by Emilia David
Eighteen-month old Mercy Maynard was suffering from retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer. She lived in Dexter, Maine.
On Feb 22, 2013, documents said, doctors in Maine removed her right eye. She was being treated by an oncologist and an ophthalmologist. Her brain MRI showed no spread of the cancer. Doctors told her parents that with proper follow-up care–one suggestion was chemotherapy–from the removal of the cancerous eye, she had a good chance of survival.
Treatment was urgent. Her Maine ophthalmologist got back a report on a biopsy: it showed cancer cells have moved to her other eye. A doctor advised a spinal tap right away to determine the stage of the cancer.
Mercy’s parents had other ideas.
They sought alternative care, in the apparent belief that treatments considered natural might provide the same cure.
Mercy’s parents went to the other end of the country. They took the infant to Arizona and went to Martha Grout, a licensed physician in Arizona who favors homeopathic cures. As a licensed doctor, when faced with difficult cases, she is supposed to follow prescribed mainstream medical protocols. But when there is latitude, she is free to try alternative treatments.
Yet faced with Mercy’s cancer, Grout did not take a spinal tap or any other measures.
She gave the infant a concoction derived from apricot seeds or almond pits.
The mixture is sometimes known as amygdalin, other times as laetrile. Some have touted it as a miracle cancer cure, it is not licensed by the FDA for treating cancer or any other illness, though it is permitted in other countries like Mexico.
Even more troubling: the resulting potion is toxic, and poses a greater risk to children.
On March 13, 2013, less than one month after her eye had been removed because of cancer, Grout gave Maynard an oral dose of amygdalin.
The next day, Maynard’s father called Grout saying she was crying, behaving unusually, having shortness of breath and was bloated.
Grout wanted Maynard brought back to the clinic. Mercy suffered a heart attack at her offices. Grout tried to revive her with CPR but failed. The doctor called in paramedics at 6:15 pm. When they arrived, Mercy did not have a pulse.
Paramedics fought furiously to revive her and brought her to the hospital, but she was dead minutes before 8pm.
Mercy was dead less than three weeks after her cancerous eye had been removed and her doctors recommended tradition treatment to fight her cancer.
Maynard’s father refused to grant consent for an autopsy. The hospital where she was brought contacted the Scottsdale police, which ordered an autopsy and began investigating her parents and Grout for child abuse.
The Arizona Medical Board’s medical consultant determined Maynard had died of cyanide poisoning — cyanide that is part of amygdalin, the medication that Grout gave the infant.
But members of the medical board believed amygdalin and other substances found in the medicine Grout gave Maynard.
During the hearing, the board believed Maynard may have had a bad reaction to the laetrile, that she could’ve eaten something that exacerbated the amount of cyanide in it.
“Something I think is very important here is reference to the time between the dose of this medicine and her parents took the child to a restaurant. Well it doesn’t say what restaurant or what the child might have been exposed to. Does anybody know what that might be?” asked a board member.
Grout replied that she did not know if Maynard was brought to a restaurant.
The other doctors were not sure if eating something may even cause complications in a patient that was given laetrile.
During the hearing, members of the medical board sympathized with Grout.
“[This] leads me to the conclusion that perhaps we should be dismissing the case with a letter of concern for not acting on that mixture of medicines. I don’t know how else to decide this. In my mind I don’t think there’s any malfeasance or misintent,” one of the doctors said.
Grout gave an emotional plea to the board that she cared for all her patients, that she would never intentionally give medicine that had the potential to harm them. That it broke her heart that one of her patients suffered.
In the end, Grout was found to have “deviated from the standard of care” by giving Maynard a dose of amygdalin without first determining if all traditional methods of medicine were tried and seeing if it will not cause her any harm.
The medical board however decided instead to formally reprimand Grout for her actions in a letter and was allowed to keep her license.
The Scottsdale police began a criminal inquiry but no charges were ever filed.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s office and the Scottsdale police did not push through with any case.
HEALTH FREEDOM AND HOMEOPATHY: MORE POPULAR THAN EVER
Homeopathy is an increasingly popular, and controversial, form of alternative medicine that has been around for decades.
There is no national licensure exam for homeopaths and it is left to states to determine how to regulate it.
