Reuben Schwartz's office is nothing like I expected. A small, seven-foot-by-eight-foot room right off the front office, it is furnished with only an aged, wooden desk and matching chair, a wheeled stool for Reuben, and two grey filing cabinets crammed in the left corner of the room.
Three brown bottles sit untouched on top of the desk, each one with a different label: figs, flax seeds and dandelions. There's nothing on the desk except the bottles and a loupe, a small magnifying glass used by jewelers and watchmakers.
The 69-year-old Amish healer sits on his stool, grabs his loupe and a penlight and begins examining my left eye. His black beard is frizzy and jagged, and the sackcloth clothes his wife Lizzie made for him are covered in dirt from plowing the fields on the farm earlier that morning.
"Did you ever check your breasts?" Reuben says, his chair creaking as he leans in closer.
"Once or twice," I say.
He sets down the loupe and starts scribbling something on a clipboard.
"Does your heart ever beat fast?"
"I have anxiety," I say.
"That's what I was getting ready to put down," he laughs knowingly, and then keeps writing.Just by looking into my eyes, Reuben says he knows what's wrong with me: malfunctioning thyroid, sinus problems, hormonal imbalance and stress. He's using a medical technique known as iridology, an alternative medical technique based on the belief that certain areas of the iris can determine the systemic health of the human body.
An iridologist formulates diagnoses by looking at the colored and discolored patterns of a patient's iris, which correspond to different areas of the body's organs and systems.
Organic medical specialist Reuben Schwartz has been practicing iridology in Hestand, Kentucky for over 30 years. Before ever starting his business, Reuben says he used to practice on his whole family and customers at the leather shop where he and his son used to work. Amish residents would bring their horses and mules into the shop and let Reuben examine their eyes while waiting for their animals.
"People would come in there that had certain illnesses," Reuben says. "I wanted to see what their illnesses were."
Reuben leads me out to the front waiting room, where about 10 others are waiting for appointments. The room is separated by a small wall that only extends into the middle of the room, dividing the waiting room from a small section of desks where customers are prescribed herbs for what ails them. Amish clerks are on one side prescribing the herbs, and customers, or "patients," are on the other side, buying them.
Dennis, 64, one of several clerks on staff, adds up the herbs I'll need for my thyroid, hormones, sinuses and reproductive system. Including the Slippery Elm, passionflower and distilled water, the total comes to $105 for a two-week supply.
A former, self-titled "hippie" raised in California in the 1970s, Dennis tells me not to bother going to the other herb store down the road.
"Like the Slippery Elm, theirs is $32, I think, and you can get ours for $15," Dennis says.
There isn't a major city near Reuben's iridology practice for over 100 miles in any direction, only vast farmland and small towns like Tompkinsville, which is Northwest of Hestand. Vernon is a "para-Amish" community, an Amish sect that adheres to more "liberal" values than other mainstream Amish groups. They still drive horses and buggies, but they also practice what many Amish believe is "witchcraft."
The community is made up of about four families, five buildings and houses, and several acres of farmland – a blip on the map of Western Kentucky. The properties looks old and weathered but are supplied with gardens, barns and horse drawn buggies. Most of the houses are decorated with empty gourds strung up on tall, wooden poles.
Vernon thrives on the herbs grown on the property in a green house behind the practice. The greenhouse grows herbs as well as vegetables for the produce business that opens just down the road every spring. The money collected from Reuben's practice goes directly into the greenhouse. Customers are encouraged to buy their herbs from the greenhouse's supply instead of the separately owned organic herb store down the road, or other herb companies online.
Today at the produce market, the whole community is gathering to bring and sell their harvest to visitors. Amish children run to and fro playing tag and reading books in the grass while their fathers and mothers are busy with transactions.
Most don't typically come to Vernon for the produce. They usually come for one thing and one thing only.
They come to be healed.
Rex Adams waited until a warm summer morning in July to take his wife to be healed. Mary Ann had been taking chemo for ovarian cancer every three weeks and was now starting to lose her sight. The chemo wasn't working and Rex was looking for a miracle.
The morning of Mary Ann's appointment, the couple's friend and caretaker Sheena arrives at the house to help Rex get Mary Ann out of bed and into her wheelchair. The first time they try, Mary Ann falls to the floor and her stats begin dropping rapidly.
"We have to be careful with her," says Rex, wiping sweat off his cheek.
They lift Mary Ann from the floor and finally get her into her wheelchair. Mary Ann is dazed from her medication but she's aware of what's happening. She knows where Rex is taking her, and she reassures him in case this so called "healer" can't do anything about the cancer.
"If I live or die, I'll be O.K. Darlin', either way I win," says Mary Ann, smiling up at Rex.
Those aren't the words Rex wants to hear.
A retired deep-sea diver, Rex has spent his whole life making a living in life or death situations. He's familiar with being under pressure but this kind of pressure, he says, is worse than any dive he ever did.
Mary Ann had ovarian cancer for years before she contracted a lung disease during one of her surgeries, making it difficult for her to breathe. The couple had exhausted every option to heal Mary Ann until today, and now Rex was hoping this option would be successful.
