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Relating to Dr. Divi

At Vancouver's Wellness Show, a doctor's pitch for intuitive healing leaves me feeling queasy.

The Tyee
Shannon Rupp

I'm at Vancouver's 20th annual wellness trade show, where Dr. Divi Chandna, a licensed medical doctor and a "certified medical intuitive" is delivering her confusing hypothesis on how to treat depression with help from the "law of attraction." Dr. Divi (as she styles herself) is telling a few dozen mostly middle-aged women that insomnia is the result of spirit guides or angels waking us up to have a chat.

"One of the most common reasons [for insomnia] is that the guides are trying to communicate with you. Between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m is when they communicate and they want you to sit up and meditate. Can you relate to that?" she asks.

That's her tag line for almost every statement, no matter how banal, and the audience dutifully murmurs and nods.

Well, who knew? To think I believed all the docs who'd told me my own tendency to 3 a.m. awakenings would stop if I just knocked off the coffee. I like the chatty angel notion, which permits a midnight espresso, much better.

The Wellness Show -- or as I think of it, Current Trends in Snake Oil -- attracts an audience of about 30,000 to see a disparate collection of businesses hoping to find new customers in the demographic that's chasing wellness. That's mostly women 35 to 55 who have a vague sense of unease that our lives ought to be better. The show includes everything from celebrity chefs doing cooking demonstrations, to a woman selling a heating pad she claims can cure breast cancer.

In between are the chiropractors offering on-the-spot spinal assessments. Office assistants act like barkers pulling in the punters, and on hearing I have no back problems one swears her boss can cure my allergies with a spinal adjustment. On hearing I have no health problems at all, another assures me chiropractic is about prevention. It's like going to the gym, she says: it's how you prevent illness!

Then there's the guy selling "transnasal light therapy" -- a new gizmo that shines a light up your nostrils and promises to heal everything from diabetes to dementia along with a variety of viral infections.

I get a kick out of the circus midway style of these shows, and many of the more than 250 exhibitors are easily laughed off as entertaining purveyors of nostrums. But Dr. Divi, who runs a family medical practice in Kitsilano, is in a class by herself.

Last year Dr. Divi billed the Medical Services Plan $294,290.53 for services rendered to patients in her conventional medical practice. Simultaneously she runs a user-pay business peddling the sort of magic and mysticism usually associated with the dark ages. She runs The Bridge Health Center with husband Ed Light, an energy healer, and she offers readings based on her "gifts for intuition." She explains that this includes being clairvoyant and "clairsentient" -- she gets messages from spirit guides. Apparently her "clairaudience" colleague Georgina Durcan hears voices. Sadly, Ms. Durcan had to cancel today's stage appearance.

Dr. Divi doesn't mention what her very own six week long "holistic" program for treating depression and anxiety costs, but the brochures list her medical intuition readings at between $99 and $199 a session. The deluxe reading comes with a written report and a little energy healing. (Energy healers wave their hands around customers as if buffing up an aura, and they often imply they're cleaning something by making a hand gesture that suggests they're shaking off something nasty.)

Medicine's usual drug-free treatment for depression includes some combination of aerobic exercise, behaviour changes, and talk therapy. But Dr. Divi believes better answers can be found in a form of sympathetic magic, currently known as the law of attraction.

Sympathetic magic is an umbrella term for one of the world's oldest superstitions, which postulates that things that resemble each other must have power over each other. The notion that like-affects-like is the reasoning behind a host of beliefs including homeopathy and astrology. The law of attraction is particularly popular these days due to The Secret, a bestselling book that argues you can wish yourself wealthy

"The law of attraction is simple: what you put out, you get back. If you don't know what you are putting out, look at how your life is looking now," Dr. Divi explains. "Can you relate to that?

"If you are in the mode of fear this is depression and the law of attraction brings into your life depression, anxiety, and fear," Dr. Divi continues. "I am a trained GP. We are trained to put people in fear. If I give you a label you are going to go into fear. Can you relate to that?"

The audience nods again. And again. What appeared to be just an annoying verbal tic is apparently a way of breaking down intellectual resistance to her statements.
According to Dr. Divi, love is the opposite of fear, which she says is the same thing as depression. As near as I can tell from her convoluted presentation and scrawls on a flip-pad, her treatments put you in touch with your spirit guides, a host of angels who wish love on us all.

"How can you wake up your spirit voices?" she says. "I can do it as a medical intuitive, as I spend half an hour every day meditating."
She spots a child in the crowd and Dr. Divi seizes on the distraction to illustrate her point.

"Children with beautiful cheeks and beautiful eyes are very connected," she says, explaining why the child was drawn to her. "I am constantly talking to angels and spirit guides and they are looking at them. Children under the age of seven can see them. Feel them." She waves her hands around her head to suggest spirits surrounding her.

"They [the spirits] want you to live more life. You are meant to be happy. Wonderful. Joyful."

To explain how her medical intuition works, the aptly named Dr. Divi -- "divvy" is slang for diviner -- tells us about one of her medical patients with a shoulder problem that prevented her lifting her arm. The patient was frustrated by the tedious process of physiotherapy, which was slow to produce results. So Dr. Divi did a reading to get at the "real" emotional and/or spiritual cause of the shoulder ailment. Apparently, Dr. Divi's spirit guides indicated that this woman worked too much and needed to play with her children more. The patient did this and after a while there was a little more arm movement. (No word on whether she kept doing the physio.)

