<
>

Making the rounds with 'Healing Hans'

12/15/2011

M
UNICH -- The effervescent Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt is hustling from treatment room to treatment room, chatting up patients before turning to his needlework. The clinic is a swanky place, about half the size of a football field, with modern treatment rooms, a physical therapy rehab gym and the latest high-tech MRI and diagnostic equipment.

An endless stream of Bayern Munich and German national soccer team highlights runs on flat-screen TVs in the treatment rooms. The doctor's baby grand piano sits in one of his offices. Abstract art, some purchased in New York galleries and others the work of his artist wife, Karin Lakar, lend an air of sophistication to the large patient waiting area. Word is that a patient was so taken by one piece that he left with it after writing a check for $150,000.

Franco Renzo, CEO of the MW Group, the equity muscle behind Muller-Wohlfahrt's practice, said that a separate VIP waiting room is coming soon. The issue is shielding celebrities from gawkers wandering in off the street. "One guy waited five hours in the waiting room," Renzo says. "Somebody asked him why. He said it was so he could see the [soccer] players and important people."

Based on the clientele alone, business is good.

Renzo acknowledges as much in handing over a glossy prospectus and artist renderings for a proposed planned community to be built around a Muller-Wohlfahrt clinic in the Brazilian coastal town of Aracaju. The idea is to capitalize on the run to the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. Discussions are also ongoing about clinics in Turkey and Russia, Renzo says.

That's all good to Muller-Wohlfahrt, who after helping to train medical staff says he'll be obligated to spend only two weeks a year in the Brazilian facility. For him, home is his showcase clinic in Munich, in the heart of Bavaria, where he greets every patient and visitor with his trademark handshake -- an intricate airborne clasp of hands.

"It gets the patient with me," he says, eagerly demonstrating.

Muller-Wohlfahrt allowed a reporter last spring to shadow him as he treated patients over parts of two days. The broad mix of folks included a world-famous lion tamer, the editor of Cosmopolitan in Germany, a feisty 92-year-old woman ("She loves me," the doctor says), and the CEO of the Bayern Munich soccer club, as well as Olympic and world-champion athletes.

All told, he cared for 26 patients. An on-staff radiologist conferred prior to a handful of treatments, but for the most part Muller-Wohlfahrt relied on his trained fingers to probe the injured areas and determine whether to inject homeopathic or other medicines. When he was done, the doctor had treated 24 of the patients to his needles, pumping them with more than 150 injections.

What he's just done is unmatched by anyone on the planet, he says, modestly adding: "That is my own way." He's been doing it for more than 40 years. Forget the study that goes into the medicines, the initial red flag or danger to overcome is knowing where to inject the needles: the direction, the distance, the precise location of vital organs.

When asked about the casual ease with which he injects, he says: "Ah, I did a lot of studies with dead people, cadavers. And the university allowed me to do my own study. So when the students were away, I was totally alone, and I could do my studies."

He describes his seemingly eccentric approach as low-risk, conservative medicine. His objective is to accelerate healing without surgery, which neither he nor the two young doctors in his practice perform. When treatment is successful, a muscle tear that used to sideline an athlete for six weeks now needs only a two-week recovery. "It used to be ice and wait," he says. "I won't have that."

Instead, he champions infiltration therapy for most patients, from athletes like golfers Jose Maria Olazabal and Justin Rose to heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko. The protocol is to insert fine, hollow needles into the site of the strained or torn muscle fiber. They remain planted in the tissue and act as a temporary base or portal before the doctor injects through them some combination of Actovegin, homeopathic herbal tonics or lubricating substances.

"The first set of needles is an anesthetic, so the patient doesn't cry," he says, describing the initial discomfort as comparable to a bee sting. "Then, the needles stick [in the muscle] and the second round, I give all the mixtures.