Reuben Schwartz is their last resort.
Rex learned about the healer in 1997 from a chiropractor in Lebanon who was studying iridology, the same kind of medicine the healer Rex is taking Mary Ann to practices.
The car ride from Lebanon to Hestand, Kentucky is long and stifling hot. The air conditioner in the Adams' car is broken, but Sheena keeps Mary Ann as comfortable as she can in the backseat while Rex drives the three-hour trip. To keep Mary Ann occupied, Sheena reminds Mary Ann about a church retreat their children went to together and about other memories they've shared over the past few years.
A small, wooden house with a crumbling porch, encamped by acres of farmland, welcomes the three visitors. Rex and Sheena struggle to get Mary Ann out of the car and into her wheelchair and into the waiting room.
Inside, Reuben greets them wearing, not a white coat as Mary Ann imagined he would, but ragged sackcloth.
Reuben brings Rex and Mary Ann into the examination room and instructs Mary Ann to sit in an old, wooden chair by the door. Rex never mentions the cancer or the lung disease, and neither does Mary Ann. It's an unwritten rule in Reuben's practice to let Reuben guess the patient's symptoms before the patient reveals them.
But after a few moments of staring into her eyes, Reuben simply tells Mary Ann to open her mouth. He reaches for a brown bottle on his desk and puts two drops of the bottle's contents under Mary Ann's tongue.
"You hold this," says Reuben, ordering Mary Ann to keep her mouth closed.
After a few moments, Mary Ann's eyes grow wide.
"I can breathe! I can breathe," she says, reaching for her chest and breathing in huge gulps of air.
The brown bottle is filled with Eucalyptus Oil, and when taken orally or through the lungs it alleviates the pain in Mary Ann's chest. It's the first time Mary Ann's been able to breathe normally without pain in years and the couple is astonished at Reuben's ability.
From that day on, Rex will put the Eucalyptus oil on a handkerchief and place it over Mary Ann's mouth whenever the pain flares up. She will breathe in and out and the pain will slowly dissipate.
Even with Reuben's herbal treatments, Mary Ann dies two years later.
Now 70, Rex Adams is back at Reuben's practice. He's sitting anxiously on the edge of his seat in the waiting room by a large window, talking to an old friend who visits the practice annually with Rex. He's there to get a checkup from Reuben and update his herb supply.
"Some gentleman that just walks in with a big beard that doesn't have the coat and the stethoscope hanging around his neck, it's unbelievable," Rex says, tears forming in his eyes.
Even though Reuben couldn't cure his wife's illness, Rex still trusts in iridology and the herbal treatments.
"He's not after the money. It's just truly a God-given gift," says Rex.
A vast welcome mat of beige earth surrounds the front of Reuben Schwartz's iridology practice. The yellow panels that make up the exterior of the house shine like a beacon in the early sunlight.
The only thing safe from the morning heat is the display of dairy products and vegetables tucked away in the shadows of the front porch. Rows of fresh egg and milk cartons border cardboard boxes of squash and walnuts.
The wooden door to the practice swings open as an elderly couple exits. The door's splintered body hits the produce table that's been carelessly place too close to the doorframe. The eggs rattle and gather the attention of a woman in the front of the waiting room who is pacing from end to end and clutching two glass jars filled with something golden and runny.
Holly Hanson, 49, is pacing back and forth in the waiting room while her husband Kim speaks to a clerk in the other room. Holly just bought a few jars of honey from Reuben's herb supply and she's waiting for the clerk to prescribe the rest of her herbs.
"It's Eucalyptus honey, I think," says Holly Hanson, 49, holding one of the jars up to the sunlight that's streaming in through the ripped screen door.
Holly is from Erial, a small town in Southern New Jersey. She and her husband Kim moved to Tennessee 19 years ago and have been coming to see Reuben since the early 2000s. She syas she usually buys her supply of herbs from Reuben because they're much cheaper than other herb stores in the area.
An iridology chart pinned to a wall behind Holly displays a giant blue eyeball, which, much like a pie chart, has sections of the iris divided by thin black lines. Each panel is labeled with a different body part, indicating that section of the eye is somehow connected to specific organ and body system function.
Holly points to one of the panels. She says Reuben saw something in the upper left portion of her right iris.
Label: Mastoid, ear, neck and shoulder.
"That's me. Left shoulder," she says, tilting her head back and exposing a pair of coral-colored owl earrings that she has put on crooked. "To me it all looks like an eyeball, but he can see something I can't, I guess."
The walls that divide the waiting room from the front desks are lined with shelves displaying cashews, Brazil nuts, almonds, sunflowers and bags of fruit mix. Windows framed with cedar surround the structure and illuminate the clipboards on the table beside the examination room. All the chairs in the waiting room are covered with grey leather that's worn away over the years, exposing the blue cloth underneath.
In the adjoining room, Holly and Kim sit down at a desk with Johnny Mast, one of the clerks, to fill out their prescriptions.
