Uncle Ernst, my mother’s younger brother, was a most unusual Swiss medical doctor. He had been the subject of heated controversy in my family. My mother claimed that he was a genius; my father claimed that he was a quack.
While in high school in Germany, I remember traveling with my family to visit Uncle Ernst, a man I barely knew. Ernst had a thriving medical practice in a town called Landquart in the canton of Graubünden.
We knew that Uncle Ernst would be too busy to visit with us. We simply wanted to say hello when he got a moment between patients. His assistant, Helen, escorted us to a little waiting room and said that lunch would be served for us while we waited for Herr Doktor.
We devoured the large bowl of nuts on the little coffee table. We assumed that the nuts were snack food. When no other food appeared, we concluded that the nuts were our meager lunch. My mother reminded us that Uncle Ernst ate raw food exclusively. Helen had served us a typical meal.
I started to think that maybe my father was right in his assessment of Uncle Ernst.
Before we continued on our road trip across Europe, I talked to some of Uncle Ernst’s patients in the waiting room. They spoke in tones of reverence when referring to Herr Doktor Bauer, recounting all that he had done to cure their “incurable conditions” and letting me know the extent of their gratitude. Even his assistant, Helen, said that Uncle Ernst had saved her from the “insane asylum,” as they called it in those days.
Helen and her older sister, Agnes, had schizophrenia. Agnes had been hospitalized off and on for years. Helen resisted hospitalization. She had heard about Herr Doktor Bauer’s remarkable abilities to cure mental illness and decided to make an appointment to see him as a patient. She was twenty-nine at the time. Uncle Ernst put her on a strictly raw, whole foods diet. Within days she no longer had the signs and symptoms of schizophrenia.
Many years later, I realized in hindsight that Helen’s seemingly miraculous cure could be attributed to the raw food diet she ate that precluded all grains. No grains meant that she ate no gluten. I knew from experience in my own medical practice that for some people who are genetically susceptible, the gluten proteins have the potential to affect the functioning of the brain and contribute to mental illness, along with a host of other maladies.
By the time I finished talking to the patients and got into the car to continue the road trip with my family, I found myself thinking that maybe my mother’s assessment of her brother was right. If everything that his patients said about him was true, then maybe Uncle Ernst really was a genius—way ahead of his times. Maybe my father called him a quack because he simply did not understand the kind of medicine that Uncle Ernst practiced.
Six years later, after graduating from college in 1970, I headed back to Switzerland by myself, determined to learn more about my uncle and what he did. I wanted to resolve the question of whether he was a quack or a genius.
Uncle Ernst had invited me to stay a month with him in his home where his clinic was located. I assumed I would be following him around in his clinic like an investigative journalist, interviewing him and learning about what he did. I stuffed plenty of pens and a few notebooks into my rucksack for that purpose.
When my train arrived at the station in Landquart, I saw Uncle Ernst standing on the platform to meet me. He still looked the way I remembered him from high school days—a tanned, slender man of medium height with thick wavy brown hair, a face that looked like an owl with its intense greenish blue eyes and thin lips that were barely visible. In his mid-fifties, he appeared stiff and reserved, as though he lacked exposure to the world outside of medicine. His English was formal and stilted, reminiscent of the style found in literature of the nineteenth century. I wanted to give him a hug, but restrained myself, not wanting to cause him discomfort.
On our walk from the station to his home, after a long stretch of awkward silence, he abruptly said, “Your fast will begin today.” I didn’t understand what he meant.
I stopped walking and looked at him with bewilderment. “What fast?”
“You will be on a fasting cure for a fortnight, followed by another fortnight of slowly introducing food back into your diet. The food will be all raw.” He continued walking.
What is a fasting cure?
Completely puzzled by his words. I switched to French, thinking that maybe in French he would be able to explain what he meant more clearly. He said the same thing in French, but instead of saying that I would not be eating any food for a fortnight, he said it would be two weeks; two weeks somehow sounded worse than a fortnight.
“You mean I won’t be eating anything for two weeks? Won’t I die from starvation?”
I’m too young to die. I’m only 21. My life is just beginning. This sounds like a crazy idea.
