came for treatment, as did former home minister P.G.R. Sindhia, who is the Janata Dal (United) floor leader in the legislative Assembly. When the politicians seemed pleased, could the bureaucrats disagree?
Bangalore's police commissioner, H.T. Sangliana, too was around. When Dr P. Janardhana Rao, chairman of the anti-quackery cell of the Karnataka branch of the Indian Medical Association, asked him to stop Orbito, Sangliana said: "Everyone seems to be happy except you. It is a matter of faith and divine power." Sangliana then had a session with Orbito and announced that the pain in his waist had gone!
Rao was accompanied by Dr Hanume Gowda, registrar of the Karnataka Ayurveda Board and the only officer appointed by the government to identify and prosecute quacks. Gowda rushed to Director-General of Police V.V. Bhaskar with a request to arrest Orbito. Bhaskar said such actions came under the purview of Sangliana. But Sangliana said, "Orbito has never claimed to be a medical man. He has the prefix 'Reverend' and not 'Doctor' attached to his name. Therefore, he cannot be arrested for quackery."
Rao egged on the health secretary's team to collect samples of the substances that Orbito 'removed' from the abdomen of patients but none dared do so. Sharma, who was waiting with Amita and Raju, went to the team's rescue. Equipped with tissue culture bottles, a slide, a biopsy bottle, an EDTA vial (to preserve blood), Sharma volunteered to get a sample. Rao joined him.
When they entered Orbito's enclosure, the healer scowled at Rao, because the doctor had entered twice before to demand samples. As Maalakaraddy too entered the enclosure at the same time Sharma said Orbito should give a sample to the minister. After a long argument, Orbito relented. However, he only gave them two wads of plain cotton wool, dipped in water. This sample lost its legality since the health secretary's team did not seal it or take it into custody.
Meanwhile, the waiting crowd became restless. "The organisers then made a public announcement that we were disturbing the surgery," said Rao. "I could have been beaten and thrown out. I could not push too far."
"Orbito's hand was not going inside the abdomen," said Sharma, who witnessed more than 20 'surgeries' on that day. "He was squeezing cotton and a pink liquid was oozing out. The fluid's viscosity was very low. It did not resemble blood. As a surgeon, I know how blood looks like."
Having taken the trouble of going there, they decided that Amita would go for the healing session after all. "But I told her to keep her handkerchief ready, and to mop the pink liquid that comes on her abdomen when he operates," said Sharma.
Raju was led in first. Sharma helped him to lie down on the table. Orbito said he would put energy into Raju's blind eyes. He touched his abdomen but did not remove anything from inside. Next in the queue was Amita. By the time Raju was helped from the table to a chair, Amita's 'procedure' was over.
"He placed his hands on my abdomen and did something with his fingers which was painful," said Amita. "His assistant quickly wiped off the liquid on the tummy."
"There was a one-and-a-half-inch-long erythema (reddishness) over the skin," said Sharma. "Amita said there was a burning sensation for one hour."
Coming under close scrutiny seemed to bother the organisers. On the second day of the healing psychic surgery was cancelled. Instead, they said, Orbito would open his 'third eye' for patients and give them energy.
Patients were asked to enter the enclosure-where lights were off-and told to keep their eyes closed! Amita felt a prick on the forehead and found there was candle wax sticking to the spot where bindis are usually placed.
At the valedictory function, where praises were showered on Orbito, Sharma voiced his doubts: "Why did a person who claims to have yogic powers need politicians, religious heads and others to back his claims? What is the negativity that came out? Why were the samples not collected? Quantum physics does not know of energy getting converted to matter. If so, what was the matter?"
The only answer the organisers had was: "How can you document faith?" The answer seemed to convince many, who jeered and hounded Sharma into silence.
"Orbito regularly visits around 70 countries," said Karthikeyan. "He has the gift of healing. If he does not return to India it is our loss, not his."
Meanwhile, the High Court ordered Orbito's arrest following the report submitted by the health department indicting Orbito. But he had already left India.
The government is moving a draft legislation to prevent quackery, thanks to Health Minister Kagodu Thimmappa, the only minister to call Orbito a fake. However, hundreds of those who did not get a chance to meet Orbito are contacting the organisers for sessions in the Philippines.
Amita went back for an MRI on August 14. The report showed no change whatsoever in the size of the tumour compared with the MRI she had on July 22. She has lost all hope.
Raju also had his vision tested. He continues to be blind-only he has seen through the fake faith healer.
Psychic 'surgery' is a type of non-surgery performed by a non-medical healer.
The healer fakes an incision by running a finger along the patient's body, apparently going through the skin without using any instruments.
The healer pretends to dig his hands into the patient's innards and pretends to pull out 'tumours'. Using trickery, the healer squirts animal blood from a hand-held balloon while discarding items such as chicken livers and hearts. The patient then goes home to die, if he or she was really dying, or to live if there was nothing seriously wrong in the first place.