"You want a Slippery Elm?" Johnny asks Holly.
"Oh, yes. Definitely Slippery Elm," says Holly.
Slippery Elm is an herb made from a species of elm tree that was once used by Native Americans to make healing salves. Johnny prescribes Holly Slippery Elm for a Thyroid condition Reuben diagnosed, a condition Holly says has never been cured but that she manages through the herbal remedies she buys here.
"Do you take checks or cash?" Holly asks, her purse ready in her lap.
"Cash, cash," says Johnny.
Billie Frye, 44, just left her exam a few minutes ago and she's now waiting for her daughter Emily's exam. They didn't make an appointment so they have to wait longer than everyone else. Their names are three spaces away from the bottom of the appointment sheet with only one name before them that hasn't been scratched off.
Neither mother nor daughter have ever been to Reuben before, but friends at Billie's church encouraged her to come. Billie and Emily are wearing skirts that barely reveal their ankles, and their hair is braided and frizzy. Billie rubs the toe of her old blue Nikes against the floor while saying how skeptical she was of coming.
"It was really interesting," says Billie about her exam, reaching down and clutching the strap of her flowered purse that's partially tucked under her chair. "The things he told me were spot on, though."
Even though she had her doubts, Billie says after Emily's exam she will be buying herbs from Reuben for the both of them.
"I prepared by talking to God," says Emily.
"That's how she prepares for everything," says Billie, smiling warmly at Emily.
On the wall across from Billie is a bulletin board covered with years of collected flyers, business cards, church cards and thank you notes. Cards reading things like Expert Optical, Porter Paints run by "Bubba" B Cool, and a skin care company called Nerium, make up most of the board.
There are several 3x5 cards with notes written by the clerks in black sharpie One card reads: For more information about black raspberries fight cancer or the simple solution of chewing our food well, see clerks."
One card has a quote written on it: "To get well with herbs, give yourself a month for every year you took to get sick."
The author of the quote is Dr. Eugene Watkins, a former organic medicine specialist from Memphis, Tennessee, and the founder and president of Pure Herbs, LTD., a manufacturer and distributer of herbal extracts and vitamins.
According to Dennis, the hippie clerk at the practice, Dr. Watkins and Reuben are only some of the many practitioners of naturopathy, a system of medicine based on the healing powers of nature.
Reuben says a majority of Amish don't approve of what he does, and that he used to be a "prime skeptic" too.
"I don't blame 'em," says Reuben, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his head. "I thought it was witchcraft. I wanted to be sure before I searched it out and sat and studied this."
Reuben says he appreciates skeptics because it is a pretty bizarre medical technique to most people.
An even bigger skeptic than Reuben is Dr. Melissa Walton-Shirley, a cardiology specialist at Saint Thomas Heart in Gallatin. She says she doesn't have any faith in iridology or naturopathy at all.
"If it was true we would just shut down, buy a retinal scanner and let Reuben do it," says Dr. Walton-Shirley.
Dr. Walton-Shirley remembers a patient that came to her several years ago who had a rhythmic disturbance. He came in with crushed up thyroid from a squirrel that Reuben had given him.
"I told this patient that the thyroid chemical would have killed him if he'd taken it," she says. "It would've damaged his heart."
The patient dropped the herbal remedy in the trash on the way out.
Reuben says the herbal remedies aren't magic, and he doesn't tell people they are. He says they're natural supplements that are better than other modern medical options.
A few miles from Vernon is Tompkinsville, a town that supplies the area with things like a McDonald's and a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
On the corner of Main and West Fourth Street, there's a bake sale being held under a large blue tent in the parking lot across from Dovie's Diner. Women in sunglasses and blue, University of Kentucky sweatshirts are selling flaky peach pies, Easter candy bags and fudge brownies. The group holds bake sales twice a year as part of a collegiate extension service that sponsors homemakers.
Marcia Rasner, a 67-year-old retired RN from Mendocino, California, shuffles her socked and sandaled feet from one end of a table, that's covered in an Easter-themed, plastic cloth that decorated with white rabbits, to the other.
"Have a few of those before you go see Rueben and he'll see em in your eyes," says Marcia with a boisterous laugh, gesturing with her McDonald's coffee cup toward a blue plate of no-bake cookies.
The rest of the ladies join in a chorus of laughter and begin praising Reuben. They are all very confident in Reuben's authenticity.
Marcia says she has the greatest faith in Reuben who's known throughout several towns in the area as not only a healer but, according to Marcia, a "a medical magician" also.
"It's an old saying that the eyes are the window to the soul," she says, her friend Emily Keith nodding to everything she says. "I mean it's an old, old method of diagnosing that works."
Emily Keith, 30, says she went to see Reuben about three months ago. She saw one of his associates Jake Shirk who examined her eyes and told her she had a lump in her breast.
"I knew I had it there and I didn't tell him where it was at," says Emily, wiping her platinum blonde hair away from her face."
In a town with a church on every corner, there are few skeptics and few who dispute the healer's reputation. Believers are everywhere and continue to invest their faith and money in Reuben Schwartz.