Only three states—Arizona, Nevada and Connecticut—license medical doctors separately to practice homeopathy while eleven others bundle homeopaths with naturopaths.
In states like Arizona and Nevada, there is a separate board dealing with homeopaths. Connecticut followed the same system until it determined that the homeopathic industry was too close to its board and merged both homeopathic care and osteopathic or traditional medicine to one regulating body.
Other states consider homeopaths as medical doctors and are subject to rules of its own medical boards.
The North American Society of Homeopathy said it prefers “health freedom” for consumers, a movement that calls for wider availability and decreased regulation for alternative types of medicine.
“We do not advocate licensing since there are not enough homeopaths to justify it. We believe in self-regulation since many regulators do not understand what we do and a stroke of a pen [in a law] has a great impact on what we do,” a spokesperson for the association said.
Doctors who practice homeopathy are subject to close scrutiny by the boards that govern them, as many are licensed as traditional doctors. But not many homeopaths have been duly reprimanded, like getting their licenses suspended, even if patients died.
Patients flock to homeopathy as more and more people grow tired of regular medical treatments. Many may feel distrust of doctors they feel are in the pocket of big pharmaceutical companies, others don’t understand the many complicated treatments and some are attracted by the more natural remedies offered by alternative medicine.
Homeopathy offers many patients relief that they feel they can no longer get from the clinical world of traditional medicine.
Other Cases Of Other Doctors
But Grout is not the only doctor who had been cited for giving homeopathic therapy and ignoring traditional medicine.
Consider these doctors:
Patient A, a 69-year old man, started seeing Frank Shallenberger in 2004.
The patient went to Shellenberger complaining of lower back pain, being overweight and possible vertigo according to state documents. Blood work was taken. The following visit, in February 2005, Shallenberger noted the patient had osteoarthritis and dry, flaky skin. The doctor ordered a homeopathic evaluation called Bio-Energy Testing to determine metabolism.
After the test, Shallenberger diagnosed Patient A with an underactive thyroid also known as hypothyroidism and prescribed tablets made out of desiccated thyroid extract. Hypothyroidism is an ailment where the thyroid does not produce enough hormones. It is usually treated with oral medication made from a synthetic thyroid hormone called levothroxine.
The following weeks seemed good for the patient who was losing weight and looked healthier.
The patient did not come back to Shallenberger’s office until November 2005. He was walking wobbly and little balance. Shallenberger continued to prescribe desiccated thyroid.
The patient returned twice more to Shallenberger’s office both times the doctor continued prescribing desiccated thyroid. In one occasion, the patient admitted to Shallenberger that he had increased dosage of his pills on his own. Shallenberger ordered a second Bio-Energy Test and concluded that the patient had worsening age-related hypothyroidism. He then increased the dosage further.
In October and November 2006, the patient contacted Shallenberger complaining of cold symptoms and headaches.
In December, the patient went to see his primary care physician Merrit Dunlap because of his blood pressure and headaches. A few days later he saw a cardiologist then became lightheaded and fainted.
The patient was brought to the hospital and admitted with hypertension and an irregular heartbeat.
The Nevada Board of Medical Examiners determined that Shallenberger had failed “to use the reasonable care, skill, or knowledge ordinarily used under similar circumstances” by improperly diagnosing the patient with hypothyroidism and prescribing desiccated thyroid. The board said the tests showed the patient had a fully functioning thyroid.
This is not the only time that Shallenberger has been in trouble with the medical board.
The Nevada board admonished Shallenberger in 2007 after he was found to have improperly treated a patient named David Horton.
Shallenberger diagnosed Horton as having hemorrhoids and prescribed witch-hazel. But Horton had colon cancer so Shallenberger began treating him with a controversial method called Insulin Potentation Therapy.
The treatment has been met with skepticism from other doctors. It involves injecting insulin to the patient with a very small dosage of the chemicals used in chemotherapy.
Horton died in September 2007.
Shallenberger is still an active doctor in Nevada. The board had never disciplined him for any of his actions despite pleading guilty to malpractice for both cases.
Brent Korn is another homeopath from Arizona like Grout and Shallenberger.
Korn’s father was also a doctor who was the subject of a hearing for his practice as a homeopath but he died before a decision on his license could be made.
A patient, identified in documents from the Arizona Board of Osteopathic Examiners as C.H., filed a complaint against Brent Korn on September 2011.
