In the spring of 1938, Dr. Drayton Doherty admitted a sixty-year-old African –American man to the hospital. The small hospital was located at the edge of town in an old house that had been converted into a fifteen-bed hospital. Six of the beds were located upstairs at the rear of the house in what previously served as a sleeping porch. The patient was admitted to that porch.
Dr. Doherty went on to tell me that the patient, Vance Vanders, had been ill for many weeks and had lost over fifty pounds. He looked extremely wasted and near death. His eyes were sunken and resigned to death. The clinical suspicions in those days for anyone with a wasting disease were either tuberculosis or widespread cancer. Repeated tests and chest x-rays for both of these diseases were negative, as was the physical examination. Despite a nasogastric feeding tube, Vanders continued on a downhill course, refusing to eat and vomiting whatever was put down the tube. He said repeatedly he was going to die, and he soon reached a stage of near stupor. Coming in and out of consciousness, he was barely strong enough to talk.
Only then did his wife, who had stayed by his bedside, ask to talk to Dr. Doherty privately. Dr. Doherty knew both the man and the wife personally. Both worked on the farm of an acquaintance of Dr. Doherty. (This farmer, when I interviewed him later, verified the story of Vanders to me.)
The sick man’s wife appeared extremely nervous and anxious. She made Dr. Doherty take a vow of complete secrecy and made him swear never to tell anyone the story she was about to tell. Here was what the wife told Dr. Doherty:
About four months before Vanders was admitted to the hospital, he’d had a “run-in” with the local witch doctor, or “voodoo priest,” as he was called. It was well known that many people practiced voodoo and that there were several priests in the area. Late one night a priest had summoned Vanders to the cemetery. The wife had not been able to uncover why Vanders was called, but only that an argument occurred.
While they were arguing, the priest held a bottle of some foul-smelling liquid and waved it about Vanders’s face. The priest told Vanders that he had “voodoo’d” him, saying that Vanders would die in the very near future, that there was no way out, and that even medical doctors could not save him. Vanders was doomed to die. He staggered home that evening and did not eat again. Several weeks later, he was admitted to the small hospital in a moribund state.
Neither the wife nor Vanders had come forward to tell the story because the voodoo priest had told them he would voodoo all their children and as many other people as it took to keep them silent. Terrified, especially since they had seen Vanders’s illness unfold as predicted, they kept the story to themselves. Seeing that Vanders was near death, the wife came forward to tell Dr. Doherty, in hopes that he could somehow miraculously save her husband.
Dr. Doherty said he was puzzled but fascinated by the story. Knowing that Vanders was near death, he spent a long time that night thinking about what approach he should take. Whatever he did, he knew it had to be done right away or else Vanders would certainly die.
The next morning, with his plan in mind, Dr. Doherty came to Vanders’s bedside. He had asked for all the kin to be present. Ten or more of them gathered in the six-bed ward. They were trembling and frightened to be associated with this doomed man. They pulled away from the bed as Dr. Doherty approached.
Dr. Doherty said that he announced in his most authoritative voice that he now knew exactly what was wrong with Vanders. He told them of a harrowing encounter at midnight the night before in the local cemetery, where he had lured the voodoo priest on some false pretense. Dr. Doherty said he told the priest that he had uncovered his secret voodoo and found out precisely how he had voodoo’d Vanders. At first, he said, the priest had laughed at him. Dr. Doherty said he choked the priest nearly to death against a tree until the priest described exactly what he had done to Vanders.
Here is what Dr. Doherty told Vanders and the small crowd of kin who had gathered around the bed. They hung on every word he uttered.
“That voodoo priest rubbed some lizard eggs into your skin, and they climbed down into your real stomach and hatched out some small lizards. All but one of them died, leaving one large one, that is eating up all your food and the lining of your body. I will now get that lizard out of your system and cure you of this horrible curse.”
With that he summoned the nurse. She had, on prearrangement, filled a large syringe with apomorphine (a powerful emetic, to induce vomiting). With great ceremony, Dr. Doherty pointed the syringe to the ceiling and inspected it most carefully for several moments. He squirted the smallest amount of clear liquid into the air and lunged toward Vanders. The patient had by now gathered enough strength to be sitting up wide eyed in the bed. He pressed himself against the headboard, trying to withdraw from the injection. With dramatic motions, Dr. Doherty pushed the needle into the arm of Vanders and injected the full dose of apomorphine. With that he wheeled about, said nothing, and dramatically left the ward.
In a few minutes the nurse reported that Vanders had begun to vomit. When Dr. Doherty arrived at the bedside, Vanders was retching, one wave of spasms after another. His head was buried in a metal basin that sat on the bed. After several minutes of continued vomiting, and at a point judged to be near its end, Dr. Doherty pulled from his black bag, artfully and secretly, a green lizard. At the height of the next wave of retching he slid the lizard into the basin. He called out in a loud voice, “Look, Vance, look what has come out of you. You are now cured. The voodoo curse is lifted!”
There was an audible murmur across the room. Several relatives fell on the floor and began to moan. According to Dr. Doherty and the nurse who witnessed the event, Vanders saw the lizard through his squinted eyes, did a double take, and then jumped back to the head of the bed, eyes wide, slack jawed. He looked dazed. He did not vomit again but drifted into a deep sleep within a minute or two, saying nothing. His pulse rate was extremely slow (the exact count was not recalled), and his breathing became slow and extremely deep. This sleep/coma lasted over twelve hours and into the next morning. When he woke, Vanders was ravenous for food. He gulped down large quantities of milk, bread, some meat, and eggs before he was made to stop for fear he would rupture his stomach.
Within a week Vanders was discharged from the hospital. Within a few weeks he had regained his weight and strength. He lived another ten years or so, dying of what sounds like a heart attack, having no further encounter with the voodoo priest. No one else in the family was affected.
I knew the nurse who had witnessed the events. She confirmed Dr. Doherty’s story. My uncle, Dr. Sam Kirkpatrick, Sr., a local physician, also confirmed the story, as did the farmer on whose land Vanders worked.
I did not know what to make of this strange and fascinating story. It was my first encounter with hexing and voodoo. Initially, I dismissed the story as a superstitious display of primitive ignorance. However it was evident that Vanders believed at the deepest level that he was cursed and doomed to die. I wondered how words could be so powerful that they could induce death.
Can just words, mere words, have that power? It was a completely new concept to me. That was why I kept asking others to verify the story, which they did. Eventually I had to accept the story as true. I could not find a hole or crack in it.
Dr. Doherty had reversed what was almost certain to be a fatal outcome. He had done it with actions and words. He had made up a story that was plausible in the extraordinarily strange voodoo world of Vanders. Dr. Doherty was able to enter that world completely. His words and actions convinced Vanders that he was healed. Once convinced, Vanders became well.
There is no deeper mystery than the power of words—whether the words cause illness, healing, or sometimes even death.
The story of Vance Vanders was first told in Symptoms of Unknown Origin (Vanderbilt University Press 2005) and later in True Medical Detective Stores ( CreateSpace 2012). The story was shown and told in an episode on Australian Public Television and also on BBC’s Television Health Discovery Chanel.