The Science of Forgiveness

In 1978, Dr. Dabney Ewin, a surgeon specializing in burns, was on duty in a New Orleans emergency room when a man was brought in on a gurney. A worker at the Kaiser Aluminum plant, the patient had slipped and fallen into a vat of 950-degree molten aluminum up to his knees. Ewin did something that most would consider strange at best or the work of a charlatan at worst: He hypnotized the burned man.

Without a swinging pocket watch or any other theatrical antics, the surgeon did what’s now known in the field of medical hypnosis as an “induction,” instructing the man to relax, breathe deeply, and close his eyes. He told him to imagine that his legs—scorched to the knees and now packed in ice—did not feel hot or painful but “cool and comfortable.” Ewin had found that doing this—in addition to standard treatments—improved his patients’ outcomes. And that’s what happened with the Kaiser Aluminum worker.

While such severe burns would normally require months to heal, multiple skin grafts, and maybe even lead to amputation if excessive swelling cut off the blood supply, the man healed in just eighteen days—without a single skin graft.

As Ewin continued using hypnosis to expedite his burn patients’ recoveries, he added another unorthodox practice to his regimen: He talked to his patients about anger and forgiveness. He noticed that people coming into the ER with burns were often very angry, and not without reason. They were, as he put it, “all burned up,” both literally and figuratively.

Hurt and in severe pain due to their own reckless mistake or someone else’s, as they described the accident that left them burned, their words were tinged with angry guilt or blame. He concluded that their anger may have been interfering with their ability to heal by preventing them from relaxing and focusing on getting better. “I was listening to my patients and feeling what they were feeling,” Ewin told me. “It became obvious that this had to be dealt with.

Their attitude affected the healing of their burns, and this was particularly true of skin grafts. With someone who’s real angry, we’d put three or four skin grafts on, but his body would reject them.” Whenever a patient seemed angry, Ewin would help them forgive themselves or the person who hurt them, either through a simple conversation or through hypnosis.

Ewin, now eighty-eight and semiretired after practicing surgery and teaching medical hypnosis at the Tulane University School of Medicine for more than thirty years, became interested in hypnosis while he was a young doctor training under the legendary Dr. Champ Lyons, who pioneered the use of penicillin and treated survivors of the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942.

As Ewin learned to stabilize patients and conduct skin grafts, he wondered about an intriguing practice that he’d learned of from his great uncle. As an independently wealthy “man of leisure” in Nashville, this uncle had dabbled in hypnosis. He even held séances, which had become so popular in the late 1800s that First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln held them in the White House to attempt to reach the spirit of her dead son. (President Abraham Lincoln reportedly attended.)

Many of the most popular séance leaders were eventually exposed as frauds exploiting the grief-stricken, but Ewin’s uncle found another forum for hypnosis that was less controversial than hypnotizing an audience into believing that dead friends were speaking to them. He hypnotized the patients of surgeon friends before they went under the knife in order to minimize their pain. (This was before anesthesia was widely used.)

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June 2017
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