April 05, 1982 12:00 PM

Nabeela George contracted polio as an infant. Partially paralyzed, she is confined to a wheelchair. When she broke her neck in a fall 10 years ago, her doctors feared that George would be totally incapacitated, if she survived at all. Yet for two days immediately following her accident, George was put—literally—in the hands of an R.N. named Dolores Krieger. Krieger treated the patient with what she calls “therapeutic touch,” an updated, controversial version of the ancient practice of laying on of hands. George, a painter who has since become Krieger’s housemate, regained some movement in her arms and legs. “I’m still in pain,” she admits, “but therapeutic touch makes it bearable.”

Unlike the laying on of hands, which is usually associated with religious zealots and considered pure hokum by most health care professionals, therapeutic touch is gaining some acceptance in the nursing community, if only for its placebo effect. “You have to join the Establishment and show them on their own terms that it can work,” says Krieger, 60, who since 1975 has been teaching therapeutic touch as part of the accredited graduate program at New York University’s School of Nursing. (It is also taught in 33 other nursing schools in the U.S. and Canada.) Krieger has used it in her clinical practice for the past seven years, treating symptoms of ailments ranging from migraine headaches to asthma. Through lectures and workshops, Krieger has taught the nursing technique to more than 5,000 people, including doctors, nurses and midwives.

An offshoot of holistic medicine, therapeutic touch is based on the scientifically unverified notion that the body is an energy field. The field is said to be uniformly smooth in a healthy person, whereas someone with a disease or a pain supposedly has irregularities in his field. Krieger contends that through intense concentration and practice anybody can eventually detect the disturbances in another person’s energy field and return it to a balanced state.

Krieger begins by teaching students how to become aware of their own energy flow through centering, a form of meditation. Then she has them slowly move their hands over a subject’s body, several inches above the skin, to find the energy field, which she says is evidenced by heat, pressure or a slight tingling of the hands. When a problem spot is sensed, the healer may either mentally transfer some of his own energy to the subject or “even out” the area with sweeping motions of the hands. The result, according to Krieger, is that a relaxation response is triggered, pain is removed and healing is facilitated. Fractures, she says, mend in half the normal time with the use of therapeutic touch.

Krieger doesn’t really know why the technique works, only that it does. (Her studies show that therapeutic touch brings about a rise in hemoglobin levels, indicating an increased supply of oxygen to the cells.) Although most of its proponents are nurses, some doctors use it too. Dr. David Warner, a Wisconsin surgeon, practices therapeutic touch on his cardiac patients. “It helps with healing and avoiding postoperative complications,” he says. “It won’t be long until it’s accepted in classical medical situations.” Dr. Wally Burnstein, a New Jersey general practitioner who has taken Krieger’s course, agrees. “There’s no question this stuff gets results,” he insists.

Not all physicians are sold on Krieger’s methods, however. “She’s a polished performer doing the sort of thing a tea leaf reader does,” says William Nolen, surgeon and author of Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle. “I’m not saying she hasn’t got something, but it’s the kind of thing usually ignored by people in orthodox medical practice.” Nurses occasionally administer therapeutic touch without a doctor’s approval, and some practitioners (who have been dubbed “Krieger’s Krazies” by skeptics) refuse to be identified with it publicly. Explains one nurse at a large New York hospital, “I want to be known as a professional, not the resident witch.”

Krieger sympathizes. “I didn’t believe it myself,” she says of the time when she first saw it demonstrated 14 years ago. Five years later a reputed healer named Dora Kunz taught Krieger the technique. After that, jokes Dolores, “Nobody was safe. I worked on my family, friends, everybody.”

The daughter of an industrial engineer, Krieger grew up in Brooklyn and attended the Westchester School of Nursing. She graduated in 1955 and went on to earn her B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. in nursing at NYU, where she has taught since 1963. Krieger and George live in a plant-and animal-filled house outside New York City.

Although Krieger is the first to point out that therapeutic touch is no substitute for conventional medical care, she is pleased with its growing acceptance and proud of her ability to ease suffering. “Touching permeates almost every phase of nursing,” she says. “I believe in my hands before anything else.”

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