Maryellen Lanigan came to a healing service at New Milford (Conn.) Hospital in a wheelchair. She couldn't move her legs.
On that February night, she prayed as she usually does, hoping to rid herself of multiple sclerosis, a disease that had confined her to a wheelchair for 18 months.
"I was dying. I was literally dying," said the 54-year-old New Milford woman, who had suffered traces of MS for years before it got progressively worse.
When she returned to a healing service in March, though, she was not in a wheelchair. She walked in with a crutch under each arm and her mother at her side.
"My progress was just so rapid that no one can quite understand how it happened," said Lanigan, a former IBM executive on leave from her job.
But she doesn't really care how it happened. She just knows her legs tingled when touched by the hands of lay minister Nigel Mumford, who led the service and is director of the Oratory of the Little Way, a retreat house in Gaylordsville, Conn.
Mumford said he's not a medical magician. "I don't consider myself a healer," he said. "God is the healer. All we do is love, listen and pray."
Although hospital officials recognize results similar to Lanigan's are possible, they say the service is offered to provide emotional and religious support to the community, not as a potential cure for any ailment.
Many doctors say the service can be similar to the placebo effect: Tell people they are better, and sometimes they get better.
"There can be a tremendous healing effect from the mind when the mind is in focus," said David Weinshel, chief of general internal medicine at Danbury (Conn.) Hospital.
Lanigan, though, gives God the credit. "I'm very convinced that there is something very simple and yet somewhat mysterious that happened to me at the healing service that made all of the difference," she said.
Her doctor, Pacey Pet, said the healing service wasn't the sole factor in Lanigan's improved condition.
"There were a lot of months this medical community spent working with Maryellen Lanigan," said Pet, an internist in New Milford.
Multiple sclerosis patients can have periods of remission or varying degrees of impairment during the course of the degenerative illness. Pet said Lanigan worked hard to improve her condition.
New Milford's service developed after a community healing workshop was held at the hospital more than a year ago, said the Rev. Michael Moran, pastor at First Congregational Church in New Milford.
The theory behind therapeutic touch is that an energy field emanates from the body. When a healer moves his hands on or over a person's body, it can, practitioners contend, change the field and heal an injury.
David Larson, a psychiatrist and head of the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Maryland, warned that New Milford Hospital should be prepared to deal with the emotional aftermath of people who come to a healing service with high expectations.
"They just need to be sensitive to those people who don't walk away healed," Larson said.