The twenty-ninth of March 1988 was a day that would change my life. It started much the same as any other busy day. Ahead of me lay the usual number of consultations at my surgery and then, later, three home visits that would complete a 10 hour day for me. About mid-morning, a patient named Ken hobbled through my door. I knew Ken well by then; he was a frequent visitor to my surgery.
He had chronic back and neck pain and at the age of 52, was a cripple leading a miserable life. His condition had begun in his youth when he was a rodeo rider and worsened during his working life as a cane cutter and banana grower. He estimated that he had suffered back or neck pain daily for 25 years. Ken had tried virtually every known treatment for his pain. He had seen a multitude of specialists over the years and undergone three major operations (two laminectomies and one spinal fusion). He was then told that nothing could be done for him and he would just have to ‘live with his pain’.
My role in assisting Ken to do this was mainly one of support and of prescribing appropriate pain relievers (often pethidine), muscle relaxants and sleeping preparations to enable him to endure his life – albeit in a medicated haze. Every day was continuous hell for him, there was no doubt of that; he was utterly miserable. On this day, however, the consultation took a different direction. Ken asked if I would give him a referral to see a Dr Rees who worked in Sydney. One of his friends, he said, had been treated by Dr Rees with a simple surgical procedure and been given great relief from his back pain. Because I had never heard of this doctor, nor of his treatment, I felt the whole exercise would be a waste of time and money and I voiced this opinion to Ken; doctors can, of course, be among the best sceptics in the world. Nonetheless, I gave him the referral, in addition to his usual prescriptions, and wished him well.
Two weeks later, when Ken returned to see him, he was a different man. He walked briskly through my door with a bright smile on his face (I had never seen him walk properly and only rarely smile) and announced, standing up perfectly straight before me, that all of his pain had gone! He had even resumed playing lawn bowls and had taken no medication for one week. It was astonishing news. I had no doubt Ken was telling me the truth; it was obvious the man was entirely free of pain.
In 15 years of full-time general practice, it was the most remarkable and rapid transformation that I had ever witnessed in any branch of medicine; it seemed almost too good to be true. My curiosity well and truly aroused, and my former scepticism retreating, I questioned Ken closely about the treatment he had received from Dr Rees. I then called Dr Rees himself in Sydney several times and questioned him at length about the procedure, which he called rhizolysis. During our discussions I noted he pronounced it ‘rees-o-lysis’, which cleverly, and with some humour, incorporated his own name into it. Although still harbouring some doubts, I decided to travel to Sydney during my annual holidays and learn the technique myself from Dr Rees. It was a decision that would change the direction of my career. Dr Rees, I learned, was a Welsh surgeon and had been a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in England since 1948. He was a beautifully spoken man who sounded like the BBC broadcaster Wilfrid Thomas, another Welshman.
Naturally, I had formed a mental picture of Dr Rees following my telephone conversations with him. But it was nothing like the extraordinary vision he presented when he greeted me at the door of his Woollahra home at 8.40am on a Monday morning as I arrived to start my training. Opposite me stood an extremely dapper man of about 77, of slight stature and wearing, of all things, a bowler hat. He had the most piercing blue eyes, one of which, the left, sported a monocle. He wore a black pinstripe suit that was immaculately pressed, with a gold chain from a fob watch neatly crossing his waistcoat. His black boots were polished in military fashion and they shone so much that I could see my own reflection in them when I glanced down. Dr Rees looked as though he had stepped straight out of 1930. ‘Do come in, Dr Stuckey, it’s lovely to meet you’ he said in an impeccable upper-class British accent, extending his right hand to shake mine while beckoning me inside with his left. Dr Rees was working from his home, after retiring from the hurly-burly of Macquarie Street some years earlier. We sat down and discussed my patient, Ken, and his treatment at some length before Dr Rees’ scheduled patients arrived. It was a fascinating discussion and during it I learned more about the old man’s extraordinary career.
When his first patient arrived in the waiting room, Dr Rees removed his suit coat, hung it up neatly and put on a long, white doctor’s gown, a practice I had long since discarded. Almost as though he was reading my thoughts he insisted I do likewise. Initially I sat in, observing Dr Rees perform the treatment on what seemed like an endless queue of patients outside his door. During the first two days I talked to patient after patient during their treatment and I quickly realised that Ken was only one of many who had benefited from this apparently miraculous treatment. On the third day, Dr Rees informed me the time was right for me to perform my first treatment. The first patient that I treated was a woman in her early sixties who had suffered severe neck pain for more than ten years. I located her trigger points (specific, medically recognised spots from where her pain emanated), injected local anaesthetic into them and, watched carefully by Dr Rees, carried out the treatment with a small surgical scalpel. The entire procedure took five minutes and seemed not to bother the woman at all. She left the surgery, promising to return the following day. The next morning she arrived and was ushered in by the nurse. “How do you feel?” I tentatively asked her. She looked at me with a serious expression on her face and for a moment I was afraid she was going to give me an answer I did not particularly want to hear. She stayed silent, staring at me. Then suddenly she began rotating her head, around and around. Then she stopped and smiled at me. “I haven’t been able to do that for ten years” she replied brightly. “Thank you, doctor”. I had turned off her pain. I felt as though I had performed a small miracle on her, and judging by the grateful expression on her face, she thought so, too.
Upon my return from Dr Rees’ training course in Sydney I was, as usual kept busy. Apart from my usual medical appointments there were also a number of back pain sufferers eager to hear what I had learned. The first patient that I treated was a petite woman in her sixties who had endured two decades of crippling back pain. She used to attend the surgery on a weekly basis because she required a cocktail of about twenty tables per day to control her pain. “How do you feel?” I asked, one week after treating her. To my amazement she bent down and touched her toes, then stood up and gave me a broad, cheeky grin. “I’ve been out boogieing, doctor” she replied enthusiastically. “I haven’t been able to dance a step in years”. She has taken virtually no pain relieving tablets since. Two small miracles in a row; it was astonishing, at the least, and very encouraging.
At the time of writing, I have treated more than a thousand patients using the technique I now call Nesfield’s Treatment. Dr Rees had treated thousands of patients more before me – and there are a small number of doctors throughout Australasia and overseas also practising it. Surprisingly, the procedure is unknown to most back and neck pain sufferers throughout the world. The procedure’s anonymity, the lack of knowledge about it, is an extraordinary situation; I can only liken it to an information blackout. (I will refer to the affliction only as back pain from this point but it does include neck pain as well.)