Recently, a 93-year-old man who had a profound impact on my life passed away. He was not a family member or a rabbi. In fact, he wasn’t Jewish, and I actually only spoke to him two or three times in my life. But in the past 23 years, there was rarely a week that went by where I didn’t mention his name to someone and speak about his teachings. The man’s name was John Sarno and he served as a doctor in NYU Rusk Rehabilitation Center for the past 30+ years. Upon the occasion of his passing, and as a sign of the deep gratitude I feel toward Dr. Sarno, I would like to share with you this most unlikely and contrarian medical story in the hopes that perhaps it can help someone else as it helped me.
I must give a brief introduction. I am sure that most people reading this story will dismiss it as a “new age” fantasy that fits in with the genre of hopeful thinking. In fact, when I once told over this story at a Shabbat table and then left to go wash for Hamotzi, I heard someone ask his friend about me, “Is he a baal teshuva?” I assume that person associated baalei teshuva with people who “drink the Koolaid” and would also therefore believe such a medical “fantasy.”
I, of course, disagree with their categorization of “baalei teshuva.” But putting that aside, I would like to say that I am a deep skeptic and very wary of “hopeful theories and easy fixes.” My belief in what I am about to share is not because I am hopeful, but rather because of first-hand experience. I found it to be compellingly true despite my deep skepticism. So, please, open your mind, as the story I am about to share is 100 percent true.
About 23 years ago, I “threw out my back” at a Frisch school shabbaton while I was dancing. The pain was pretty bad right away, and over the next few weeks it got progressively worse. I couldn’t bend down to take off my socks and often had to crawl to the bathroom at night. I had always been into sports and skiing, and those activities were of course out of the question. I spent my time struggling and trying to figure out how to do daily necessities, like getting into and out of the car, and getting dressed each day with socks.
Over time, the pain did not get better, and I finally went to a well-respected and conservative-minded orthopedist, and he sent me for an MRI. Although this doctor generally did not suggest surgery, after looking at my MRI and noticing the L-4 L-5 disc herniated and fragmented, he reluctantly told me I would need surgery to live normally again. My parents and I were so against surgery that we spent the next few months getting second and third opinions and trying alternative solutions like chiropractors and physical therapists. However, every doctor we went to, after looking at my MRI, told us I needed surgery. Even the chiropractor who specialized in fixing herniated discs told me after looking at my MRI that he would not touch my back and that I needed surgery.
I scheduled surgery and then somehow I heard about a doctor in New York who spoke to you and fixed your back. It sounded like the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, but if there was any chance to avoid surgery, I would try it. So I scheduled an appointment with Dr. John Sarno at the NYU Rehab Center. Dr. Sarno did an examination and looked at my MRI. We then went into his office, sat down and he said to me, “Son, there is absolutely nothing wrong with your back.” By this point, I was a bit of a back expert myself, and I looked at Dr. Sarno and told him, “Wait, don’t you see on my MRI that my L-4 L-5 is herniated and fragmented?! How could you say there is nothing wrong with my back?”
Dr. Sarno proceeded to tell me that he could find hundreds of people walking around the street right now with the same MRI as mine who do not have any back pain. My MRI, he said, is totally healthy and normal, and the reason for my back pain is emotional, not physical. I, of course, didn’t believe him. But, just in case, I asked him, “So how am I going to get better?” And he then asked me, “What do you like to do?” I said, “Play basketball and ski.” So he said, “Go skiing!”
I almost couldn’t believe my ears, as other medical professionals I consulted told me that if I skied I might become paralyzed. And Dr. Sarno told me that to get better I have to go skiing!
It was all too much to integrate. But thankfully, Dr. Sarno doesn’t just give you an office appointment. His visit also gives you entry to his seminar. At the seminar, all the patients from the past month or so come and hear how Dr. Sarno developed his theory and came to believe that back pain and many other chronic pains are not based on physiology but rather are based on emotions, the theory being that the brain or your subconscious deliberately causes pain in your body to divert or hide some of the emotional stresses that you might be feeling. I went to the seminar since I had already paid for it, and listened carefully. During the seminar I asked so many questions that Dr. Sarno told me we would have to meet in private if I needed to ask him anything else. I left the seminar intrigued but thoroughly unconvinced. Two days later, my back pain went away—forever. I canceled my surgery and resumed all sports activities.
It took me a while, but slowly I integrated how deeply Dr. Sarno changed my perception of my body, medicine and how I view accepted truths. Over the 23 years since I met him, I have affected the lives of many others by sharing my experience and Dr. Sarno’s teachings. Jonathan Paley had scheduled a back surgery and canceled it after I shared my story and the theory worked for him. He and I talk about Dr. Sarno every time we see each other. Alex Kay is a similar Sarno “chasid,” as are many others.
This past May, I spoke in front of 1,000 people at a ceremony in Brooklyn honoring Dr. Sarno, and I presented his student Dr. Rashbaum with an award on behalf of the many patients whose life Dr. Sarno changed. (Dr. Sarno was too ill to attend the event.) The event was sponsored by a wealthy businessman whose life was derailed by back pain despite countless futile doctors’ visits and then “fixed” after learning about, meeting and applying the teachings of Dr. Sarno.
There is much more to say, but for now, on the occasion of Dr. Sarno’s passing, I would just like to acknowledge the profound effect he had on so many people in our community and beyond, and let others know that this just might be something that can help you as well.
By Benzion Sheinfeld