Commentary

Shaffer: Doctor cures warts with exorcisms

February 17, 2013 

— Of all the ailments that vex mankind, none inspires wild voodoo remedies quite like verruca vulgaris – the angry red protuberance better known as a wart.

Folklore tells us to rub the growth with a sliced potato, then bury the tuber in a graveyard. It also suggests throwing a dead cat at the devil. Another homemade cure would have the afflicted pick their warts bloody and feed the blood to a chicken.

But unlike the conjurers and shamans who dance around bonfires, Dr. Craig Burkhart fights warts with magic that actually works, tossing in a little science on the side.

In four years, he’s managed an 80 percent wart-disappearance average – or in baseball terms, an .800 WDA. You don’t need a potato. You don’t need a dead cat.

“I just do an exorcism,” Burkhart explained. “It makes things more fun for the kids.”

Given that warts have no sure-fire cure – not even the old standby Compound W – the treatment runs the medical gamut.

Burkhart freezes them first. Then he adds a yeast extract and several liquids, including the juice from a Asian blistering beetle – not sold in the United States.

But here, Burkhart plumbs the darker methodology. At 33, dressed in a bow tie, the Chapel Hill physician hardly looks the part of wart shaman. Spend 20 minutes in his Southern Village office, and you get the feeling he could smile the warts off your finger.

He’s eradicated more than 100 of the little devils, mostly from children. He’s tackled the common sort that pop up around the eyes, the stubborn variety that sprout around fingernails and, once, an irritating growth from a football player’s foot.

But he’s willing to dive into weird practices, or at least the pages of long-forgotten Advanced Dermatology Therapy, published in 1987 by fellow Toledo native Dr. Walter B. Shelley.

Borrowing the late Shelley’s technique, Burkhart wraps the offending growth in silk tape and asks the patient to describe its mood. Angry wart? He draws an angry face on the bandage. Sad wart? He draws a sad face. Next, he offers the patient an exotic coin. He carries them in a Ziploc bag: Norwegian kroner and Argentine pesos. One coin equals the price of one wart. If the growth returns, he expects his coin back. But so far, after probably 100 wart exorcisms, he’s never needed a refund.

Finally, he tells patients to remove the bandage at the stroke of midnight. If that’s too late for a patient, he offers bedtime as a substitute.

“Something in the whole regimen works,” Burkhart said. “Maybe it’s because the kids believe it. Maybe there’s a real exorcism. I don’t know.”

In his instructions, Shelley adds parenthetically that potatoes and cemeteries are not required. But as long as it isn’t dangerous, Burkhart’s willing to try. Just bring your own produce.

It seems to me that warts are the surest sign of evil spirits acting out their random cruelty. Surely the same force that creates a pale blue eye or a splash of freckles doesn’t hang a red flap of skin from somebody’s nostril. Surely some black magic gives the witch her trademark nasal feature.

So the job of casting them out must surely fall to a healer with a bit of a mystic in him, a sort of root doctor who knows that the path to wellness follows a strange, unknowable trail.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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