There are bad doctors. And then there's a worse breed pretending to be doctors.
Meet Brian O'Connell, a Colorado-based naturopath who pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and who was sentenced last week to 13 years in prison. Naturopathy is an alternative medical practice that relies on natural remedies and shuns so-called modern medicine.
O'Connell killed a 19-year-old bone cancer patient after removing some of his blood, exposing it to bursts of ultraviolet radiation, and pumping it back into the patient's body, along with hydrogen peroxide later.
Gee, sounds natural to me. I wonder why it didn't work?
Maybe it was the natural blood infection caused by poorly sterilized equipment, as alleged in the lawsuit. Or maybe it was the fact that the procedure is based on a flawed theory.
The Nobel Prize for ...
The idea here is that UV light will increase oxygen absorption in the blood and that the extra oxygen kills cancer cells. The theory was proven wrong about 50 years ago, and not surprisingly, despite its merit, it's still wrong today.
Real doctors aren't in the game of hiding cheap and effective cures from us. If something so simple as exposing blood to UV light cured cancer, Nobel Prizes would have been handed out years ago.
Naturopaths say the UV will kill toxins, too. Unfortunately, even if toxins are causing cancer, you can't selectively kill only bad things in the blood with UV. The funny thing about hydrogen peroxide, also used by naturopaths to increase blood oxygen, is that it itself is extremely toxic, albeit natural. And it can lead to emboli, deadly air bubbles in the arteries. O'Connell sent a 17-year-old girl into cardiac arrest after injecting her with the stuff. She fared better than a third patient who died with painful open sores from a black salve used to "pull" cancer out of his body.
O'Connell also pleaded guilty to illegally practicing medicine. You see, he didn't know it was illegal to call himself a doctor. He was, after all, a doctor of naturopathy. You can become a doctor of naturopathy, too, after completing a mail correspondence course.
Admittedly modern medicine has its flaws. Misdiagnoses and adverse drug interactions kill thousands of people each year. Yet despite what practitioners of alternative medicine attest, conventional medicine and knowledge of germ theory have prolonged human life expectancy by nearly 40 years over the course of the last century. Much of that gain has come from curing childhood diseases for which natural therapies, used for millennia, are useless.
Cancers are detected and cured with far greater frequency today than ever before. Pharmaceutical drugs, although saddled with side effects, help people who would have otherwise died from heart disease and other chronic diseases.
UV, interestingly enough, is used in conventional medicine for the treatment of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, a cancer that affects the skin, and other illnesses. The treatment is complicated; it involves the injection of a drug that sensitizes white blood cells to the UV light and alters the immune response.
Naturopaths skip the drug injection part. Why? Because they maintain medieval concepts of disease based on imbalances of vital forces, indefinable energy flows, and innate intelligence that prevents the body from healing itself. Unlike O'Connell, some naturopaths have more than a mail-order degree and spend several years learning their healing art. Yet the naturopath doctrines that do work are merely common sense practices that any conventional doctor would advise, such as diet, exercise and relaxation.
There are ways to protect yourself from questionable doctors and practices. Avoid anyone who claims:
Doctors don't want you to know ... Yes, they do.
The world is more polluted now ... No, it isn't. We used to live with animal dung all around us, while breathing in smoke from fires in crowded, poorly ventilated shacks and drinking parasite-laden water.
All natural ... You mean like hemlock? Herbs can be powerful. Most pharmaceuticals are based on them. Aspirin is from willow bark; some heart medications are from foxglove. But being natural says nothing about being safe or effective.
Based on an ancient healing tradition ... The ancients did what they could to survive, and few survived past age 50.
Nature is beautiful. It is also unforgiving.
Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books “Bad Medicine” and “Food At Work.” Got a question about Bad Medicine? Email Wanjek. If it’s really bad, he just might answer it in a future column. Bad Medicine appears each Tuesday on LIveScience.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.