Dr. Divi seems to view potential clients as a stand-in for her own therapist. It's hard not to feel sorry for her as she regales us with tales of her sad childhood in small town Ontario, where Indian immigrants were a rare sight and where she spent her Saturday mornings wiping the graffiti "Paki" off the family's fence. We hear how her parents wanted her to have a traditional marriage to an Indian man and disapproved of her two marriages to white guys -- but they went to the weddings anyway. They disapprove of her refusing to cook Indian food, too. Apparently her sister, who opted for a more parent-pleasing life, is the favoured child.

Dr. Divi, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1993, tells us she has suffered a number of ailments herself and hints at some sort of post-med school crisis, which was cured when she discovered yoga and meditation.

"Anytime you get a physical ailment it is because you are saying something different than the spirit wants," Dr. Divi teaches us. "Every time I dated an Indian guy I got chest pains -- your body communicates with you."

Perhaps that explains the increasingly queasy feeling I have as Dr. Divi continues sharing her whimsical beliefs. Talking to spirits? A conviction that she has special magical powers? Those could be symptoms of any of a host of conditions listed in medicine's psychiatric reference, the DSM IV.

And what about the wisdom of encouraging people struggling with mental illnesses to get in touch with invisible entities?
Suddenly I am starting to feel a little of that anxiety Dr. Divi mentioned.

She says we should trust our gut feelings, so I decide to go with mine and look up B.C.'s College of Physicians and Surgeons to learn how the doctors' professional governing body feels about its members diagnosing patients with the help of imaginary friends.

According to the college's resource manual, physicians are expected to be "accurate and truthful" in their advertising and communications with the public. They must not "exaggerate or make statements that are false, inaccurate, misleading or reasonably capable of being misinterpreted."
And then there's Section 7-2.1 (b): "A registrant must not... make statements that are offensive, flamboyant, not in good taste or contrary to the interest of the public or the honour and dignity of the profession."

Then again, Dr. Divi has the B.C. Health Professions Act on her side. Section 25.4 states that "The college must not act against a registrant or an applicant for registration solely on the basis that the person practices a therapy that departs from prevailing medical practice unless it can be demonstrated that the therapy poses a greater risk to patient health or safety than does prevailing medical practice."

Dr. Ailve McNestry, deputy registrar of complaints, makes it clear that the college can't comment on specific members or situations -- including the Dr. Divi show I reviewed. But she says that, in general, alternative therapies are difficult to navigate because there's no clear definition of what constitutes an alternative therapy, and there's disagreement among doctors.

As for a licensed physician consulting spirits for a diagnosis, Dr. McNestry, who spent 35 years in general practice in Newfoundland and B.C., won't go near the question: "I don't want to offend anyone's spirituality," she says, adding that the college recognizes the public wants options in care.
"In general, I would say that if any member of the public is concerned they have to call us and discuss the situation or make a complaint," she says, adding the college receives about 1,200 complaints annually.

As Dr. McNestry explains it, the college strikes a balance between its occasionally opinionated 10,500 members and its mandate to protect the public, who are likely to be consulting physicians when they're at their most vulnerable. In cases where doctors have health-related businesses or hobbies in addition to a medical practice, they're encouraged to set clear boundaries between the two, such as conducting them in separate workspaces. Their conflict of interest policy cautions against using their status as licensed physicians to convey expertise outside of medicine -- which includes pushing their own personal beliefs.

Complaints are investigated and resolved, usually without resorting to formal inquiries. Discipline -- which can include anything from mandatory education to fines or suspension -- is relatively rare.

And Dr. McNestry is remarkably fair-minded about what I persist in calling The Quackery.

"Things that were once considered alternative became mainstream," she reminds me. "So you don't want to lose out and call it invalid without knowing for a fact it might be wrong."

Like leeches? They were once the symbol of everything wrong with mystical healers who bled their patients, often to death, in the belief that disease was caused by "humours" in need of balancing. The parasites were banned from medicine until the 1990s when researchers found that a chemical that leeches excrete to prevent the host's blood coagulating was ideal for use in reattaching limbs severed in accidental amputations. Unfortunately, the most efficient delivery system was the leech itself, so suddenly emergency rooms had tanks full of the nasty little things. (And I was down one good metaphor.)

"Like leeches," Dr. McNestry agrees.

It's a fair point. Then again, the creepy bloodsuckers weren't granted admission to hospitals until their services were proven to work.
Ironically, the American Association for the Advancement of Science is sharing space with the Wellness show at Vancouver's convention centre, and they're discussing climate change and its deniers. President Nina Fedoroff is widely quoted as saying she is "scared to death" by the anti-science movement that is sweeping North America and most of the western world.

"We are sliding back into a dark era," she tells The Guardian. "And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms."

For one wild minute I consider dragging her over to wellness world to get her views on the climate change deniers' answer to medicine. I have a hunch she could relate to that.

Or maybe that's just one of Dr. Divi's angels poking me?  

30 Mar 2012