A tragic tale from a mysterious massage clinic
Elvira Brunt is a mysterious figure, born in Backa Palanka on the banks of the Danube in 1957. She allegedly claims to be able to cure cancer by redirecting blood flow through massage. People have told of the eerie power she holds over people, convincing them to believe in her work.
To tell Elvira’s story, you don’t have to back to Backa Palanka, but you do have to go back to a day in 2009. It was one of the strangest days I’ve ever had in a newsroom – and trust me, they can be pretty bloody bizarre places.
This day, though, stands out. I was covering an inquiry into Bogus, Unregistered and Deregistered Health Practitioners. It was mostly about quacks offering dodgy cures for cancer, and people poured out their tales of loved ones frittering away their savings in vain hope.
One man allegedly subjected a patient to “vaginal blowing”, another allegedly said she could “kill the worms” that cause cancer.
And then there was Elvira. People spoke about her in hushed tones. Some reverential, some secretive, some angry.
Elvira Brunt runs the Fravira Clinic in Adelaide’s leafy suburbs.
On June 16 2009, Labor MP Ian Hunter tabled the inquiry report that named her for allegedly claiming she could cure cancer through abdominal massage, charging thousands of dollars.
On June 17, I was writing a follow up report on Elvira, based on the evidence submitted to the inquiry. According to those submissions, Elvira allegedly encouraged a family to deny morphine to a dying man. She allegedly tried to convince the parents of a young leukaemia victim to delay giving her treatment, convinced them not to give her pain relief, and urged the father to feed her KFC chicken.
I was digging through all these terrifying, fraught stories, and meanwhile Elvira’s supporters would call me, tell me how they’d been saved, how she was a miracle worker.
Then the newsdesk shouted out and asked for the address of the Fravira Clinic, because a toddler had just been killed there.
Sophie Schulz had been crushed by an electric massage table. It was completely unrelated to anything from the bogus health practitioner report. Just a weird, tragic coincidence. It was both a police story, and a deeply personal story, and truly bizarre story.
The coronial inquiry into Sophie’s death has started. And today Elvira Brunt was giving evidence. So I went to see her. To see whether she was this alluring, charismatic character that some described.
It started as a straightforward sort of occupational health and safety interview. It was about the possible dangers in a massage clinic; the electricity, the tables, whether you could get a finger trapped. Elvira told the court she had been “over cautious” about safety, that she constantly assessed risk but “never, ever imagined” that a child could get crushed under the tables she used for her massage.
Elvira wasn’t in the room at the time – an employee was preparing the patient, Sophie’s Mum Justine – for her arrival. She is not facing any charges.
Then it took a turn for the weird.
Deputy State Coroner Anthony Schapel asked Elvira what, exactly she did. She said she was a “circulatory specialist”. “I manipulate and redirect blood flow,” she said.
He pushed her on her qualifications and she said she had a medical degree from “Old Yugoslavia” that wasn’t recognised here, and that the Australian Medical Association had told her she wasn’t allowed to display those qualifications.
She was asked what year she did her internship in. She replied she didn’t even know what year it is now. Someone told her it was 2012.
Schapel pushed her on what a circulatory specialist was.
“I don’t use that title. The title I use is Elvira,” she replied. She said people just know who she is, and what she does, and they come to her – too many of them; she says she’d like to cut down on work.
I wanted to understand Elvira better, to understand how she draws these crowds of true believers. There must be some sort of charisma, some magical allure, I had always thought – I’d never been able to catch her at the clinic before, she’d refused to speak on the phone, and the only photo we had of her was unclear and old.
But I don’t understand her any better now. She was a stern, middle-aged woman with striking eyebrows, who seemed confused at times and angry at others, and not particularly outstanding in any specific way.
Maybe you can’t see it without a more open mind; maybe on her own turf, the calming surrounds of the clinic, she has more power; maybe it’s not her that’s the magnet but what she sells – hope.
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