C.H. had been going to Korn’s practice since November 2010 for treatment of lyme disease, a bacterial infection commonly caused by a tick bite. Sufferers of lyme disease often develop rashes and arthritis-like symptoms.
Korn proceeded to give the patient what the board described as “unconventional therapies.” C.H. also reported Korn said any disease that is considered incurable can be cured within a specific period of time, a practice that if untrue is considered unprofessional behavior.
The Arizona board determined that Korn treated C.H. for lyme disease without making a diagnosis based on clinical tests. As it happened, C.H. did not have lyme disease at all.
“[Korn] conducted himself in a manner that endangers a patient’s or the public’s health or may reasonably expected to do so,” the board said.
Despite this, Korn’s medical license was not forfeited.
Korn was restricted from diagnosing and treating lyme disease and told to pay a penalty of $1,500.
Arizona’s homeopath board also tackled the case against Stanley Olsztyn.
Olsztyn treated three patients—identified only by initials in state documents—from 2008 until 2011 by injecting colchicine, a substance found in drugs used to treat gout. Documents from the Arizona board did not specify the ailments of the patients.
Colchicine is derived from a plant called autumn crocus. It can be toxic.
The Arizona board determined that Olsztyn failed to get written consent from the patients for the treatment and did not create a patient record. He was also cited for employing an unlicensed homeopathic assistant.
Unlike the other Arizona doctors, Olsztyn was put on probation for a period of one year but was allowed to petition for a reinstatement after six months. His current license expired January this year.
Another doctor cited by Arizona is Abram Ber.
Ber treated a patient who was referred to him in 2003, documents from the Arizona board said. The patient’s medical history was taken via phone. Ber asked the patient to provide a sample of her saliva that was found to be teeming with bacteria. She also informed Ber that she previously had to undergo radiation treatment for her colon.
Ber prescribed the use of an electronic pill called Sputnik. The pill travels through a person’s gastrointestinal tract and purports to kill and expel parasites.
The patient admitted to looking up information on Sputnik but decided to follow Ber’s advice even if she felt hesitant about it.
But the Sputnik pill could not pass through the patient’s body, the muscle separating the large intestine from the small intestine was apparently diseased. The patient had to undergo surgery to remove the Sputnik pill.
The Arizona Board of Homeopathic Medical Examiners determined Ber’s lack of physical examination—other than the swab of saliva—was a cause for concern. But the board believed the hesitation of the patient to follow Ber’s advice was only due to the lack of a physical exam and not on his ability as a doctor.
Following this, the Arizona board decided to not to formally reprimand Ber.
A search of doctors listed by the Arizona medical board showed an Abram Ber had a cancelled medical license in 1982. Ber then received a license to practice as a homeopath the same year. His license expired this June.
These events do not just happen in Arizona. Doctors in other states have also been brought forward to medical boards for treatments outside the common practice of medicine.
Pieter De Wet, a doctor practicing in Texas, was fined by the board twice for advertising benefits of some homeopathic therapies.
In 2005, De Wet was ordered to pay $1000 for touting the benefits of chellation therapy according to obtained documents. The treatment, normally used for cancer patients, purports to “cleanse metals from the body.”
He was again fined in 2007, this time for $500, for placing misleading advertisements. The board said De Wet’s ads included references to the American Board of Holistic Medicine which is “not a member board of the American Board of Medical Specialists.”
Another Texas doctor faced the medical board for discipline but was not reprimanded.
Another doctor identified by Texas state documents and cited for homeopathic care is William Rea.
Rea treated five patients beginning in 2006 for chemical sensitivity, documents said. Rea used different kinds of tests that looked into brain scans, their eyes and injecting chemicals to test the patients’ reactions.
“The injections were the primary concern of the board because certain injections purported to be extracts of jet fuel and diesel fuel exhaust fumes and other chemicals,” the board said in a 2010 decision.
Rea denied that the injections contained any of those chemicals and insisted that his methods were the proper care needed for the patients despite findings of the board. The doctor admitted to the board that the treatments were not approved by the FDA and was not part of any consent forms signed by the five patients.
The board allowed Rea to continue practicing but was ordered to provide new consent forms that explain the injection treatments and seek a signed acknowledgement form from patients. Rea was also restricted from trying out new formulations with chemicals that may be considered dangerous on patients.