He answered, “You will be able to drink water. You will not die. You might get weak.”
“But Uncle Ernst, why do I need to fast for two weeks?”
His answer took me by surprise, “Because you are American. You are toxic.”
“Toxic?” That sounded like a harsh word usually reserved for something nasty in the environment, like an oil spill. “But Uncle Ernst, I’m strong and healthy.”
“Americans eat unhealthy foods and eat and breathe chemicals. The fasting cure will clean you out.”
I had a sinking feeling that I had made a bad decision to visit Uncle Ernst. He was surely a quack. My father was right. The idea of no food for two weeks was not appealing; in fact, it sounded scary.
First I’m going to probably starve to death, then, if I survive, I’m going to eat food that hasn’t been cooked? Am I going to eat carrots and celery all day? Is this some kind of a joke? There has to be a way to escape this place and go home, and just admit that I made a mistake in coming to see Uncle Ernst.
While I was trying to think up a plan to get out of my visit, we arrived at a large, stone building. Uncle Ernst showed me around the clinic located on the first floor of his home, and then he walked me to my room upstairs. He said that if I had any questions, I could ask Helen, his assistant. This was the same Helen that Uncle Ernst had cured of schizophrenia when she was twenty-nine. She now approached forty.
Helen had gradually worked her way up in the household, beginning as a devoted patient who came regularly to Ernst’s clinic to volunteer her services in any way she could as an expression of gratitude. Over time she became Uncle Ernst’s medical assistant, receptionist, secretary, and all around personal assistant. Ultimately she became his wife when she was 72 and Ernst was 89. Both of them made the leap into marriage for the first time.
I looked around my small, monastic room. I saw a couple of tall glasses and several large pitchers of water on the nightstand. A pile of books written in English, French, and German had been carefully stacked on the table in the corner of the room. I flipped through several of the books and noted that the topics all related to natural methods of healing, including the benefits of fasting and eating an all raw, organically grown diet, along with the effectiveness of medicinal herbs, Oriental medicine, sauna, wheat grass cures, coffee enemas, and walking barefoot on the earth. I wandered into the bathroom and noticed an enema bag with a long, snake-like tube for flushing out the intestines. It looked sinister.
I lay down on the firm, narrow bed and wondered how long I could endure a fast. To distract myself, I began to read one of the books. The content grabbed my attention and started to give me a glimpse of what my uncle was all about and a feeling that maybe there was, after all, some legitimacy to the bizarre things he was doing. After a few hours of reading, a sense of excitement and curiosity captured me. I decided to postpone my escape for a few days and see what would unfold.
Helen knocked softly and came into my room to greet me. She was friendly but seemed quite nervous, like someone who would be easily upset, fragile. She filled me in on some of Ernst’s history and how he discovered this different way of treating disease—or rather, curing disease.
Ernst completed his medical training in Zurich and began his professional life as a mainstream doctor, practicing what he called “school book medicine.” When World War II broke out, he served as a newly minted doctor in the army. The food rations were often old and moldy, especially the bread. He thought that one of the strains of mold on the food was Aflatoxin, a mold that is now known to be capable of damaging the liver and causing cancer.
As the war ended, Ernst became increasingly weak and emaciated. His weight dropped as low as 90 pounds and his skin turned yellow. A tumor was palpable on his liver. He went to see many different kinds of doctors. No one could help him. Finally he was referred to a famous homeopath in Geneva, Dr. Pierre Schmidt. Uncle Ernst arrived in Geneva in critical condition. With the alternative treatments that his doctor prescribed, including fasting, enemas, raw food, and homeopathy, the tumor began to shrink and eventually disappeared over the following year. Ernst regained both his strength and his weight. He said that he felt better than he ever had in his life.
When growing up, Ernst was struck by the fact that his father’s medical patients kept coming back, in need of more treatments. He concluded that his father’s mainstream doctoring methods were not curing his patients. On the other hand, Dr. Schmidt’s chronically ill patients did not need to come back for more treatments. Many of them were cured outright. This observation strengthened his resolve to leave mainstream medicine behind altogether and devote himself to learning and practicing the methods of natural healing.
