Dying and Desperate: The Lure of Quack Medical Clinics

Cervical Cancer Vaccine Shows Promise

I had gone undercover to Tijuana, posing as a terminally ill cancer patient ...

The death of Coretta Scott King—widow of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and herself a major figure in the civil rights movement—brought new and much-needed focus on quack medical clinics in Mexico. Mrs. King died on January 30, 2006, of pneumonia, the result of complications from advanced ovarian cancer. She had entered an "alternative" medical facility in Rosarito, just south of Tijuana.

The circumstances of Mrs. King's death were doubly painful for me. First, the Kings had inspired my own involvement in the civil rights movement. (I marched with Dr. King and became a community poverty-program organizer in rural Georgia.) And second, I had personally investigated the quack-medicine scene in Mexico.

In the fall of 2003, assisted by fellow investigator Vaughn Rees, I had gone undercover to Tijuana, posing as a terminally ill cancer patient. One hospital we visited offered homeopathic treatments. (Homeopathy is a form of quack medicine essentially based on the mystical principle of "like cures like.")

Another, respectable-looking hospital offered such "alternative" treatments for cancer as shark cartilage, mega-doses of vitamins, and "prayer therapy." The hospital also offered Laetrile, a notorious cancer treatment discredited by repeated scientific studies.

Publicity about such treatments has long sent desperate cancer victims to Mexico, including in 1980, Hollywood actor Steve McQueen. He gave a glowing testimonial at the beginning of his Laetrile treatment, but he soon died. Others followed. Today, an organization called the Cancer Control Society, which has a post office box in Modesto, California, offers bus tours of cancer clinics in Tijuana, including those offering a variety of "alternative" treatments.

Such was the clinic at which Mrs. King died. Called the Santa Monica Health Institute, its director, Kurt W. Donsbach, has a criminal record. Formerly a San Diego chiropractor, he opened the facility in 1987, but the following year was ordered by the U.S. Postal Service to cease claiming that a hydrogen peroxide solution was either a cancer preventative or an analgesic for arthritis pain. In 1997, a federal court in San Diego sentenced him to a one-year prison term for smuggling into the United States over a quarter of a million dollars worth of non-approved drugs from Mexico. Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch (www.quackwatch.org) stated, "I know of nobody who has engaged in a greater number and variety of health-related schemes and scams."

Not surprising, Donsbach's clinic had a reputation for providing questionable medical procedures, including "ultraviolet blood purification," colonics (a potentially dangerous colon-irrigation therapy), and the use of microwaves to "heat" cancer cells. The clinic was shut down by Mexican authorities shortly after Mrs. King's death. The officials noted that the facility had not only been using unproven treatments and carrying out unauthorized surgeries, but it lacked suitable sanitation and had also employed people who lacked proper training, and failed to follow appropriate procedures for treating the terminally ill.

Doctors at the facility pointed out that Mrs. King died before receiving any treatments there. Moreover, "She wasn't stupid," the assistant administrator, Cesar Castillejos, told the Associated Press. "She was very smart. She wanted an alternative."

Actually, that is another way of saying that she—along with the family that loved her—was desperate. Critics point out that the most disreputable of the alternative clinics merely dispense false hope to vulnerable people in return for their money. "Were patients to return from Mexico cured and doctors saw the unbelievable, positive results, we would pursue it," stated Dr. Jack Lewin, the California Medical Association's CEO. "We don't have patients coming back with miraculous cures."

Sadly, the death of Coretta Scott King—the civil rights heroine who devoted her life to helping others—underscored that fact.

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of numerous investigative books, including "Psychic Sleuths" (Prometheus Books, 1994) and "Crime Science" (University Press of Kentucky, 1999). This article appears on LiveScience in cooperation with Skeptical Inquirer magazine.