At spa resort, a question of faith

Sun Journal

Dispute: Doctors in the Czech Republic's most famous spa town are concerned that a new faith healer will tarnish their reputation and eat into profits.

April 09, 1999|By Michele Legge | Michele Legge,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic -- Inessa Soukhanova sits by her worktable, methodically taping micromagnets to the fingertips of a robust, blond patient. Once taped, each digit in turn receives light but firm hand pressure, and then the diminutive, middle-aged healer locks eyes with her client. She murmurs in Russian, willing her patient to focus on centers of pain.

Sweet-smelling wafts of incense drift in from the corridor. Outside the lone window of this second-story sanctum, well-heeled visitors stroll a cobbled boulevard past the splendidly maintained shop fronts of Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic's most famous spa town, also known by its German name, Carlsbad.

Most of the strollers are Russians, apparently unconcerned by the economic anarchy back home or the local dispute bubbling beneath the shiny facade of medical order.

Ask the manager of Sanitarium No. 5 whether the Russian financial crisis is bad for business here, and she gives a snort of derision.

"I don't think these people are worried," says Jana Jezkova, as one of the in-house masseurs slaps a lump of therapeutic mud onto a Muscovite matron's arthritic knees. "That's for poor people to worry about. These people have their own economy."

Doctors at this popular spa resort are perturbed, however. They believe the recent appearance of the Russian faith healer in the city center will tarnish Karlovy Vary's reputation and draw away silver otherwise destined for their pockets. Doctors are pushing for a local council ban on renting downtown property to unorthodox health practitioners.

"Our main concern is that these healers will discredit the reputation of Karlovy Vary," explains Frantisek Mikes, secretary of the Spa Association.

"Those who practice close to the springs, in the inner spa, should provide services that do not damage the spa tradition," adds Darina Kosrinova, research secretary of the Board of Karlovy Vary Spa Physicians, a professional association charged with safeguarding the quality of spa medicine.

The healer at the center of the dispute demurs. "Faith healers are allowed to carry out their practice worldwide," Soukhanova asserts. "Why not here? This is 100 percent discrimination."

To many Western eyes, spa therapies such as mineral waters and mud baths seem pretty far out themselves. But Roman Salamanczuk, president of the Czech Spa Association, says such treatments stand on widely accepted therapeutic ground.

The so-called drinking cure, he explains, is based on the notion that drinking mineral water helps the body eliminate toxins. The mineral baths, bubbling with carbon dioxide, help patients with heart problems by widening blood vessels and promoting relaxation. Mudpacks, mud baths and massages, he says, improve the patient's stress-worn psyche.

Czech health-insurance companies acknowledge the rehabilitative benefits of spa treatment and pay at least part of the cost for patients sent by a doctor for a recuperative stay at a spa. Chronic rheumatism, digestive complaints, circulatory illnesses, respiratory problems and gynecological disorders are all said to benefit from spa-therapy treatment.

For centuries, Karlovy Vary has drawn health-conscious Russians. Peter the Great and Leo Tolstoy were regular visitors. Under communism, trade union organizations sent model workers here on expense-paid junkets.

But only after the collapse of communism did the spa town really earn its local nickname of "Little Russia." In the past five years, the annual influx of Russian visitors has increased more than fivefold.

Of the 50,000 or so tourists who visited last year, about 60 percent were Russian, according to the town's tourist office. Three of Karlovy Vary's better hotels are now Russian-controlled and cater almost exclusively to Russian clientele. The town has a daily Russian-language newspaper, the Karlovyvarskoye Novosti (Karlovy Vary News). The Moscow city government maintains a consulate here for those who want to mix business with pleasure.

Two airlines, Aeroflot and Czech Airlines, run weekly shuttle flights between Moscow and Karlovy Vary. Neither has any difficulty, Russian crisis or no, filling seats.

But Russian visitors do seem to be taking advantage of their visits to stock up against the future. "[Russians] have always been our best customers," says Lenka Sulcova, manager of a jewelry emporium. "But they're buying more than ever before, mostly gold and pearls and garnets. And they always pay cash. Always."

Retail is just a sideline, however, to Karlovy Vary's main business, health services.

Soukhanova, the Russian faith healer, received a medical degree in Moscow. Now her treatments include magnet therapy, energy channeling and reflexology, all of which lean heavily on the curative powers of the mind and the transference of positive energy from the therapist into the patient's body.

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