When Ernst had earned a reputation as being an accomplished doctor of alternative medicine, he was dismissed from the straight and narrow Swiss medical society. Thirty years later, after famous people throughout Europe sought out his care, the Swiss medical society formally invited him back. He politely declined. He had no interest in enhancing his status. His mission in life involved helping his patients feel better.
Helen took me on a little tour of the home and clinic. In the waiting room I saw a dozen or so patients and could hear several different languages spoken, mostly European languages, but I also heard Russian and the Queen’s English.
In the clinic gadgets and equipment partially filled the treatment area, along with a sauna, a device for spinning blood and hundreds of vials of homeopathic remedies. A wide wooden balcony served as the place for sun therapy, lined with several chaises lounges. Helen said Uncle Ernst advised his patients to get a little sun everyday and to walk barefoot on the earth as part of their get well program. In those days, the general public considered such advice pretty nutty. Now, almost fifty years later, it’s considered progressive thinking with some science to back up those unusual recommendations.
After the little tour of the clinic, I started to feel a gnawing hunger I could no longer deny.
“Helen, I can’t stand the hunger. What would happen if I snuck something to eat?”
Helen smiled and said “Ah. Your uncle will know because every morning when he makes the rounds of his patients, he asks them to stick out their tongues. He can tell immediately if someone has cheated by the color of the tongue.”
“Really?” I was disappointed.
“You must drink many glasses of water. It will help you feel better. It’s best if you lie down and rest right now.” After she left my room, I looked through more of the books on natural healing then turned out the light and fell asleep.
My sleep was filled with dreams of food. In one of the dreams, I climbed out the window and ran into town in my nightgown and knocked on the door of a restaurant. I ordered a bratwurst on rye bread with mustard. It tasted divine. After filling my stomach, I ran back and climbed through the window and went back to bed. I awoke in a panic thinking that my nocturnal escapade had really happened and that Ernst was going to know from looking at my tongue. I got out of bed, went into the bathroom and stuck out my tongue to see if it had changed color. It still looked the same. I could relax.
The second and third days of the fast were difficult. I felt weak and hungry and did not enjoy myself at all.
How am I ever going to complete this fast? I have eleven more days to go. Oh my God. This is Hell.
I drank glass after glass of the mountain spring water from the pitchers on the nightstand to fill up my stomach and get a few minutes of relief from the ever-present gnawing ache. A mild headache came and went throughout the first few days. My sweat and urine smelled acrid and my breath smelled like something rotting in a garbage can. I looked at my tongue in the mirror. It was coated with a white film. The skin on my face and throughout my body had little red bumps that looked like tiny pimples.
Maybe this is what Uncle Ernst meant when he said I was toxic. Maybe the toxins are coming out now. I liked the image of my body cleaning itself out.
I bathed two or three times a day in hot water and watched the sweat run down my body after I got out of the tub. After a couple of days I got over my resistance and revulsion to doing the daily enemas. Eventually I went willingly into the bathroom to do the dirty deed, holding onto the vision that my insides were becoming sparkling clean. When I wasn’t bathing, drinking water, looking at my changing body in the mirror and doing enemas, I mostly lay on my bed in a daze, dozing off and on, too weak to socialize or read with any kind of concentration. I wrote nothing in my diary.
Uncle Ernst made his daily morning appearances to check on me. I had gotten used to his nervous awkwardness when interacting with people—including with me, his niece. Sometimes he spoke in German to me, sometimes in French or English. It varied.
As he stepped into the room, he inquired how I was feeling. No matter what my answer was, he said, “Ah. That’s very good. Very good. Yes,” followed by a nervous laugh. As predicted, he had me stick out my tongue to assess my status and then he checked my pulses in the Chinese style of diagnosing. He said that I had “kidney deficiency.” I had hundreds of questions to ask him, but each time I began to question him, he told me to read the books and learn from them. Later he would talk to me. I wasn’t sure when “later” was supposed to be.
On the fourth day of fasting, something mysterious and magical happened beyond my wildest imagination.
Stay tuned for part two of this three-part series.