Texas does not license doctors who practice homeopathy.
While most doctors in this piece were cited by boards, either medical boards or homeopathic ones, there are some doctors who were given reprimands from the Food and Drug Administration or FDA.
In 2003, the FDA sent a warning letter to Bill Gray of Saratoga, California for his “Smallpox Shield.” The shield is a sugar pellet laced with variolinum, pus from a smallpox nodule. The FDA said Gray was marketing the pellet as if it was a drug that has the same efficacy as the smallpox vaccine.
Warren Levin, a doctor from Connecticut but now living in Arizona, is another doctor that was investigated for his practice as a homeopath.
Levin was accused by the Connecticut medical board of malpractice for treating patients using a variety of homeopathic methods like ozone therapy when he was still practicing in Connecticut, according to documents.
The Connecticut Public Health department asserted these were outside the regular practice of medicine.
From 1985 to 1999, Levin was also said to have allowed staff not licensed to practice medicine treat patients.
Levin’s Connecticut medical license expired on August 2004 but he has not practiced medicine since 2003. He was never formally disciplined for his actions but the board noted that he must prove he will no longer use controversial treatments in his practice should he seek a new license.
Medical boards were also looking into doctors who were unlawfully dispensing banned substances as treatments.
Several doctors were ordered to stop prescribing marijuana to patients.
Nevada, which is one of the few states that have a separate board to regulate homeopaths, also sees cases.
Over a couple of years, Vincent Speckhart of Virginia was treating patients with unconventional methods, Virginia documents said.
Virginia does not license homeopaths and cases are brought to its medical board.
Speckhart treated a patient with cervical cancer between 1987 and 1988. Under the guise of research, Speckhart cultured a vaccine from urine and stool samples of the patient and administered it.
That was not the only time Speckhart created his own vaccine to treat cancer. From 1987 to 1990 a patient suffering from breast cancer was given the same treatment.
Speckhart also uses a machine called Electro-Acupuncture of Voll or EAV to diagnose and treat patients with cancer. The machine measures the flow of energy in acupuncture points.
From April 1996 to August 1998, Speckhart was treating a female patient who complained of back pain. She was first prescribed with a form of estrogen called Estriol. When the patient still did not improve, Speckhart placed her under EAV. Data from the EAV, Speckhart admitted to the Virginia Board of Medicine, was never used to make a diagnosis for the patient.
The patient was then referred to another doctor who diagnosed her with a metastatic cancer.
Speckhart has also used EAV for other patients dating back to 1988.
EAV, while approved for use by the FDA, is not sanctioned by the American Cancer Society as a tool to effectively diagnose or cure people with cancer. The Virginia Medical Board also does not believe in the effectivity of EVA as a diagnostic tool.
Speckhart has been reprimanded by the Virginia Medical Board in 2003, 1998, 1995 and 1993. Following a complaint by the female patient treated with Estriol and EAV, the matter was dropped because Speckhart told the board that he was retiring from practice.
But doctors are not the only ones that can inadvertently harm a patient choosing homeopathy to help cure them. Boutique drug companies sometimes help create the drugs used by homeopaths.
Dakota Laboratories–based in Mitchell, S.D. where it has its production facility–is one such company. It produced eye drops for pink eye prescribed by homeopathic doctors.
In March 2011, the FDA found Dakota Laboratories violated sterility protocols in its production facility and was given a warning letter to correct it.
The Justice department filed suit against Dakota Laboratories in August 2013 after the FDA found that the company still has not heeded its warnings. The drug firm agreed to a deal to halt production and shipment until the government believes its facility is up to standard and will become subject to unannounced inspections for at least three years.
Dakota Laboratories did more than just close for the FDA’s inspection, it is no longer in operation.
Many of the doctors mentioned here are still practicing, still preferring to dispense medical knowledge that occasionally seem suspect to many.
Homeopathy is one subsection of medicine that continues to be controversial and much like any other controversial subject, it will have both supporters and detractors. Some people believe it is the answer to their prayers and some will look at it as quackery, a means to take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities.
Proper regulation or at least stricter policies on the practice of homeopaths may someday allow for the more egregious cases to not go unpunished.