It wasn’t a life-threatening operation, but if the surgeon, Professor Gilles Dhonneur of the Henri Mondor Hospital, had got it wrong with his scalpel by as little as a millimetre, it could have been career-ending for Alama Kante.
The Guinea-born, Paris-based chanteuse had a parathyroid gland tumour on her throat that had to be removed. The risk in doing so, though, was that she would never sing again.
Instead of giving her a general anaesthetic, hypnotherapist Asmaa Khaled accompanied her into the theatre and put her into a deep trance. However, Kante was sufficiently conscious to sing songs from her new album throughout the procedure, so Dhonneur would know exactly where to put his knife and where not to, to protect her vocal cords. That way, she was still singing when the tumour was sliced out.
A triumph for mind over matter? “It was as though I was not in the operating theatre at all,” remembers Kante. “I was far away in Senegal.”
Dhonneur is claiming a world first for removing a tumour under hypnosis in an operating theatre. The procedure, which took place in April, has only now been reported, along with an accompanying video. Yet it might, in reality, hark back to distant times past.
Hypnosis — or hypnotherapy as practitioners prefer to call it to avoid fairground connotations — was used in operations in the late 19th century before the advent of anaesthetics.
Given the other options — a slug of whisky, biting down on a piece of cloth, being held down on the operating table, or hoping you would pass out from the pain — it must have seemed like a good, if slightly cranky, bet.
“Once ether or chloroform became available,” says hypnotherapist Sharon Young, who has practised in west London for 25 years, “the medical profession became allergic to hypnotherapy.” If it was used at all, it was only rarely.
In British-ruled India in the 1840s, for instance, Scottish surgeon James Esdaile made a name for himself by offering painless surgery for a plague of tumours caused by mosquito bites. He used ‘mesmerism’ — hypnosis with an added quasi-religious tinge.
Many years later, Irish surgeon Dr Jack Gibson, who died in 2005, made use of hypnosis — without any anaesthetic — no fewer than 4,000 times.
“Jack often worked in rural hospitals where there were plenty of victims of farm accidents,” explains Young, who knew him well. “He’d say to them: ‘I am a doctor, do you trust me?’ And if they said ‘Yes, doctor,’ he’d put them in a trance while he operated. The key is mind-set and the patient’s motivation. In Alama’s case, her motivation was to sing again.”
It all comes down, it seems, to the power of suggestion that lies at the heart of all hypnosis.
In such cases, there can be pre-training to build confidence about being put into a trance during surgery. “There are other motivations, too,” says Young, who works with Dr John Butler, the hypnotherapist who took part in Hypnosurgery Live, a ground-breaking 2006 Channel 4 documentary in which a surgeon operated on a hernia without anaesthetic. “Hypnotherapy is much more common in American hospitals, for example, because insurance companies have seen the evidence that it shortens recovery periods and so keeps down bills.”
Jack Gibson’s technique was controversial — even Dhonneur didn’t try both hypnotising and surgery — and it was shunned by his colleagues on either side of the Irish Sea during his lifetime. But hypnotherapy has, in recent years, seen a modest revival, especially with pregnant women wanting a natural birth, where hypnobirthing classes teach expectant mothers to control labour pains.
It has been used against addictions to smoking, drinking and over-eating, while the Withington Hospital in Manchester reports excellent results in countering irritable bowel syndrome.
But a return to the operating theatre is not on anybody’s reform agenda at present. Now a British hospital has another Asmaa Khaled, the hypnotherapist who kept Kante in a trance.
In France and Belgium, however, pioneering work is in progress. At the University of Liege, Dr Marie-Elizabeth Faymonville has won support in battling medical prejudice against “quack” hypnotherapy, and showing instead how it can be proved to reduce pain, and cut down the use of anaesthetics and their side-effects.
She specialises in “hypno-sedation”, in which the patient is put into a trance by a hypnotherapist, but also given a mild local anaesthetic or sedative by doctors, enough to leave them relaxed yet awake — the same procedure that used to treat Kante.
When she felt severe pain at one point during the operation, the singer recalls, the hypnotherapist was able to dull it again. “He said: ‘Don’t worry, it will go away,’ and it did. The pain simply disappeared.”
The Daily Telegraph