"No cortisone, no chemical substances. No side effects"


Patient 1: Olympic gold medalist

M
eseret Defar, a petite running machine, has flown in from Ethiopia after injuring her right knee when she stumbled over a rock on a training run. Her Boston-based agent Mark Wetmore called ahead to book her appointment. Defar arrives with dazzling credentials: gold medalist in the 5,000 meters in the Athens Olympics and bronze medalist in Beijing, and indoor world-record holder at 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

Perched on a treatment table, the 27-year-old frantically describes in perfect English to the German doctor how she went down in a heap and the lingering discomfort. She stresses the importance of returning to training in preparation for the IAAF World Championships in South Korea in late August. Muller-Wohlfahrt tries to calm her fears after an MRI reveals, as he expected, he tells a reporter, a partially ruptured ligament.

"No miracles with ligaments, but I will do my best," he tells her, suggesting a four-week recovery time. "I can't promise very quick results, but these medicines stimulate the body to heal. It takes time."

Defar returned to the track within two months to win the 5,000 meters at the Bislett Games in Oslo, part of a five-race unbeaten streak leading to the world championships. In South Korea, she cited stomach discomfort in dropping out of the 10,000 meters. She finished third in the 5,000 after running the fastest time in the heats.

During her April visit, the doctor tells Defar, accompanied by her husband, Teodros, to come back for treatments three of the next four days -- not Saturday, because he'll be on the Bayern Munich bench during a football match. Then, he begins his needlework by delivering eight injections into her lower left thigh and above the knee.

"I do needles into the knee and the trigger points," the doctor says. "This is a relief for muscle and then the patella is not under stress so much and can regenerate."

She winces when the first needle probes beneath the skin. "You don't like injections?" Muller-Wohlfahrt says softly. She drops her face into her hands as he continues.

After the treatment, she is asked by a reporter what brought her to this office so far from home in Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa. "He is the most famous doctor in the world," she says. "Everybody knows Dr. Wohlfahrt. I treat here last year."


Patient 2: The face of German soccer

B
astian Schweinsteiger, the face of German soccer, accepted a five-year, $66 million contract to remain with Bayern Munich last December over lucrative offers from two other top European clubs -- in part because of his closeness to Muller-Wohlfahrt.

"When I was deciding whether to go to London or Madrid, I considered here in Munich because I have the best doctor in the world," says the 26-year-old midfielder. "It is the best treatments. It is so important to have a good doctor so I can play to 34 or 35 at the highest level."

During this trip to the clinic, Schweinsteiger is playful and relaxed. When the doctor talks him up as the top German player, he interjects, "No, you mean the most famous player ever." The banter ends before Muller-Wohlfahrt empties 10 syringes into his lower back.

"He had two national games this past week and the traveling," Muller-Wohlfahrt says. "That is tiring. He has a little stiffness in his back."

Schweinsteiger says he stops by three or four times a month for treatments. Sometimes he'll take injections, including Actovegin, before every match at major tournaments.

"You feel it after five minutes in the legs," he offers. "It brings them back to life. It is perfect for me."


Patient 3: Conductor of the Munich Philharmonic

L
ess than 12 hours earlier, the doctor sat six rows from center stage for Semyon Bychkov's acclaimed performance as guest conductor of the Munich Philharmonic. With disheveled, frizzy long hair bearing a resemblance to Albert Einstein's, the Russian-born conductor engaged in wild contortions and frantic head-bobbing on stage. Now, he sits stoically on a stool in Muller-Wohlfahrt's office, bent at the waist with his elbows resting in front of him on a treatment table as 13 syringes loaded with homeopathic medicines are injected into his shoulders and neck.

For the past 25 years, the great conductor -- the son of a doctor himself -- has made regular pilgrimages to Muller-Wohlfahrt's office. Always, it is to quiet his barking back.

"He saved my life," Bychkov says. "I was crippled with my back, terrible pain. I couldn't stand. I swallowed a half of bottle of Tylenol -- nothing. This here is one of the biggest miracles in medicine."

He turns to the doctor, smiling: "You help me, but never cure me. That way I keep coming back."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.